Cutting through the Zoning Code: ZAM! Lessons Learned

Last week Cutting through the Zoning Code took a Northern Liberties property and thought through a number of new uses—both new businesses for the existing building, and ways to redevelop the site. I wanted to see how well the Zoning Administrative Manual guided me through the zoning permit process, whether it referred me to the appropriate sections of the revised Zoning Code and the wider Philadelphia Code, and whether, frankly, it was readable, useful, and helpful.

The answers are, in order, ZAM is a pretty good guide, it did refer me to the relevant zoning rules and city law, and its charts and checklists do help make the process clear. That said, I’m also reasonably familiar with the revision of the zoning code, so I probably found and applied the relevant sections more quickly than a newbie.

But not everything was easy. Part 1 found that a body art facility was by-right, and was pretty straightforward. Part 2 found that I could, theoretically, open a gun shop at the corner of Fourth and Brown Streets, if I could get special exception approval. Part 2 also found that a dance club needs a special assembly occupancy license from L&I, but that the use is by-right—meaning that nighbors could not use the zoning code to fight the use. Part 3 tried to open a restaurant, finding that ICMX requires what seem to be excessive parking requirements for this site and that how to appeal those requirements is not clear. Part 4, where I tried out redeveloping the site with rowhouses and a mixed-use building, found that rezoning the site was my best solution; while those developments would be contextually suitable, ICMX does not permit those kind of residential uses.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given knowledge of land-use law is at the level of informed layman, I also made an error when evaluating my uses. In Part 3, I mentioned that I needed a special occupancy license for my restaurant. Zoning Code Commissioner Greg Pastore sent an email reminding me that section 9-703 of the Philadelphia code in fact exempts restaurants from the “social entertainment purposes” outlined therein. My restaurant, regardless of the number of seats it has, doesn’t need a special occupancy license, and I’d slow myself down if I sought one. In addition to finding my error, Pastore’s email is a good reminder that while revising the zoning code has the potential to unclog the ZBA process and clarify by-right development, it’s only one piece of business regulations—especially when it comes to uses that need special exception or regulated use approvals.

Ultimately, ZAM does a pretty good job directing readers to the appropriate sections of the code. However, property owners need to remember that ZAM isn’t the authority here, the zoning code is. Reading the relevant code sections is the only way to ensure compliance—or to discover that I don’t know where to turn for regulations about variances for parking.

Second, by testing both new uses and new development against the code, the significance the remapping process came into stark relief. To me, the L-4 (old)/ICMX (new) zoning of this property seems outdated. All respect to auto mechanics (and I actually have a great one, thanks Carlos!), a garage at Fourth and Brown Streets—a use permitted by-right—may not be an appropriate use of that land. Similarly, if a restaurateur wants to open up shop, she probably shouldn’t be required to provide 25 parking spaces at an intersection that is four blocks from the Market-Frankfort SEPTA line, on a bus route, and in the middle of a now predominantly residential neighborhood.

Renaming the districts is surely the quickest way to move forward when the code is enacted. Certainly many zoning districts are suited to their current use. But I see in even greater detail now, by looking at just this one property and intersection, the extent to which Philadelphia’s zoning map has become outmoded.

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission has built in planning-district-by-planning-district remapping over the next five years; for property owners and developers, I’m guessing that those years could not possibly pass too quickly.

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