Published on August 25 2017

What do you need to know about zoning and why does it matter to you? Zoning tells landowners what they can build and neighbors how they can expect to see their neighborhood grow and change.  Every parcel in the city has a zoning classification, and if it is up to date, it should create a level of certainty for what can be built that is helpful to both developers and neighbors. Zoning matters because, to quote the city’s online zoning resource (aptly titled Zoning Matters), “zoning affects your property, your neighborhood, and our City. And, a zoning code should provide a framework for sensible, fair and smart land use planning.”

Philadelphia recently spent 5 years in a public process to rewrite its zoning code and is working toward updating the zoning classification for every parcel in the city (although applying this revision is still in process).  On the waterfront, zoning matters because it’s the way that the city regulates how development can meet the goals of the Master Plan for the Central Delaware, which was adopted as the guiding plan for the waterfront on 2013.  DRWC worked for two years with stakeholders and Councilman Squilla  to create the Central Delaware Overlay, which was passed in 2013 and which we’re now in the process of updating (link to Joe’s post). We thought we’d share some basic background that we hope will be helpful as you engage fully with this process.

Key facts:

  • Most of the waterfront is zoned CMX-3, which encourages mixed-use development including residential and commercial, such as retail and restaurants.

  • Base zoning categories (like CMX-3) determine what can be built, but developments are often eligible for bonuses to increase the scale of their building offers features desired by the city, such as public space, green building methods or affordable housing. These bonuses typically give developers greater height or density in their project.  

  • On top of a base zoning category, developers are also obligated to observe any overlays which apply to the geography of the parcel.  Overlays are related to specific aspects of a place’s character which the city seeks to regulate. This can include historic character, type of use (like entertainment) or environmental guidelines. The Central Delaware is subject to the Central Delaware Overlay, as well as an requirement that  requires landowners building along waterfronts to set contruction back 50 feet from the top of the bank of the river to avoid problems arising from flooding and storm-water management..

  • Philadelphia’ zoning uses Floor Area Ratio (FAR) to guide density of projects. FAR is determined by the relationship between the total amount of usable floor area in a potential development and the overall size of the lot, and the maximum FAR assigned to a parcel’s zoning designation tells us how dense the development can be, with the higher the ratio meaning the denser the development.   

  • Landowners who wish to build differently than the regulations required by their base zoning and any applicable overlays can appeal for a variance or a special exception, which are considered by the Zoning Board of Adjustment in cases where hardship (such as not being able to feasibly build according to regulations) can be demonstrated.

Finally, for an overview of city-wide zoning, check out Philadelphia’s quick zoning guide. (CMX-3 is described on page 18).   Our next post will focus on the Central Delaware overlay and how it affects development and access and connectivity to the waterfront, and the top facts you need to know to plug into the amendment process.