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Cutting through the Zoning Code: “General Provisions”

The draft revision of Philadelphia’s Zoning Code is supposed to be simpler, shorter (half the length of the old code!) and more easily understood.

At PlanPhilly, we recently asked ourselves, “So: can a layman understand it?” Since zoning’s my beat, I drew the in-house layman card.

In our new series, “Cutting through the Zoning Code,” I’m examining the code section by section to try to answer that question, and exploring the nooks and crannies of the city’s revised land use policies on the way. If you want to follow along, download the PDF of the draft revision, and for comparison purposes, you can view the current code here.

Some places we’ll go as we parse the code:

• What’s the role of the civic associations? Some developers argue they have outsize power, but at the neighborhood level, organizations often feel steamrolled.

• In a city that’s very old, and in which many buildings predate zoning altogether, innumerable lots and buildings are simply irregular, and thus out of compliance with the code. Will the revision make dealing with these properties any easier?

• “Transit-oriented development.” What does it mean? And what does it mean for new projects, extant neighborhoods, and the shape of the city?

• Right now, Center City has over a dozen separate zoning overlay districts. In the new code, it has one. What’s changing? And how do the different neighborhoods feel about the simplification?

• What changes in the code are aimed at making zoning decisions more predictable for developers? Will they work? What does the development community think?

• In many neighborhoods, street parking is tough, and in many cases, the required parking spaces for new construction will be reduced. Should we freak out?

• Historic preservation. What a doozy. Philadelphia’s seen neglect, economic hardship, and just about every other reason justify the destruction of historic buildings. What’s the new code going to do about it? And will it be enforced?

• The natural environment. One legacy of Philadelphia’s muscular industrial history is a polluted city. How do the code revisions address mitigating the environmental effects of new development, and using that new development to improve the city’s environmental sustainability?

• And if you have particular questions about the code, or places where it confuses you, email me. Together, we’ll see if we can figure it out.

Quick aside: As you can see in the photo with this story, my printed copy of the new code weighs 4.8 pounds, about the same weight as the laptop I’m using to type this, so I strongly recommend using the PDF. It has a clickable table of contents down the left side of the screen, so you can find and read relevant sections, and then skip around to cross-references without having to page through the entire beast. The PDF is also fully searchable, so if you want to find out whether the new roof deck you’re planning would be legit under the new code, you can quickly find the relevant section.

Digression over. I’m going to start myself off easy: Chapter One. Actually, the zoning code is Chapter 14 of the Philadelphia Code, the body of law that governs pretty much every activity in the city. So today, it’s Chapter 14-100: General Provisions.

“General Provisions” subsections of the Philadelphia Code give an overview of what the subsequent text covers. For the Zoning Code, the General Provisions indicate the city’s priorities moving forward, and how everything’s going to be enforced.

Take the very first section, “Purpose,” for example. Of the twelve items, one clarifies that the code will implement the goals of the city’s new comprehensive plan, which the Philadelphia City Planning Commission is developing in tandem with zoning revision.

This dual effort is no small task. The remaining eleven items promote ecological sustainability (“Encourage environmentally-responsible development practices”), preserving and improving the built environment (“Protect the character and stability of the city’s neighborhoods,” “Preserve and enhance the public realm, including the streetscape and pedestrian environment”), and new development through streamlined processes (“Establish clear and efficient development review and approval procedures that promote predictable and consistent land development”).

The Zoning Code is crucial to these goals. The code will be the implementation of Philadelphia’s new comprehensive plan, and the new comprehensive plan will be “the basic policy guide for the administration of this Zoning Code.” Why does this matter? Because if all goes as planned, the Planning Commission will have teeth – all future amendments to the Zoning Code will go through them, and the comprehensive plan will govern L&I and Zoning Board of Appeals decisions about zoning permits. We’ll have more on the new processes when we get to those sections.

Regardless of whether you’re a developer or an individual planning improvements to your own home that would require a zoning permit, here are a few initial things you should note.

First, if your project is already permitted when the new code takes effect, you can still abide by the old code. The new code won’t require you to change your plans.

Similarly, if your application is complete under the standards of the old zoning code, and if you submit it before the date the new code takes effect, you can move forward with your plans (if they’re approved, that is). The idea, as members of the Zoning Code Commission have discussed in recent presentations, is that you shouldn’t have to go get new architectural drawings and change your project if you’ve already applied in good faith under the current regulations. But if your permit or approval expires, you’ll have to meet the new zoning standards for a renewal.

But those three “purpose” categories – sustainability, improving the built environment, and establishing clear development and use guidelines – are, essentially, the revised Zoning Code’s thesis and, frankly, its reason for being. As we wade through, we’ll pay keen attention to how the code tries to deliver.

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