The New Code: Big Changes for Zoning in Philadelphia

by Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP

Part One: An Overview

Philadelphia has been operating with an outdated clunker of a Zoning Code for many years. On August 22, 2012, that all changes, as Philadelphia gets a shiny New Zoning Code, its first comprehensive rewrite of the zoning and land use rules in over 50 years. To help you navigate the waters, we have prepared a five-part series with useful information on how things will change under the New Code. In this first segment, we provide a general overview of how the New Code works, and some of the biggest things you need to know about it.

  • Where can I find the New Code? You can find the entire text online here.

As a general matter, the New Code is intended to be more flexible, and easier to use, establishing clear rules and encouraging greater investment in the City. As a practical matter, however, we expect a somewhat chaotic initial transition period of at least six months or longer, as the Department of Licenses & Inspections ("L&I"), and other City agencies, begin implementing an entirely new set of rules. As the City sorts through uncertain language, the need for new policies or procedures, unanticipated consequences and unexpected glitches in the system, there will be delays and some amount of confusion. On August 22, 2012, a light switch will flip and every new Zoning and Use Application filed with L&I will be reviewed under the New Code. Expect delays ahead!

So how is the New Code different from the Old Code?

  1. A New Approach. The New Code is significantly shorter and more streamlined than the Old Code. The New Code makes extensive use of tables and illustrations, and the City promises that the online version will make navigation much easier by providing quick links to cross references and definitions. Under the Old Code, controls for a particular property could be spread throughout the Code in a maddening fashion. The New Code, however, cleanly separates various zoning controls, with Districts in one chapter, Uses in another chapter, and Dimensional Controls in another, using helpful tables and illustrations to assist with cross-references.
  2. Community Involvement and Civic Design Review. (Covered in Part Two of this Series) Under the Old Code, community associations played a large role, but the process was completely unregulated. Under the New Code, the role of community organizations is codified and regulated. To be a Registered Community Organization ("RCO"), a group must register annually with the City and provide organizational information such as geographic boundaries. For applications that require Civic Design Review ("CDR") or a hearing before the Zoning Board, the New Code requires written notice and documentation to be provided to all affected RCOs. The New Code also requires a single meeting with the RCO(s), but places a burden on the RCO(s) to schedule such a meeting within 45 days. In a significant departure from the Old Code, which had no design criteria, the New Code establishes a robust CDR process, which convenes the developer, the City and the community for a mandatory review proceeding which produces advisory design recommendations for certain larger-scale projects expected to impact the surrounding neighborhood.
  3. New Base Zoning Districts and Overlay Districts. (Covered in Part Three of this Series) The New Code has narrowed the overall number of Zoning Districts, created a few new Districts, and implemented a new, more intuitive naming system for Districts. Gone are R-10, C-5 and G-2. New Districts have names like RSA (for Residential Single-Family Attached), CMX (for Commercial Mixed-Use), and ICMX (for Industrial Commercial Mixed-Use). On August 22, 2012, every property in the City will automatically be switched to the new Zoning District that is closest to its former District. Conversion tables are provided in Chapter 400 of the New Code to ease the transition, and you can also type a property address into an online conversion map to determine the district under the New Code: Over the next several years, however, the City Planning Commission will be re-mapping the entire City, neighborhood by neighborhood. Under the Old Code, Overlay Districts were appended like band-aids in an ad-hoc fashion, forming an unwieldy and confusing web of controls. The New Code consolidates and streamlines things, creating three new "master" Overlays: one for Center City, one for neighborhood commercial districts, and one for neighborhood conservation areas.
  4. Use Categories. (Covered in Part Four of this Series) Under the Old Code, Uses were defined with great specificity, and a Use was prohibited if it was not expressly permitted under the Code. Since the Old Code was quite outdated, this gave rise to situations where many modern types of Uses were not permitted, and a Zoning Variance was required for a simple use like a neighborhood yoga studio. The New Code takes an entirely different approach, grouping individual Uses into general Use Categories and Subcategories. A series of tables aids with determination of which uses are permitted where. And a host of modern uses, such as urban agriculture, fitness centers and adult day care are now easily categorized and permitted in appropriate locations. The Use chapter of the New Code also addresses accessory structures, such as roof decks and solar collectors, that were previously unaddressed or unclear in the Old Code.
  5. Dimensional Controls and Parking. (Covered in Part Five of this Series) The dimensional controls under the Old Code are largely carried forward in the New Code, but with helpful tables and illustrations. Some changes have been made to lessen the need for variances, such as increasing the height limit for townhomes to a modern 38' rather than the previous 35' limit. The New Code also introduces the concept of contextual standards (based on other adjacent structures, lot size, etc.) in certain Rowhome neighborhoods, to encourage visual consistency. Also, certain areas will now have form and design controls, another new concept introduced by the New Code. And the entire system for Floor Area Ratio ("FAR") bonuses has been re-imagined, to provide greater flexibility and accessibility, with bonuses now available on an a la carte basis, and new bonuses available for such things as mixed-income housing and green building certification. Finally, new parking controls are updated from the Old Code, with less parking required, and with adjustments available for auto-share parking spaces, reduced need populations, proximity to transit and provision of bike parking. New design and landscaping controls apply to parking garages and surface parking lots.
  6. Miscellaneous. The Code is peppered with countless other changes, big and small. For example, you will for the first time – and for a substantial fee – be able to request an official interpretation from L&I to answer a question on an unclear provision in the New Code. To be consistent with other Pennsylvania municipalities, the New Code replaces the former concepts of "Certificated Uses" and "Special Use Permits" with the more familiar concept of "Special Exceptions." The New Code also more clearly outlines Zoning Board procedures, such as requiring the Board to issue written decisions with reasons for the decisions, and outlining the relationship of private agreements to Zoning Board decisions. The New Code also now requires that Zoning Permits must be posted at the property for 30 days.

As we approach August 22, 2012, buckle your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy ride for a while. In the meantime, follow us for the next several weeks as we delve into some key sections of the Code in greater detail.

Coming Soon:
Part Two: Community Involvement and Civic Design Review
Part Three: Base Districts and Overlays
Part Four: Use Categories
Part Five: Dimensional Controls and Parking

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP

Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at:

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.