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In The News: Planning Commission supports 36 changes to zoning code

2016’s final meeting of the Planning Commission centered on a year end zoning reform omnibus bill introduced by Councilman William Greenlee on behalf of City Council President Darrell Clarke.

The bill is the result of a year’s worth of meetings of the Zoning Technical Committee, which is comprised of representatives of the Planning Commission’s, the Commerce Department, Licenses and Inspections, and the Law Department. If passed and signed into law, the bill would change 36 different subsections of the code. Changes would be made to everything from the most minor spelling errors to substantive alterations to whole categories of the code.

The planner who presented the bill to the commission, Andrew Meloney, offered what he called the bill’s greatest hits. These were broken into five categories.

RM-4 dimensional changes: RM-4 is a residential zoning category that covers much of Center City, from Rittenhouse Square to Logan Square (which is currently being remapped in part to eliminate it).

The problem is that RM-4 requires a minimum 50-foot wide lot, 5,000 square foot lot area, and a 20-foot setback, conditions that don’t exist in Center City. And rightly so in the estimation of the Planning Commission and anyone else who prefers maximal density downtown.

“RM-4’s significant setbacks and lot size requirements never match where it is zoned,” said Meloney. “We were looking to actually create a guidebook for usage in the code and we couldn’t find a picture of a conforming RM-4 property in Philadelphia. We knew at that point that something had to change.”

The omnibus bill will reform these dimensional requirements, removing the front setback and year yard requirements.

Deed restrictions in exchange for bonuses: Deed restrictions will be added to three different types of bonuses developers can use to win themselves more height. The city feels that it has too often been burned in tradeoffs.

Now to win extra height through bonus structures in CMX-4 and CMX-5 high-density zones, the retail or public space provided will be written into the deed. The same goes for those promising to provide fresh food markets along a neighborhood commercial corridor. This is how the city hopes to make sure it gets what is asked for.

These proposed deed restrictions proved the biggest sticking point.

“I understand you are trying to lock in and make sure they actually construct what they say, and do what they say, in return for the bonuses,” said Cheryl Gaston, a zoning lawyer with Spruce Law who sits on the Planning Commission. “But perhaps there are other instruments you can use to do this. I don’t have a problem with people being held to keeping their agreements. … But people just don’t want to do this.”

Meloney responded that the deed restrictions have been flagged as a concern by the Law Department and that the city is open to alternative proposals. He promised to keep looking for alternatives before the bill reaches City Council’s Rules Committee in 2017.

“We haven’t found a better tool yet that will work through the framework as simply as a deed restriction does,” said Meloney. “For a property owner or developer, this is a pretty noxious thing to do. But it seems to have the teeth to hold what we are trying to do.”

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