Cutting through the Zoning Code: Biff! Pow! ZAM! The Zoning Administrative Manual, Part 1

Deciphering the draft of Philadelphia’s new zoning code wasn’t so bad. I’m not a land-use attorney, an architect, or a city planner—I’m merely a reporter—but generally, I could understand it and figure out where in the code to go when I had questions.

To dig into the Zoning Administrative Manual (ZAM), I decided to see what I could do with a vacant property in my Northern Liberties neighborhood. Over the next few days, PlanPhilly will run special installments of Cutting through the Zoning Code that give ZAM a test run.

ZAM is designed to guide me to relevant sections of the code, and to the relevant decision-makers, so I don’t have to read the whole Megillah. Unlike the rest of the code, which is written to be and will become law should City Council adopt it, ZAM gives instructions for how to use the code. For property owners not well-versed in zoning regulations, ZAM gives an overview of the steps they need to take to get zoning permits, and what to do if those permits are denied.

The building I’ve picked to run ZAM through its paces—720 N. 4th St.—is currently for sale. Full disclosure: I have no financial interest in this building, although as with all vacant property in my neighborhood, I’d love to see it used for something.

Until a few years ago, 720 N. 4th St. was a wholesale seafood distributor called Pride of the Sea. The refrigerated warehouse sits across Brown Street from Honey’s Sit ‘n’ Eat, a popular restaurant, and at the east end of a block full of rowhouses. The building occupies the west side of Fourth Street between Olive and Brown Streets; it has four loading bays, and my best estimate about three surface parking spots, with room for more if the bays are not used for loading.

I’ve chosen six possibilities for this property. All of these are new uses, and two of them involve subdivision or replatting of the land:

  • Nick’s Tattoo, Piercing, Branding and Scarification Warehouse
  • Nick’s House of Guns
  • Nick’s House of House: A Discotheque
  • Fishy Nick’s Cut-rate Seafood Palace
  • Luxe on 4th: Rowhouses
  • 720: Luxury Condos

So, where do I start?

ZAM offers a quick primer on using the code. As a first step, it recommends the city’s quite handy online zoning overlay map, which I can use to determine my property’s base zoning district and see whether any zoning overlays apply. 720 N. 4th St. is currently zoned as an industrial district, L-4, and is subject to two zoning overlays: the North Delaware Avenue Special Controls District, and an Off-street Parking Control District.

But as we move to the new zoning code, both controls will be lifted for this property. Good for me, since I can do more things with the building and land. Maybe bad for my neighbors, but more on that later.

Under the new code L-4 is becoming ICMX, for “Industrial Commercial Mixed-use.” According to the code, ICMX “is intended to serve as a buffer between Industrial districts and Commercial and Residential districts.” As an investor and small businessman, I see some opportunities. Let’s see what we can do.

Option 1: Nick’s Tattoo, Piercing, Branding and Scarification Warehouse

Sometimes, you need to have “Illadelph” branded on your forearm, and Nick’s is the place to get it done. Following ZAM’s instructions, I head over to the use tables in section 14-600 of the Zoning Code. (Note: ZAM hasn’t been edited since the revised code sections have been rearranged; the section numbers in this story reflect the section numbers in the most recently available draft of the new code.)

My business falls under “Personal Services,” in the “Body Art” service subcategory. And score! The ICMX use table gives me a “Y” for body art, so my use is as-of-right. Scarification warehouse here we come!

Because I plan on using the existing building, I don’t need to worry about the dimensional tables, form and design standards, tree-planting, et cetera, unless I want to expand the floor area by 25 percent or more. But I think the building’s 5,000 square feet will be enough for this business.

I still need a zoning permit, however. I’m changing the use of the building, and I’m probably going to have to reconfigure parking to ensure I have enough. According to the parking tables in section 14-800, I’ll need one space for every 1,000 square feet. Because I won’t be using the loading bays, my lot should be large enough to accommodate the five spaces I need.

Conclusion: Nick’s Tattoo, Branding, Piercing and Scarification Warehouse can open by-right. Chapter 2 of ZAM tells me that because I’m not building anything, I can apply for a use registration permit. If L&I agrees that my use is by-right, I’m in!

Tomorrow: Nick’s House of Guns, Nick’s House of House

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