Commission wants more time to consider Blackwell’s two-story building limit

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission requested an additional 45 days to consider a bill, introduced earlier this month by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, that would limit the height of new buildings on blocks dominated by two-story structures.

The bill has not yet been scheduled for a Council committee hearing, and Blackwell has made no indication she intends to push it quickly, if at all, but the delay assures that the bill cannot be adopted before the Commission officially weighs in, likely at its March meeting. City Council is not required to heed the Planning Commission’s recommendations, but it cannot adopt development-related legislation until the Commission makes a recommendation.

The bill would apply to new construction in RSA-5 and RM-1 zoning districts, which include high-density single-family residential buildings and low-density multi-family residential structures. It would prevent a building that sits between two two-story structures from being built higher than the taller of the two structures. It would also prevent a new building on a block where at least half the structures are two stories tall from being built higher than the tallest two-story structure. Currently, the code simply requires setbacks for upper stories on new houses that are surrounded by two-story homes.

Members of the Planning Commission fear the legislation could have unintended consequences. Paula Brumbelow, a staff member who presented the bill, pointed out that if a developer wanted to build a new house on a property between two three-story houses, but on a block with mostly two-story houses, the building would have to be lower than its neighbors. It would also prevent corner units on mostly-two-story blocks from building above two stories.

Craig Schelter of Development Workshop said that the issue of contextual zoning in two-story neighborhoods had been discussed at length during the zoning reform process which wrapped up two years ago. He said that the regulation the Zoning Code Commission settled on—requiring developers working on lots surrounded by two-story buildings to set everything above the second story back by eight feet—was “a major concession” to certain neighborhood groups.

Commission member Nancy Rogo-Trainer pointed out another potential consequence: if the law were passed, developers who wanted to build tall on two-story blocks might be encouraged by to buy up and demolish multiple two-story properties, in order to keep the proportion of those buildings on a given block below the 50-percent threshold.

Still, two residents of Pennsport, an area of South Philadelphia that has seen a huge spike in construction recently, had complaints about a specific project on the 100 block of Ellsworth Street that entailed seven four-story homes across from a row of two-story houses. Testifying separately, the residents, Rene Goodwin and David Rosenblatt, showed pictures of the new homes’ impact both during construction and after completion on their access to light and air.  

Neither Goodwin nor Rosenblatt was convinced that a citywide limit on building height is the answer to their troubles, but both asked the Planning Commission to look into the development.

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