How the new zoning code draft affects Main Street and Venice Island

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 storefront 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 into 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 the form and design of the built environment, 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.

Today, we’ll look at the Main Street/Manayunk and Venice Island Special District Controls, which address the multi-faceted stretch between Leverington Avenue and Shurs Lane.

Before: It’s a doozy.

The current overlay, enacted in 1997, is a considerable document, with generous detail about the neighborhood’s history, geographic layout, relationship to the river, tourist appeal, and the challenges of driving and parking there.

“It’s similar to the other [overlays] in terms of preserving the character of the neighborhood, but it also tries to address the bigger quality of life issues, namely parking and the proliferation of nuisance businesses,” Wysong said.

The overlay acknowledges economic benefits of Manayunk’s place as a shopping and dining destination, but points directly at the problems those amenities can create.

“The intensity of restaurant and entertainment uses has generated traffic congestion, parking shortages, increased noise and other public nuisances which negatively impact on the adjacent residential community’s quiet enjoyment of their homes,” it reads.

The detailed breakdown of what you can and can’t do on Main Street, and how future development should look, splits the area into three sub-parts:

The upper commercial district along and just off Main Street, bounded by the Manayunk Canal, Leverington Avenue, Shurs Lane and several small side streets just off Main and Cresson streets

The more traditionally industrial lower Main Street area, from Shurs Lane to the SEPTA transfer station below Ridge Avenue

 Venice Island, between the Canal and the river, allowing for only residential developments less than six stories high

Much of the current overlay deals with allowable uses. On upper Main Street, it bans the expansion of existing restaurants, bars, take-out windows, dance clubs and tattoo parlors. For lower Main Street, it seeks to head off future undesirable uses, banning everything from auto shops to laundromats, group homes, take-out delis, cab stations and “uses of the same general character.”

The overlay regulates signage — no garish rotating beacons, please — and sets the amount of required parking on Venice Island at one space for every bedroom.

Along the riverfront banks, the overlay ensures public access, and prescribes screening and landscaping from a list of approved species.


Stripped of all the statements of intent and descriptions of the various historical facts and esoteric charms of Manayunk, the Main Street/Venice Island NCA becomes a fairly straightforward, if lean, set of standards.

What’s left focuses solely on three things: building height, setbacks and parking.

In this case, it’s what is not in the overlay that could matter most for the future of Manayunk’s commercial strip.

The three sub-areas remain, but as with other NCAs, the discussion of allowable uses is left out, in most cases addressed in other parts of the code. Under new zoning classifications, upper Main Street becomes CMX2.5, geared toward pedestrian-friendly retail. Lower Main Street would become ICMX, a light industrial/commerical zone permitting everything from dental offices to gas stations.

The new standard also eliminates language that allows only residential buildings on Venice Island and removes the six-story height limit, which at first could strike fear into the hearts of Manayunkers who have a love-hate relationship with development on the island.

Still, don’t look for high-rises: In its place, the draft zoning map shows Venice Island as CMX2, the community mixed-use designation that allows for first-floor retail uses and just 38 feet, or three stories, of height. It suggests a vision for Venice Island more akin to Manayunk’s existing rowhouse neighborhoods than to a forest of Center City-style condo buildings.

Note: A clarification from last week’s installment, about the Germantown Avenue overlay in Chestnut Hill. Under the draft zoning, there would be no CMX 2 along the avenue. All existing C-2 parcels will become CMX 2.5.

Next time, it’s up the hill to Roxborough, to look at the Ridge Avenue overlay.

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at

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