How the new zoning code will impact Northwest Philadelphia

On the day before Christmas Eve, when most city workers are notoriously impossible to reach, Eva Gladstein, the executive director of the Zoning Code Commission (ZCC), is sitting in her office on 15th and Arch Streets. She says she “might go home an hour early”— not today, that is, but tomorrow.

Her diligence is apt. The ZCC is tentatively planning to send City Council its referral draft of the Philadelphia’s new zoning code, which hasn’t been rewritten since the 1960s, in four short weeks. Despite her busy schedule, Gladstein took a few minutes to talk with PlanPhilly about how she thinks zoning reform will specifically affect Northwest Philly, where she lives.


District Controls

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In its draft, the ZCC has reduced the number of guidelines in many Northwest district controls, which govern everything from signage to building height to whether a nail salon can operate in a particular neighborhood — a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by many community groups.

As Gladstein points out, however, the ZCC has simply streamlined many of these controls and made them applicable to the new “CMX-2.5” district, also known as the “neighborhood commercial mixed-use district,” which will apply to most areas that now have district controls.

What’s important to note, Gladstein adds, is that the city will now be able to transform commercial areas in the Northwest that haven’t had the benefit of district controls, such as Wadsworth Avenue, Oak Lane Road and Ogontz Avenue, into CMX-2.5 districts. City Council will need to a pass an ordinance to make this change.

To give a sense of how the new area will be different, the zoning code draft restricts malt beverage sales in the CMX-2.5 district, but not in any other commercial districts. And take-out restaurants and night clubs aren’t permitted in the CMX-2.5 district, but are in most other commercial areas.

These restrictions, among others, are meant to create a more walk-able environment in CMX-2.5 districts — but Gladstein cautions that they’re not a panacea.

“Zoning can prohibit stuff, but it can’t make things happen,” she says. “You’re not going to get a sit-down restaurant on a block just because a nail salon can’t operate there.”


Tree Planting

“Our tree-planting requirements are much more extensive,” says Gladstein of the draft. “We pay a lot more attention to tree preservation and replacement.”

Yes, the zoning code’s new tree-planting requirements will apply to the entire city, but they’ll surely be cherished by Northwesterners who’ve moved away from Center City to enjoy the natural landscape. Under the draft, developers who preserve healthy, mature trees earn “landscaping” credits, meaning they need to plant fewer trees in accordance with the code’s landscaping requirements. And every time a developers removes or damages a healthy tree that’s more than 2.5 inches tall, she must now plant two more.

Also, developers must gain approval from the Zoning Board of Adjustment to remove any trees deemed “heritage trees” by the Department of Parks and Recreation, which will include mostly native, important species of mature trees. (The department is creating its list of heritage trees now.)

“We made the code work with GreenWorks,” says Gladstein, referring to Mayor Michael Nutter’s ambitious plan to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the country by 2015.


A New District

Gladstein says that some parts in or near the Northwest, like Nicetown. Hunting Park and Allegheny Avenue, aren’t completely industrial, but they also aren’t totally residential. So the ZCC has created a new zoning district for these areas, which will permit a mix of uses that are now typically restricted to either residential or industrial zones. It’s called, unsurprisingly, the Industrial Residential Mixed-Use district, or “IRMX.”

“Rather than having a fight over each and every parcel of land, we now have this district for places that are trending away from industrial,” says Gladstein.


Civic Design Review Committee

In particularly organized areas in the Northwest, especially Chestnut Hill, some residents are anxious about the zoning code draft’s Civic Design Review (CDR) committee. The new process would require that this committee, made up of six planners, designers, architects and one community member, review certain large-scale and high-impact projects. Before this occurs, community groups have 30 days to meet with a developer and document their meeting to the CDR committee.

The Chestnut Hill Community Association, which takes at least 38 days to review development proposals, isn’t keen on the draft’s 30-day rule. Several other community groups dislike the fact that the CDR committee’s role is completely advisory, and that only one meeting with a developer is required.

“I’m pretty confident we’ll still have plenty of community input,” counters Gladstein. “We set a minimum [number of required meetings], but that doesn’t mean we’re setting a maximum.”

She adds that the CDR committee will “engage the community on the front end,” as opposed to the current code, which encourages to citizens to get involved only when the Zoning Board of Adjustment holds a hearing about a project.

“This way, they can help determine what development they want to see,” says Gladstein, “instead of stopping what they don’t want.”


Sign Controls

When asked if there’s anything else Northwesterners should know about the zoning code draft, Gladstein begs me to remind readers that the ZCC’s sign controls are not yet complete.

“We’re doing that at a separate pace,” explains Gladstein, “because we felt it needed a lot of work.”

In other words, if a signage requirement isn’t in the code yet, don’t fret. When the ZCC finishes that part of the code next year, Gladstein promises it will go to the public for review — at least twice, no less.

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