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03.28.2011
Zipping Up Zoning in Philly
City rewrites zoning code after more than 50 years.
Kevin Burkett

The Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission approved sending a preliminary draft of the newly revised zoning code to City Council on March 2. The new code revamps outmoded language and whittles an unwieldy 642-page document to 400 pages. It’s the most significant change to the code since Edmond Bacon oversaw the last major revision in 1962.

The Commission convened in 2007 after an overwhelming number of voters approved a referendum to form the panel. Last year, Eva Gladstein took over as the city’s Zoning Czar. She came to the position with a background in public housing. “I wasn’t a zoning geek,” she said. “But I’ve come to understand how deep the impact is on the people.”

Currently a new zoning bill goes before the council almost every week, resulting in amendments that add new layers to an already dense document. There are currently 40 different “overlays” to the Philadelphia code. Don Elliot, a senior consultant at Clarion Associates, said the overlays came to symbolize the problem. “More law doesn’t make better law,” he said. “A simpler foundation makes for a better zoning process.”

The zoning commission will not be remapping, that’s up to the City Planning Commission. It will, however, consolidate districts. Three new types of districts respond to changes already reshaping the city. An Industrial Residential Mixed-Use district allows dormant manufacturing districts to convert to live-work uses. A Commercial Mixed-Use district focuses on the active uses for neighborhood Main Streets, allowing for an increase in height limits to 55 feet and limited parking. And a new Airport District focuses on the airline industry’s needs.

Other cities informed the zoning revisions. “Lots of people tell us to look at Seattle and Portland, but it was more important for us to look at older cities with more established history,” said Gladstein. She said Baltimore and Washington, D.C. are also undergoing rewrites, and they have much more in common with Philadelphia. “I think for the last decade Philly has begun to understand its walkable nature. We want to preserve the character of our neighborhoods but allow for more density along transit nodes.”

Gladstein said that the process began at a good time, when an awareness of brown fields, sustainability, and urban agriculture was growing. To that end, three different levels of open space address active and passive uses, and one is set aside for wetlands. The panel added four new levels of urban agriculture: community gardens, commercial market farms, green houses, and even animal husbandry. “We used to say that cities were not the place for this,” said Elliot. “But we want to allow urban agriculture while making sure that it doesn’t happen in places where the soil may be contaminated.”

Gladstein said participation has been tremendous, with 30 to 50 members of the public attending the more than 43 meetings. She expects to launch a user-friendly website and a graphic manual not unlike the one recently released by New York’s Department of City Planning. Philadelphia’s city council will vote on the preliminary code later this spring, at which point the zoning commission will submit their recommendations to a final draft.

Tom Stoelker