Philly Council calls for restoration of six neighborhood zoning overlays

It looks like several neighborhoods, including East Falls and Germantown, will get to keep their zoning overlays — for now.

As City Council and the Zoning Code Commission inch closer to consensus, indications now are that a number of neighborhood zoning controls once targeted for deletion will be kept at least until the city undergoes complete re-mapping, likely within about five years.

Among the 40 items on Council’s latest round of recommendations to the commission was the restoration of six neighborhood commercial area overlays that were altered or lost entirely under the last draft of the new zoning code. The draft kept parts of overlays that deal with overall building form and structures, but left use regulation to the new community mixed-use commercial zones, often CMX2 and CMX2.5.

In East Falls, where a long list of prohibited commercial uses had been erased because many were also covered by new base zoning districts, Council now calls for keeping the entire overlay intact.

In the case of the Lower and Central Germantown Special District Controls, which are at the heart of the ongoing Chelten Plaza controversy, there was particular discussion among commission members about the intent and consequence of the overlay.

That zoning control deals entirely with prohibiting specific uses, namely hair and nail shops, cell phone stores, furniture and variety stores. Commissioner Stella Tsai expressed concern that banning those uses could prevent small business owners, especially immigrants, from working their way out of poverty.

Others suggested that problems of saturation by specific types of businesses is a problem best left to market forces, especially if a use may be more annoying than actually harmful. Also, questions about the changing nature of retail came up — for instance, if a large variety store wants to sell beauty products, how much can they offer before triggering the ban on beauty shops?

Councilman Bill Green suggested the coming remapping process, would provide a natural opportunity to fix overlay problems and for neighbors to be heard.

“Maybe the resolution is to have this overlay go away when the comprehensive plan and remapping is done, so the community has one more time to have input in what goes there, in how properties are going to be rezoned,” Green said.

Yvonne Haskins, the attorney representing Germantown residents and community groups on the Chelten Plaza zoning appeal, appeared to advocate keeping the overlay but without Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller’s recently-proposed amendment.

That change, under consideration by City Council, would allow variety stores larger than 7,500 square feet, and clear the way for developer Pat Burns’ controversial Dollar Tree.

“We were delighted to hear that City Council had recommended this, until we saw the amendment,” she said. “It’s subverting an existing legal process that is going on.”

Calling the Germantown overlay “a well-intended but ultimately faulty piece of legislation,” but one surrounded by issues that are “too complicated” and “very controversial,” commissioner Alan Greenberger encouraged ZCC members to let the matter be worked out during the planning and remapping process to come. Greenberger is also chairman of the city Planning Commission, which last week gave a thumbs-down to Miller’s amendment.

ZCC staff recommended retaining the overlay with Miller’s variety store amendment.

WATCH discussion of East Falls, Germantown, Overbrook Farms, Fairmount, North Delaware Avenue and other overlays:

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at

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