Opinion: New zoning classification has strings attached no one should want

So there’s a large lot right in the middle of your otherwise nice rowhouse block. Fifty years ago it was a small factory, but now it’s a nuisance, full of trash and the collapsed remains of the old building. How would you like some nice, new homes there instead? Sounds great, right?

Now what if I told you that these homes were going to be 60 feet tall, cover 100% of the lot, have zero yard space, zero open or green space, and zero parking? And what if I told you there was absolutely nothing you could do about it?


It sounds crazy, but it can happen, because of a small but dangerous loophole in our city’s new zoning code. The culprit is a new zoning category called Industrial Residential Mixed-use, or IRMX. 


On paper, IRMX is part of what makes the new zoning code so great. Put into place by City Council in 2012, after years of study and public input via the Zoning Reform Commission and the Planning Commission, the new code is clearer, more modern, and more realistic than the old one. In addition to updating classifications for residential, commercial, and industrial uses, the new code contains innovative new mixed-use classifications that reflect how neighborhoods actually look, develop, and evolve. These include CMX (commercial mixed-use), ICMX (industrial commercial mixed-use), and IRMX.


In most cases these new classifications are quite beneficial. The problem comes when IRMX zoning meets the most profitable type of development in most areas: residential. For its part, CMX is simple: by definition it requires a commercial use, presumably on the first floor, so a residential developer can’t mess up a commercial corridor by building houses or first-floor apartments right on the street. ICMX also is simple: it allows a mix of commercial and industrial uses, but no residential. So a residential developer can’t operate in ICMX. 


But IRMX is an odd duck: it allows industrial and residential uses, but it does not REQUIRE an industrial use. So IRMX is a residential developer’s dream: It’s got the lax zoning rules of industrial property, but it allows for the construction of a 100% residential project.


If your neighborhood is anything like mine, then you already have a general sense of the kinds of residences I’m talking about, because developers try to get zoning variances for them all the time. These include projects taller than residential zoning allows; collections of townhouse-style buildings structured as multi-family rental properties; projects that lack sufficient parking, or conversely feature street-killing front garages prohibited in residential zones; large buildings squeezed onto smallish lots, maximizing square footage while reducing open space beyond what the code permits. The scary thing is that IRMX allows this kind of development without a variance.


It’s clear that the Planning Commission and City Council never intended IRMX to be used this way. The Zoning Code states that IRMX is “primarily intended to accommodate a mix of very low-impact industrial uses, including artists and artisan industrial, and residential and neighborhood-oriented commercial uses,” the Planning Commission’s staff elaborates in a blog post. “This means that it allows various housing types, including multi-family, alongside things like artisanal manufacturers and artist studios.”


In the Planning Commission’s Quick Reference Guide to the new zoning code, the “typical building” photo for IRMX is a beautiful old industrial structure, in good repair, with brick facades all around, a stately pitched roof, and enormous floor-to-ceiling windows. Perfect for first-floor artisanal uses the code describes, with loft-style studios above.


But given an empty lot – or even just a demolition permit for that lovely old building – a developer with IRMX zoning can create exactly the kind of overgrown, overbuilt, new-construction residential project the new code was supposed to prevent. And unlike in the previous zoning code, with IRMX the developer can build it by right, with no input from you, me, or anyone.


Let me be clear: The problem is not height or density. If someone wants to build an apartment building, great – urban communities need renters and density. But apartment buildings are usually zoned in already dense areas, among comparable properties. And even large-scale apartment zoning has controls that require open space and sensible parking setups. IRMX, by contrast, contains almost no such controls.


Fortunately, the solution to the IRMX loophole is simple: Close it, with legislation amending IRMX to make the non-residential component required instead of optional, or limiting IRMX to existing building rehabs only, preventing its use for new construction. Either change not only would fix the problem, but also would better promote the types of structures and uses for which IRMX was created.


But what do we do in the meantime, or if the Planning Commission and City Council don’t act? That solution is simple too, although not ideal. Currently the Planning Commission is remapping every neighborhood in Philadelphia, in cooperation with communities and civic associations. Unless and until IRMX is fixed, every community should flatly reject IRMX zoning anywhere in their neighborhood. IRMX is a great concept, but it has to be done right.

IRMX zoning classification
IRMX zoning classification

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