Planning Commission to weigh a host of zoning code amendments

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission has a packed agenda for its November meeting and is scheduled to consider dozens of amendments to the zoning code, among other items. Some of the changes are trivial, and others could have major impacts on the city. A rundown of the amendments is below. Philadelphians may testify about any of these items tomorrow, November 19, at 1 p.m., on the 18th floor of the City of Philadelphia building, at 1515 Arch Street.

Administrative changes

The Planning Commission staff has offered a host of amendments to the zoning code, which have been split into two bills, introduced in late October by Councilman Bill Greenlee. The first contains changes considered “technical and clarifying;” the second contains more substantial amendments. Among the more significant:

  • Adjustments to parking regulations in high-density mixed-use districts. One change would permit above-ground parking garages in RMX-3, CMX-4, and CMX-5 zoning districts by right, as long as the garages don’t provide more than 200 percent of the minimum required spaces. Previously, any above-ground parking garage required a special exception. (For context, see this story about a residential tower proposed for 20th and Market streets.) Surface lots in those districts will still need special exception approval.

  • Simplified parking regulations in lower-density districts. In any RSA-5, RM-1, CMX-2, and CMX-2.5 district, accessory parking for attached buildings is prohibited for single-family, two-family, and multi-family residential uses unless it can be accessed by a shared driveway.

  • Limits to the size of accessory structures. This change would cap the size of any accessory structures—think sheds, for example—at 200 square feet or 25 percent of the gross floor area of the principal structure, whichever is greater.

  • Fewer triggers for Civic Design Review. Commission staff determined that one trigger for CDR—projects of more than 25,000 square feet or 25 new dwelling units that affect certain single-family residential uses—was sending too many low-impact projects to the Committee, and have suggested removing it. Another change would remove master plans from this list of items that require Civic Design Review.

Variance standards

The Commission will also weigh in on one minor change proposed by Northeast Philadelphia Councilman Brian O’Neill, which requires the zoning board to grant the minimum variance necessary to alleviate an applicant’s hardship, whether it is a use variance or dimensional variance. See previous coverage here.

Consequences for ignoring community groups

Councilwoman Cindy Bass recently introduced a bill that adds consequences for zoning applicants who somehow manage to get through a zoning board hearing without having met with local Registered Community Organizations. The zoning code already requires that RCOs and developers meet prior to zoning hearings. Councilwoman Bass’s bill requires that the applicant “provide sworn written testimony, under penalty of perjury,” that such a meeting has taken place.

Auto-related industrial uses

A bill introduced by 2nd-District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson would prohibit all uses in the Vehicle and Vehicular Equipment Sales and Services category, except for gas stations, in industrial commercial mixed-use (ICMX) districts. Some of the uses that would require a variance under the terms of the bill are auto repair shops, auto paint shops, and car rental facilities.

Restricting medical offices in the Northeast

A controversial bill from Councilmen Brian O’Neill and Bobby Henon, who represent the 6th and 10th districts in Northeast Philadelphia, would prohibit the Medical, Dental and Health Practitioner category of uses in many zoning districts in the areas represented by the Councilmen. The code defines that category like so: “Office uses related to diagnosis and treatment of human patients’ illnesses, injuries, and physical malfunctions that can be performed in an office setting with no overnight care. Surgical, rehabilitation, and other medical centers that do not involve overnight patient stays are included in this subcategory, as are medical and dental laboratories, unless otherwise indicated.” Last week, a Council committee approved the bill, against the entreaties of representatives of the medical profession who said the rule change would reduce access to health services in Northeast Philadelphia.

New rules for billboards

The Planning Commission will also discuss changes to the regulations for outdoor non-accessory signs, known as billboards. The bill has left both the billboard industry and members of Scenic Philadelphia, a group that fights for tighter sign regulations, somewhat unhappy, which Councilman Bobby Henon, the sponsor, counts as an argument in its favor. It was approved by a Council committee last week, though Henon says there will be more amendments before it comes to a full Council vote.

Advertising on school property

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown and Council President Darrell Clarke are sponsoring a bill that would allow advertising on public school property. The plan would allow digital advertisements in, on, and near schools, subject to certain Planning Commission regulations. Read previous coverage of the bill here.

North Broad Street advertising district

A bill sponsored by Council President Darrell Clarke would establish a special signage overlay on North Broad Street, between JFK Boulevard and Lehigh Avenue. The overlay regulations would trump other regulations of the zoning code, and would allow accessory and non-accessory, digital and conventional signs on buildings with 50 feet or more frontage on Broad Street. The regulations would not allow free-standing signs nor rooftop signs, unless the rooftop sign is placed on a building with a sign on its roof prior to January 1, 1949. Signs would be allowed to have a maximum 1,200 feet in area, and stand no taller than 90 feet at the top edge of the sign. Signs would not be allowed on buildings less than 60 percent occupied, or on which the owner is more than six months delinquent on taxes.

Parking in the driveway

Finally, a bill introduced by Councilman Brian O’Neill would permit cars to be parked in front-yard driveways, as long as the cars don’t block any other parking space or any portion of the street or sidewalk.

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