Bill would expand building height and density limits in Center City

A bill introduced in June by City Councilman Mark Squilla caused some head-scratching among attendees at the City Planning Commission’s monthly meeting on Tuesday.

The bill as originally proposed would allow slightly taller and denser development in some zoning districts within the Center City Overlay, which stretches roughly from Poplar Street to Washington Avenue and from the Delaware to the Schuylkill.

It would remove the limit on the number of dwelling units that can be built on buildings zoned CMX-2 and CMX-2.5, two medium-density commercial mixed-use classifications. It would raise the height limit in CMX-2 districts to 42 feet from 38 feet, and raise it further to 55 feet for corner CMX-2 properties that have a certain amount of frontage on three separate streets. It would also increase the maximum floor area ratio (FAR) in CMX-3 districts to 750 percent, and in CMX-4 districts to 1000 percent. (FAR measures how dense a building can be relative to the area of the lot it sits on; a 5,000-square-foot building on a 1,000-square-foot lot has a ratio of 5:1, or 500 percent.)

The bill would also reduce the minimum required lot area in the RSA-5 zoning district—a common rowhouse classification—from 1,440 square feet to 960 square feet, and raise the height limit from 38 feet to 42 feet. RSA-5 lots 1,600 square feet or larger could be subdivided into two lots, each sized at least 800 square feet, under the terms of the bill.

The bill was introduced at the request of the Building Industry Association of Greater Philadelphia, according to Martin Gregorski, a Planning Commission staff member who presented the bill.

The Commission staff worked with the BIA and Councilman Squilla’s office over the summer to make amendments to the legislation. Among the suggested amendments was limiting the effective area to that between Spring Garden and Pine streets and changing requirements for the increased density and height.

Still, the Planning Commission elected to table the bill after a handful of attendees from all corners of the development-ideological spectrum said they wanted more time to review the bill.

Joe Schiavo, a former member of the Old City Civic Association (RIP) and current vice-chair of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, said the bill could “nullify the appeal” of the floor area ratio bonuses. Currently, when developers want to add extra height or density to buildings, they have to provide trade-offs like green building materials, affordable housing units, or public space; increasing the by-right FAR could disincentivize those trade-offs, Schiavo said. The bill also doesn’t take into account what Schiavo said would be an increased “pressure to demolish” buildings in the Old City Historical District. Knowing that they could build bigger and more massive buildings might encourage owners to tear down that are already standing. He asked the Commission to hold the bill.

Craig Schelter, a representative of the Development Workshop who’s often been on the opposite side of Schiavo in planning arguments, also asked that the bill be held. He said the Building Industry Association should have more time to look over the Planning Commission staff’s suggested amendments, and he disagreed with its recommendation to shrink the affected area to something smaller than the current overlay.

Other members of civic associations that deal with zoning matters in Center City chimed in as well: all wanted more time to review the bill. Jihad Ali, a frequent testifier at Planning Commission and City Council hearings, pointed out that the bill would impact areas outside of Councilman Squilla’s district, and suggested that other district Council members should be consulted as well.

According to Gregorski, Councilman Squilla agreed that he wouldn’t hold a hearing on the bill until community members and the BIA have had an opportunity to review the suggested amendments.

Read the bill as proposed here. PlanPhilly will post the recommended amendments when it receives them.

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