Laurel Schwab, MUP 2016
Summer 2015
Organization: Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Sponsor: Joint Center for Housing Studies Community Service Fellowship

“With only a few weeks left of my internship, I am starting to wrap up the projects I’ve been working on all summer. But this week, I took on a new task: investigating ways to tweak some of the city’s base zoning districts to make them work better in reality. Philadelphia re-wrote their zoning code in 2012. This overhaul included the creation of all new base districts, each with unique use, shape, and bulk requirements. They include a number of mixed-use classifications that are meant to encourage lively neighborhoods while allowing for differences in scale.

The new base districts were created by a committee of zoning experts, and the results have largely been positive. However, a few of the districts do not work as well “on the ground” as they did in theory. City planners are finding that they simply cannot place certain districts on the zoning map due to resistance from both local residents and developers. For example, district CMX-3, a mid-density commercial mixed use zone with no height limit but a maximum FAR of 5 (8 with bonuses), is too much of a “blank slate” for residents, who say there are too many uses as well as the potential for too much height. There are also restrictive and sometimes contradictory setback, rear-yard, and lot coverage rules for many districts, meaning that almost all new construction happening in those districts have required a variance. Since the new code’s purpose was to simplify development, an increase in the need for variances is a negative unintended consequence.

In the next week I am going to analyze the more problematic base districts and come up with a set of adjustments that can be made to make them operate better in reality.”