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Monitor use changes in the new zoning code for a property near you

As the complex new zoning code is finalized by the ZCC before going to City Council this fall, PlanPhilly will analyze key components of the reform in this digestible new series. Jared Brey’s stories will tell readers what the code says and how it says it, what the draft identifies as different and new, and in very general terms, what those new things could mean.

As of last week, the Zoning Code Commission is working on a way to allow members of the public to compare zoning regulations on specific properties under both the current code and the reformed code. The project began at Wednesday’s ZCC meeting with a request from Councilman Bill Green. “I’d like there to be a formal, obvious process, whether it’s through email requests or other things, the results of which are then shared with everybody,” Green said. The commission agreed to make it happen.

What Councilman Green requested is actually already possible, though the process is neither formal nor particularly obvious. Nevertheless, if you’ve got a question about changes in use regulations for a specific property, all you need to answer it for yourself is an Internet connection. PlanPhilly walks through the process below. Keep in mind, however, that this process is not official, as Green suggested. Following these steps will give you a good idea about the changes in the code, but it won’t give you the final word.

Start with an address. For the sake of illustration, I’ll use the deli around the corner from my house. Rosa’s Deli is located at 441 W. Girard Ave. The city provides an interactive map showing which properties lie in which zoning districts. Better yet, the map shows both the current zoning districts and the proposed zoning districts. Under the current code, 441 W. Girard is in a C2 district. Under the reformed code, C-2 will become CMX-2, or Neighborhood Commercial Mixed-Use-2.

Unfortunately, the conversion map doesn’t detail use regulations, so at this point you’ve got to refer to the code itself. To find out what regulations govern Rosa’s under the current code, you have to look at section 14-303 of the Philadelphia Code for “C-2” commercial districts. That section literally lists all the permitted uses of a property zoned for C-2, including even a list of goods permissibly salable “separately or in any combination.” To list those uses here would be unhelpful. If you’re interested, take a look at the code.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the city’s interactive zoning map doesn’t indicate if a certain property is in a zoning overlay. What’s worse, the zoning overlay districts are simply listed in the “Miscellaneous” section of Chapter 14 of the Philadelphia Code, with seemingly no organization. You’ve just got to peruse the overlay districts and see if your property lies within one. Rosa’s Deli, for one, has no special district controls, so only the C-2 use regulations apply.

Under the reformed code, the C-2 district is collapsed into CMX-2, along with RC-1, RC-2, and OC. The new code offers a concise description of the CMX-2 district: “The CMX-2, Neighborhood Commercial Mixed-Use district is primarily intended to accommodate neighborhood-serving retail and service uses. The range of allowed uses is broader than the CMX-1 district.” The new code also describes permissible uses in a handy table, “Table 14-602-2: Uses Allowed in Commercial Districts,” rather than in list form. Moreover, uses are placed into broader categories in the new code, such as “Building Supplies and Equipment,” while the current code lists specifics like “glass and metalware,” “electric appliances and fixtures,” “furniture,” and “household appliances.”

The best way to monitor the differences in the two codes’ permitted uses for your property, however, is to refer to the Zoning Code Commission’s “Review of Use Changes in the New Zoning Code.” Page 25 of that document includes a table called “Summary of Use Changes from C2 to CMX-2.” Under the new code, more uses are permitted by right that are allowed only by special exception under the current code. For example, in a C2 district, you’d need a special exception to open a hospital. In a CMX-2 district, you can do so by right. Ditto a library or cultural exhibit, a gas station, or a parking garage. Some of the new uses in the ZCC’s proposed code that are completely absent from the current code include market or community-supported farms, artist studios, and community gardens. Only one use allowed by right in a C2 district, animal services, is not permitted in a CMX-2 district. The most important point of all of this, of course, is that Rosa’s Deli can continue selling delicious sandwiches long after the new zoning code is enacted.

But commercial properties aren’t the only ones facing zoning changes; residential districts are being updated too. To explore some of the use changes in residential homes, I ran my old address, 2948 Ogden Street, through the zoning conversion map. Currently, that house is in an R-10A Residential district. When the zoning code is enacted, that district, along with R-9A and R20, will become an RSA-5 district, or Residential Single Family Attached-5. Like the commercial district update explored above, more uses are allowed by right in RSA-5 than in R-10A. Some of the uses permitted by special exception under the current code which will be permitted by right under the new code include libraries, police or fire stations, and basic utilities and services. Single room residences, allowed by special exception under the current code, will not be permitted after the code is updated. In the new code, there is also a handful of new uses which aren’t defined in the current code. Community gardens and market or community-supported farms will be permitted by right in RSA-5 districts. Another new use is a bed and breakfast, which will be allowed only by special exception.

Part of the difficulty of enacting Councilman Green’s suggestion is that the new code includes these new uses that the current code does not define. So while it’s easy to find out that, under the new code, bed and breakfasts will be allowed by special exception in RSA-5 districts, it’s harder to say whether they’re allowed currently. It depends how you would define a bed and breakfast in the current code. The current code mentions some permissible, non-residential uses of properties in residential districts, including “home occupations, customarily and traditionally conducted in a dwelling as an incidental use.” If you define a bed and breakfast that way, it seems like it would be permissible, but another restriction says that “home occupations” may not be conducted between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. So it seems like a bed and breakfast would not be allowed.

And that’s part of why the current code needs reforming. With so much undefined in the code, people who want to use properties in certain ways often assume that the code is an obstacle in their path, not a tool to help them. As ZCC director Eva Gladstein said in an interview with PlanPhilly last week, “Probably in the last two decades, development decisions have been all on a transactional, project-by-project basis because the code’s been broken. So everything that’s done is a workaround.” The ZCC’s goal is to craft a code that is both more defined and more flexible than the current one. You can test how successful they’ve been by comparing zoning regulations on a property of your own choosing. 

Contact the reporter at jaredbrey@gmail.com

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Jared Brey is PlanPhilly’s new Zoning Code beat reporter, taking the reins from Nick Gilewicz, who is pursuing a PhD at Penn’s Annenberg School. Brey recently graduated from Temple University. He lives in North Philadelphia, in an R-10 residential zoning district.

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