August 25, 2012
Philadelphia's New Zoning Code
The Philadelphia Inquirer has an article providing an overview of the city's new zoning code, which replaces its 1962 code. The new code allows high-rises to be built more easily in the city's central commercial district and along its waterfront as-of-right. (See map of new zoning districts.) It also "assumes the city's population will grow in the future, and it encourages higher density buildings to accommodate the newcomers." (Note: Philly's population has declined from slightly over 2 million in 1960 to slightly over 1.5 million today.)
According to the article:
Because the previous code was so outmoded, the Zoning Board of Adjustment had gotten in the habit of handing out variances almost at whim, even when a project deviated dramatically from the neighborhood context. The haphazard process invited abuse from powerful gatekeepers, most of them Council members. It often seemed you only needed to make a campaign contribution to obtain a variance in Philadelphia.
Developers advocated for a more predictable development process, which would enable the city to better compete for residents and jobs. The new code is approximately 200 pages shorter than its predecessor.
Two thoughts come to mind after reading this article. First, the discussion surrounding the new zoning code echoes the considerations raised in relation to tax reform, particularly the desire for simplicity and predictability and the concern that a code laden with amendments, overlays, and other complexities favors sophisticated actors. Second, as Philadelphia pushes greater density and potential population growth in Center City, what will become of outlying city neighborhoods, which have seen substantial population declines (and a significant number of vacant properties) in recent decades? In May the city launched a website mapping its inventory of 9,000 vacant properties, approximately one-quarter of the estimated 40,000 abandoned buildings in the city.
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