Council to vote on major zoning code amendments

Earlier this week, City Council’s Committee on Rules and the City Planning Commission both gave their approval to a 30-page bill making a host of changes to the zoning code.

The bill represents the work of a zoning technical committee—comprised of the Planning Commission, the Department of Licenses and Inspections, the Commerce Department, the Law Department and other groups—which has been meeting regularly to discuss zoning issues since the city adopted a new code at the end of 2011. It also represents the current Planning Commission’s last attempt to clean up the new code before the Nutter administration expires.

Gary Jastrzab, the director of the Planning Commission, said the zoning technical committee has been discussing this particular bill for the last six months, trying to address a number of problems with certain rules that have been raised by developers, community groups, and administrators.

“A zoning code is a living document,” Jastrzab said. “… Ultimately, the goal is to perfect the zoning code, even though that probably isn’t achievable.”

The Planning Commission has prepared a few bills making “technical changes” to the zoning code over the past few years, aimed at cleaning up charts and clarifying definitions, and the current bill contains a few of those minor changes as well. But it also includes some more substantial amendments.

Among them:

  • The bill would cause any approval of a zoning variance or special exception to expire after three years if the applicant discontinues operations, modifies the property in ways that aren’t compatible with the approved use, allows building permits or other licenses to lapse, or fails to pay property taxes or other taxes related to the approved use. The change could theoretically cut down on some of the most egregious types of land speculation, wherein an owner takes a property through a zoning approval and then sits on it hoping to sell it for a higher price without having developed anything. At a City Council hearing on Monday, the Building Industry Association testified in favor of extending the expiration date for variances to five years.

  • It would require major planned developments to go through the Civic Design Review Committee, the group that weighs in on the public-realm impacts of large projects, before seeking master-plan approval from the City Planning Commission. This issue came to light most recently in relation to the planned demolition and redevelopment of Mt. Sinai hospital in South Philadelphia. Developers there are hoping to build around 100 townhomes with internal driveways and garages on one square block. But by time they brought the project to Civic Design Review, their plan had already been approved by the City Planning Commission, leading some CDR members to wonder whether their already-weak influence was totally meaningless. The change could empower the CDR committee to make recommendations that the Planning Commission could incorporate into its decision about whether to approve the master plan.

  • The bill splits the “household living” category of uses into three separate categories, for single-family, two-family, and multi-family living. Relatedly, it prohibits single-family and two-family living in CMX-4 and CMX-5, the two densest commercial zoning districts in the city. The goal here is to prevent low-rise development from being built in areas where dense commercial and residential activity is encouraged.

  • It also requires a special exception from the zoning board for developers who want to build nightclubs in areas designated CMX-3, a mid-density commercial category found along the Central Delaware waterfront and other would-be commercial corridors. Andrew Meloney, of the Planning Commission, said this amendment was included at the request of community groups worried that poorly placed nightclubs can have major negative impacts on neighborhoods.

Perhaps most significantly, the bill would prohibit front-loading garages in areas zoned CMX-3. The damage is already done on the 200 block of Arch Street, where developers are building three extra tall rowhouses across from the Betsy Ross House, each with a two-car garage facing the street. But the Planning Commission is hoping to prevent that type of development from occurring in those zones in the future.

There’s a strain of thought that simply upzoning areas that can handle extra density will allow developers to build multifamily apartment buildings, capture some latent housing demand, and keep prices down in the process. The case of the 200 block of Arch Street, where developers used looser zoning rules to build oversized homes for just three families (though they still needed zoning-board approval), suggests that strain of thought might be incomplete.

The amendments in this bill seem to suggest that if you want developers to build dense projects in areas zoned to allow density, you’d also better explicitly prevent them from using the more liberal zoning rules to build urban McMansions.

The bill is now subject to a vote of the full City Council. Council members have suggested that there may be more amendments before it finally passes.

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