Half marathon: Philly's new code
Friday night in Roxborough: Frontages for people, not for cars.
This has been a big week for Philadelphia. After four years of hard work by officials, consultants, and citizens, our new zoning code went into effect on Wednesday. It's the first major overhaul since 1962, and in many ways it's a thing of beauty. It is clear graphically, and much streamlined. But don't worry, an alert reader on Philadelphia Speaks reports that the following standard is still in effect, buried in a different ordinance:
§ 10-611. Sidewalk Behavior.
(2) Obstructing the Sidewalk Prohibited. No person shall:
(n) Allow any dogs, guard cats, pigs or snakes on the public sidewalk unless properly restrained by leash or, in the case of snakes, in a cage.
It actually says "guard cats." You can look it up.
Fortunately we take zoning seriously in Philadelphia, or at least we have been lately, so the Zoning Code itself (just one of the city's many codes) no longer contains such nutty items. City Planning Commission chair Alan Greenberger began his Wednesday Inquirer op-ed with this:
Believe it or not, manufacturing linguine and fettuccine in the same neighborhood was illegal in parts of this city until today.
'Nuff said! Greenberger did a fine job shepherding the process, along with Gary Jastzrab, Executive Director of the City Planning Commission, and Eva Gladstein, Executive Director of the 31-member Zoning Code Committee. I attended numerous ZCC meetings and followed the Zoning Matters blog, and was impressed with the information-gathering process. I congratulate everybody involved on today's milestone, and look forward to our code being finished, five or six years from now.
What? It's not finished?
A zoning code is nothing without its map. The colors and names of zones on the zoning map indicate land areas that are correlated to the regulations in the code. That's how you know which parts of the code apply to your property.
For now, for most neighborhoods, the new Philadelphia zoning map is merely a translation from the old map of the names of zones. In many cases, several old zone names were gathered into one new one, which certainly simplifies the code. But other than that, most of the zone boundaries remain the same.
Many of those boundaries should be, and will be, adjusted, and some areas may be upzoned to permit more density and different building types. But as this excellent summary by Elizabeth Schlingmann describes, only two of eighteen planning areas have been remapped so far, Center City and the Lower Northeast. A perusal of the new code reveals that only two other neighborhoods, Queen Village and Overbrook Farms, have a form-based overlay, called the Neighborhood Conservation Overlay or NCO. There are also some helpful, but in my view insufficient, overlays for commercial mixed-use districts.
The Queen Village NCO is an inspiring product of neighborhood activism. It provides the kind of frontage attention every neighborhood should have, and for which Street Trip has always advocated, as reflected in these regulations (n.b., Orange Geek Alert – skip down to "Sadly" if you're below Orange):
(.2) Height Regulations.
On streets with a width of 21 ft. or less, including the cartway and legal sidewalks, new construction may not exceed 22 ft. in height to a cornice line, before either:
(.a) Recessing on a plane, a minimum of 45 degrees, to the maximum height allowable in the underlying zoning district or any applicable zoning overlay district; or
(.b) Stepping back from the front property line eight ft. to a vertical wall that may extend to the maximum height allowable in the underlying zoning district or any applicable zoning overlay district.
(.b) Residential buildings must have a habitable room on the front of the first floor.
Windows along the street front of first floor habitable rooms must comply with the following:
(.a) Have a maximum height of four ft. six in. from the bottom windowsill to the sidewalk;
(.b) The overall window height must be at least four ft. from sill to head; and
(.c) The minimum aggregate width of the window, in lineal ft., must be at least 33% of the total lineal frontage of the first floor.
Sadly, however, wider rowhouses can still have garage frontages:
(.a) Front garages will only be permitted where there is a habitable room on the first floor and the window requirements for that habitable room are met.
Queen Village, where I lived for two years in the late 1970s, is nearly all built out with zero-setback rowhouses, so there could still be some garages right on the sidewalk because of that loophole. Philadelphia architecture critic Inga Saffron mentions in today's Changing Skyline column that garage frontages will be prohibited on rowhouses on "most streets." I scoured the code and could not find it, but Eva Gladstein pointed me to the correct section, Motor Vehicle Parking. It bears closer analysis, which I will do in a future post, but despite the city-wide protections in the dominant RSA-5 zone, the standard seems weak because property owners can request a Special Exception. Not to be cynical, but we know how that goes.
I fear for my outlying neighborhood, Roxborough/Manayunk, where every month another walkable urban block is suburbanized by a garage frontage. I fear for many other neighborhoods where there are continuing teardowns of historic urban fabric, like once-grand, now-decaying Strawberry Mansion. Development will happen in places like that before the planning is done, before the NCOs with, potentially, stronger standards can be assigned.
Planning and zoning should go hand-in-hand, as it did in Miami's new Transect-based code, Miami 21. When it was adopted in 2009, after four and a half years and hundreds of citizen meetings, not only was a new code text written, but the entire city had already been planned and remapped.
We're halfway there. Until it's over, keep your garages in back or I'll sic my guard cat on you.
Sandy Sorlien is a photographer, urbanist, writer, and editor. This blog originally appeared on her website, Street Trip.
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