Thursday, August 23, 2012

Viva la 2012 Zoning Code!

Philadelphia's new Zoning Code came into effect today.

What does that mean?

Most superficially, all of the zoning designations in the city have changed. R-10a is now RSA-5, C-2 is now CMX-2, and so forth.

But there are other important changes. The biggest of these is that the Zoning Code is now contextual.

What does that mean? Think of it as a compromise between Euclidean and form-based zoning--while the theoretical structure of the code is still Euclidean, the contextual zoning means that form-based elements are taken into consideration. RSA-5 is essentially each of the three or four different rowhouse designations under the old code mixed into a new designation; the contextual element means that new construction will ideally match existing construction elsewhere on the block (i.e. have the same setbacks, etc.). But large deviations from the norm trigger design review and (probably) rejection.

In short, the code still doesn't allow you to build a commercial addition to your residential property by right (unless your neighbors already have such additions), which is a shame, largely because while it is much less rigidly Euclidean than the old code, it still doesn't allow for the flexibility of use a fully form-based code would.

On the flip side, the new code has made densifying existing commercial corridors significantly easier. CMX-2.5, now the standard on most commercial corridors, allows for mixed-use development up to 55 feet high. 55 feet is by no means an arbitrary number: most major Philadelphia streets are either 50 or 60 feet wide, which means that CMX-2.5, when applied to its utmost, allows commercial streets to achieve a 1:1 street width-building height ratio*.

This does not bode well for midcentury commercial areas, largely because the Philadelphia variant of googie favored single-story commercial structures--essentially, strip malls even if they fronted the sidewalk. We need to undertake documentation efforts, and ensure that an outstanding handful are preserved--primarily in communities where supply and demand are already well-balanced--as well as individual examples that are exemplars of the style (such as Stein Florist at Frankford and Princeton). In this way we can retain a record of the appearance of the built environment without impeding redevelopment and densification of our commercial cores where they are most needed (e.g. along Frankford and Castor).

While the code ensures Center City can be denser and more of a skyscraper canyon than ever before with "Super" CMX-5**, it still underzones other important commercial nodes, leaving them at CMX-2.5 where a FAR-based zoning would be more appropriate. Chelten, Front and Girard, 52nd St., and Bridge-Pratt are exemplars of this issue; all are (or were) crucial commercial centers; all should (probably) be bumped up to CMX-4 (500 FAR, or five stories by right); the main difference is the lack of height limit on the latter. Germantown and Chelten is an example of a cluster of taller buildings that such an upzoning would allow emulation of. Likewise, first steps are being made towards TOD identification and implementation (although that is something that needs to be hashed out in the neighborhood plans).

With parking requirements (one of the more insidious auto subsidies), the Code, again, shows steps towards more current understandings of the role, but not a willingness to fully embrace current understanding. Rowhome parking requirements have been cut out entirely, but larger residential structures still require them, and base commercial requirements have not been changed at all (still at one spot, i.e. 250 ft2, per 1000 ft2 of commercial space). On the flipside, TOD, car sharing, bike sharing, etc., bonuses quickly, and drastically, reduce them or chop them out entirely. Good for Center City, bad for the Northeast.

I am unsure if RSA-5 is also height-contextual; I believe it partially is, due to 3rd stories on mostly 2-story blocks now needing to be stepped back. Comments have cleared this up.

...Some initial impressions on the new Zoning Code.
* Or 2:1 on Frankford and Castor Avenues in the Northeast.
** "Super" CMX-2.5 has a base FAR of 1600. For comparison, the Empire State Building has a FAR of almost exactly 3300, or double that.


  1. So you're mistaken on a few counts. RSA-5 is R10a, not R10. Civic Design Review can't reject a project--it can only review and the developer can decide to listen or not. Civic Design Review can happen concurrently with zoning variances which would need approval but that's in the hands of the ZBA still and not with the CDR committee. People seem to think community groups have a ton of power but they only have power insofar as the ZBA listens to them. The code update wasn't meant to remap (despite what critics said before its passage). You're probably right the upzonings in the area you mention but the code was the place to do that (otherwise _all_ CMX-2.5 properties would have been upzoned even when not warranted). Hopefully that will be addressed in remapping. I pushed in the Central District planning meetings for more density. You should go to your district planning meeting and make sure planners hear your voice for greater density.

    I do think you're 100% right about parking requirements. They even took out maximums which only applied for some uses (never residential) in a few zoning classifications and they weren't particularly low. But city council got afraid and removed them with the "cleanup" bills.

    RSA-5 is height contextual. Basically, if you're a corner row house you can be 38" tall with unlimited stories (the new code mostly removes stories as a criterion). If you're a 2-story attached row house with 2-story neighors then you can only build a 3rd story with an 8' setback from the front of your house. Personally, I think this was unnecessary but they don't want the jagged tooth cornice line. Now all blocks that start becoming 3 stories will have to do so from the corners.

  2. Thanks for the correction. (R10 was single- or multi-family rowhomes; R10a specifically requires owner-occupation.)

  3. R10/RM-1 requires it be single family. The owner can occupy it or can rent it out. I forget what the new code allows for but it's something like no more than 3 unrelated parties living within a single family dwelling. That's why there was a crackdown around Drexel at the behest of the neighbors and their councilperson.

    I really like your blog!

  4. does anyone know the height restriction for a garage/ out building in RSA-5? i am in germantown and some of the houses have two story carriage houses and i would like to do the same. Thanks!!