How the new zoning law will affect Chestnut Hill’s retail corridor

In Northwest Philadelphia, zoning overlays govern what kind of sign you can hang above your Manayunk boutique, what your corner store can sell in Germantown, how wide your Chestnut Hill storefront can be, and where to put the trash bins for your restaurant in East Falls.

Traditionally, overlays have allowed individual neighborhoods to limit or encourage specific kinds of commercial development and create a desired aesthetic. They dictate how tall structures can be and how they should look, and guide the interaction between public and private spaces. In many cases, they also include lengthy and specific lists of prohibited business uses.

In the proposed city zoning code, the Northwest overlays are absorbed into a new category called Neighborhood Commercial Area, or NCA, “intended to preserve the integrity of neighborhood commercial areas and to promote and help guide appropriate commercial development.”

In general, the NCA’s deal more broadly with land and building forms and categories, rather than enumerating specific uses, said Matt Wysong, Northwest community planner for the city Planning Commission. In many — but not all — cases, those individual prohibited uses will be left to the control of the new commercial zoning that will replace current designations.

Today, we’ll look at the before-and-after of the Germantown Avenue Special District Controls, which govern commercial properties between Chestnut Hill Avenue and Cresheim Valley Drive.

 

Before:

If you’ve spent any time at all along the Avenue in Chestnut Hill, you get what’s meant by the idea of a sense of scale. Walk along the sidewalks, past the storefronts and cafe tables and under the trees, and there’s a feeling of intimacy. Lots to look at, but nothing that dominates or overwhelms.

In part, that’s what the current Germantown Avenue overlay helps to maintain — the cozy, quietly elegant atmosphere at the heart of Chestnut Hill’s very valuable brand image. For properties zoned C-2 that front Germantown Avenue, the controls mean no big-box stores, no suburban-style parking lots out in front, no buildings above three stories.

“Substantial private investment within and immediately adjacent to Germantown Avenue includes the restoration, adaptive reuse, and reconstruction of numerous historic structures as well as new construction, thereby creating employment opportunities and new housing units within the area,” the overlay reads.

In a sense, the overlay — in conjunction with historic preservation guidelines for the area — uses Germantown Avenue’s centuries-old streetscape to create a small town, by design, within the city. It’s kind of old-timey village feel many suburban developers spend big money to build from scratch, except in Chestnut Hill, it’s the real deal.

Created in 1995, the overlay’s height, width, and set-back controls help keep that feeling intact, Wysong said. It limits new buildings to no more than 4,000 square feet of floor area and sets the minimum building cornice height at 25 feet, and the C2 zoning limits height to 35 feet or three stories. A maximum allowable width of 30 feet of frontage on Germantown Avenue help maintain the street’s rhythm.

 

After:

Under the new code, Germantown Avenue’s commercial corridor will be a mix of CMX 1, 2 and 2.5 designations, various versions of neighborhood mixed-use commercial use classifications. Several properties show up on the city’s draft zoning map as CA1, which allows car dealerships — a throwback to the day when Chestnut Hill was home to several auto showrooms.

Differences between the old overlay and the new NCA designation for Germantown Avenue are few, but notable, and changes in the old and new commercial classifications also come into play in removing some redundancies across the categories.

First, the height limit for raises the roof a bit, from the current 35 feet allowed by C2 to a maximum height of 38 feet in CMX2, except on corners, where it will be 45 feet. The overlay removes the minimum height of 25 feet to the cornice line, but that’s covered in the new CMX2, Wysong said.

“It runs across two sets of standards, but it essentially stays the same,” he said. “[Overall height] been bumped up to 38 feet because that better accommodates three stories, but you can’t get four stories out of 38 feet.”

On corner properties, there’s a bit more leeway, allowing for 45 feet in overall building height, allowing for somewhat grander architectural gestures on those anchor corners.

“What that does is allows a little more creative license for developers to do something that could potentially contribute to the character of Chestnut Hill,” Wysong said.

For comparison: The Bowman Properties’ project planned for 8200 Germantown Avenue, at Hartwell Avenue, has an overall height of 62 feet. Bowman plans to seek a complete re-zoning of the property to accommodate its plan, but without it, it would need a variance to create upper-floor residences above the retail stores fronting the Avenue.

The new NCA also removes the regulation barring off-street parking in front of the building, Wysong said, because the building setback ban made it redundant.

“If you’re required to put your building right up on the sidewalk of Germantown Avenue, then there’s now way way you could put parking up there anyway,” he said.

Next time: Manayunk’s Main Street and Venice Island

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