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Philadelphia works to revamp city zoning codes

Four years ago, Philadelphia voters approved a measure that would require city officials to update and rewrite the city's decades-old zoning code. A Zoning Code Commission was created with that approval and began to combine and rework the outdated zoning regulations and amendments.

The Zoning Code Commission's work is expected to come before City Council for approval this month. Some fear the chance of passage might be mired down in debate and delayed indefinitely.

Under current and old rules, the zoning laws divvy up the city into exclusive sections assigned for residential, industrial, commercial or mixed use. Because the zoning rules as a whole have not been rewritten in more than 50 years, a slew of amendments have been attached to the original code.

The zoning code remains piecemeal and confusing, which some say makes it hard for builders and real estate buyers to navigate.

According to the director of the City Planning Commission, the city receives about 7,000 requests each year for proposed land development. About 35 percent of the development proposals are subject to variances, requiring special zoning permission. The director says Philadelphia's variance caseload is so "off the charts" that it nearly equals the number of variances in New York City.

The complications of the dated Philadelphia zoning code have proven frustrating for new businesses trying to make a mark in the city. Some areas like Kensington and Germantown are still zoned for industrial use, even though the areas are no longer homes to industry.

Before the economic recession, the planning director said Philadelphia's antiquated zoning laws created obstacles for new businesses. He blames the zoning code for no significant business growth, compared to other big metros, from 2003 to 2007.

At least one city council member wants the city's land to be "remapped," a process that might take as long as five years. It will be interesting to see how the zoning codes are changed, if they are rewritten this year.

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, "Zoning a tough code to crack," Holly Otterbein, Sept. 20, 2011

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