For a Change, We’d Suggest Downzoning Some Properties

When Philadelphia implemented the new zoning code in 2012, many among us hoped that it would streamline a zoning process which had spiraled out of control thanks to the combination of an outdated code and inaccurate zoning maps. The “new” code isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s certainly proven itself as an upgrade over what we had before. While the code was executed in one fell swoop, the other side of the equation has lagged behind considerably.

We give full marks to the Planning Commission for their efforts in the last few years, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood and creating comprehensive plans for each as part of the Philadelphia 2035 project. A large part of that effort relates to recommendations regarding the zoning designation for every property in the city. But it’s city government we’re talking about here, so nothing is ever easy. In order for these new zoning designations to get put into place, different district councilpeople must introduce ordinances to rezone according to the plans. In some areas, like Fishtown or Bella Vista, this went off without a hitch. In other areas, like on the western part of Washington Avenue or in most of West Philadelphia, we’re still waiting for changes.

Non-updated zoning designations have real life consequences. On Washington Avenue, most of the large parcels are still zoned for industrial use even though most people agree that mixed-use is the future for the corridor. As such, desirable development has been stifled over the last several years, with a couple mixed-use projects failing after years of litigation. On the other hand, a large storage facility on the 2300 block was permitted as a matter of right.

Newer building on 44th Street

The law of unintended consequences also rears its head on 44th Street, just below Market Street, in West Philadelphia. A couple years back, we told you about a five-story building that appeared at the corner of 44th & Ludlow, noting how the new building towers over the homes nearby. This five-unit building was permitted by-right, because the parcel is zoned CMX-4; this zoning designation makes sense for a large parcel in Center City, not for a 15’x78′ lot at this location.

In the past
Current view

Further down the block, we’re seeing a similar scene play out, though in slightly less dramatic fashion. Developers purchased 46 S. 44th St. from the City a couple years ago, and are working on a four-story, four-unit building on this formerly vacant lot. They could have gone even taller if they desired, but they stopped at four stories and four units because of the 3/10 parking requirements in the district. Interestingly, the developers for this project have contracted with the owners of the property mentioned above to use a parking space in their building rather than create their own curb cut. The properties next door are getting rehabbed into triplexes, so they avoid the parking requirement entirely. Incidentally, given the location, we wonder whether either project will be done in time for the fall semester.

Zoning remapping is hard work and requires going through the city with a fine toothed comb to understand the needs of each block in each neighborhood. Who knows, maybe by the time 2035 rolls around, the recommendations made by the people doing that hard work will finally get implemented all across the city. Otherwise, look forward to more weirdness on blocks where the zoning designations don’t match the facts on the ground.