Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Changing Skyline: New zoning code: Toward a more competitive, livable city

All right, there were times over the last four years when the process of rewriting Philadelphia's zoning code seemed like a pointless exercise, one as thrilling as watching Jell-O set.

Mayor Nutter greeting construction workers at the Granary apartments site in Franklintown on Wednesday, after announcing the city's rewritten zoning code. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Mayor Nutter greeting construction workers at the Granary apartments site in Franklintown on Wednesday, after announcing the city's rewritten zoning code. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)Read more

All right, there were times over the last four years when the process of rewriting Philadelphia's zoning code seemed like a pointless exercise, one as thrilling as watching Jell-O set.

Debates raged over the tiniest details. The optimum rowhouse height? The perfect car-to-apartment ratio in high-rise buildings? Then, just as the final draft was being committed to paper in 2011, the project nearly blew up in the political minefield that is City Council.

If the proverbial sausage-making wasn't always pretty, at least we can be glad that the resulting sausage has turned out to be reasonably tasty.

The new code, which officially went into effect Wednesday, is a true watershed event for Philadelphia. It will simplify the city's development process for builders and homeowners alike and, by doing so, help make Philadelphia a more competitive and livable city. While its completion may not rate big headlines now, it is likely to end up as one of the Nutter administration's most important achievements.

For one thing, a zoning code lasts a long time. The new rule book replaces Philadelphia's 1962 code, written when cities were still seen as manufacturing centers.

Today, we're more likely to work in our homes and coffee shops than forge products in belching factories. Where the old code fretted about tanneries and slaughterhouses, the new one concerns itself with home offices and the nuisance of garage-fronted rowhouses.

There is a real hopefulness in acknowledging those changes in how we live and work. Instead of bracing for decline, Philadelphia's new code assumes the city's population will grow in the future, and it encourages higher density buildings to accommodate the newcomers.

Under the new rules, more high-rises can be built in Center City's commercial district and the waterfront by right - that is, without a variance. The trade-off is that "it will be harder to get a variance" to build such projects elsewhere, says Greg Pastore, a neighborhood activist who served on the Zoning Code Commission.

The variance issue is what persuaded former Councilman Frank DiCicco to get the project off the ground, back in 2007.

Variances are supposed to be an exception to the rules, granted only rarely. Because the previous code was so outmoded, the Zoning Board of Adjustment had gotten in the habit of handing out variances almost at whim, even when a project deviated dramatically from the neighborhood context. The haphazard process invited abuse from powerful gatekeepers, most of them Council members. It often seemed you only needed to make a campaign contribution to obtain a variance in Philadelphia.

Despite benefits for those who knew how to work the system, many developers were still eager to end the charade and the long, costly legal battles with neighborhood groups. They maintained that Philadelphia would never be able to compete with other big cities for residents and jobs until its development process became "predictable." People use the word reform too loosely, but that's exactly what the new code promises.

The old code was also so bloated and cumbersome that only high-priced zoning lawyers seemed capable of hacking through its thickets of amendments and overlay maps. Its replacement is not only organized more simply and written in plain English, but it also is almost 200 pages shorter.

While developers and lawyers initiated the rewrite, homeowners should benefit, too. Recognizing the modern taste for big windows and high ceilings, the new code raises the standard rowhouse height from 35 to 38 feet. Many members of the Zoning Code Commission - a mix of developers, lawyers, and neighborhood advocates - wanted to go even higher, to 40 feet, but met resistance from traditionalists.

Homeowners won on other issues. The code will effectively legalize the thousands of "nonconforming" rowhouses, mainly in South Philadelphia and Point Breeze, that were built before the introduction of zoning laws in the early 20th century. That means their owners will no longer have to take a day off work or hire a lawyer to obtain a variance for a routine roof deck or third-floor addition. Instead, they need only apply for a building permit.

Indeed, all outdoor decks, once a focus of intricate neighborhood politics, no longer have to go to the zoning board.

It was also heartening to see the Zoning Code Commission take the high road on parking. In an effort to maintain one of Philadelphia's great assets, its pleasant walkable streets, the new code outlaws rowhouses with front garages on most streets. Garage-fronted rowhouses are allowed only on blocks that have already been compromised.

There also should be less parking in Center City's residential towers. Developers are required to provide only one parking space for every three apartments, down from a one-to-one ratio.

If they stick to this standard, ugly garage podiums will become a less-dominant feature in high-rise architecture. Unfortunately, the commission didn't have the nerve to impose parking maximums, so many developers will continue to provide one space for every apartment, in the belief that the market demands it. Perhaps the ugly podiums will be offset by another important innovation in the code: For the first time, buildings will be reviewed for their design aesthetics, starting with projects more than 100,000 square feet.

The real impact of the new rules won't fully reveal itself until the city finishes a new zoning map for the city. The map will update many zoning classifications, such as industrial, which are now obsolete. Although the effort has been concentrating on the busiest neighborhoods, it will take an additional five years for the fine-grained remapping of every parcel of the city.

The biggest risk associated with the code is that the same players who learned to manipulate it before will master its intricacies again. There's nothing in the new rules to stop Council members from using their "prerogative" to rezone sites to satisfy constituents.

Even before the new zoning law went into effect, special interests managed to attach a rider this spring that overturned a provision requiring riverfront setbacks for recreation trails.

"It was an end-run maneuver, and I'm not going to say we're happy about it," said Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for planning. "It's a warning that we'll have to be attentive."

Despite the flaws, he sees the mere existence of a new code as a success. "When we started, there were an awful lot of people out there who were betting it wouldn't happen."

That it did is proof that a city famous for being "corrupt and contented" is capable of exceeding expectations. It did the right thing.