In Northwest Philadelphia, zoning overlays govern what kind of sign you can hang above your Manayunk boutique, what your corner store can sell in Germantown, how wide your Chestnut Hill store front can be, and where to put the trash bins for your restaurant in East Falls.
Traditionally, overlays have allowed individual neighborhoods to limit or encourage specific kinds of commercial development and create a desired aesthetic. They dictate how tall structures can be and how they should look, and guide the interaction between public and private spaces. In many cases, they also include lengthy and specific lists of prohibited business uses.
In the proposed city zoning code, the Northwest overlays are absorbed to a new category called Neighborhood Commercial Area, or NCA, “intended to preserve the integrity of neighborhood commercial areas and to promote and help guide appropriate commercial development.”
In general, the NCAs deal more broadly with land and building forms and categories, rather than enumerating specific uses, said Matt Wysong, Northwest community planner for the city Planning Commission. In many — but not all — cases, those individual prohibited uses will be left to the control of the new commercial zoning that will replace current designations.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at the before-and-after of the overlays affecting: East Falls, Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, Lower/Central Germantown, Manayunk’s Main Street and Venice Island, and Ridge Avenue in Roxborough.
First up, East Falls.
Quick question: Can you sell live chickens at Ridge and Midvale avenues?
Not that you’d really want to, but if you did, would a person legally be able to set up shop on East Falls’ showcase commercial corner and sell live chickens or turkeys — not for pets, but for dinner?
Under the city’s current zoning code, and under the terms of the current East Falls overlay, the answer is a very clear “No.” The East Falls Special District Controls specifically ban “sales of live poultry, live fish, or live animals for human consumption.”
The language of the current East Falls overlay creates a specialized commercial zone near the Schuylkill River, focusing on the neighborhood’s interaction with the river as creating a natural gateway to nearby trails and streets.
“The East Falls Commercial District is an area consisting of a fragile and unique balance of retail development surrounded by a predominantly single-family residential area within walking distance or a short commute,” it reads. It mentions not only the neighborhood’s narrow streets but the “major public and private investments” in the area that need protection.
More specifically, it governs site characteristics like building heights and setback from the river, the number and location of curb cuts for driveways, and sets requirements for parking, trash storage and signage. The idea is to create a pedestrian-friendly urban village of places to shop, work and eat.
To accomplish this, the overlay also includes a detailed, lengthy list of the kinds of business you can’t open in the East Falls riverfront commercial district: prisons, breweries, theaters, athletic drill halls, drive-through takeouts, and food markets that sell live poultry or fish.
First, the East Falls portion of the proposed NCA district loses all the language meant to justify why the area needs protection, Wysong said. Because the current overlays were created by legislation brought by City Council members, they include the sometimes flowery statements of intent and findings — the Whereases and Therefores. The draft code gets right down to business.
Another major difference is that the NCA descriptions in the proposed code include maps rather than just a listing of the streets that make up the boundaries of the district. It may seem a small point, but becomes especially important when dealing with areas with irregular boundaries or where street names change.
As for the live chickens, the answer becomes a bit less clear.
Under the East Falls NCA section of the new zoning code, the list of prohibited uses disappears entirely. Time to set up that shop selling live chickens, right?
Not so fast, Colonel Sanders: The East Falls overlay area will also be governed by the CMX-2.5 commercial designation. That mixed-use community commercial district is “primarily intended to accommodate active, pedestrian-friendly retail and service uses in commercial nodes and along commercial corridors.”
In most cases, the new commercial districts and overlays are meant to be broader, Wysong said.
“Zoning doesn’t necessarily function as a tool that helps dictate market conditions, and that’s part of the reasoning why you’re seeing the phaseout of these overlays that say things like no check cashing, no dollar stores,” he said. “You need to find that balance between prescribing certain standards yet maintaining the ability of people to use their properties.”
The CMX 2.5 bars ground-floor residences, and is also regulated by a list of Use-Specific Standards, which include the detailed lists of allowable and prohibited uses. Prisons, gun shops, group homes and porn shops are still a no-go.
Community gardens and farm markets are OK, as are sit-down restaurants, artist studios, day care centers and dental offices. But there’s no mention of live fish or fowl meant for public consumption.
Next up: A before-and-after look at the Germantown Avenue Special District Controls, in Chestnut Hill.
Contact Amy Z. Quinn at email@example.com