Fourth of a series from the Chestnut Hill Community Association Physical Division.
By Celeste Hardester
In times gone by, to learn how properties were zoned in Chestnut Hill, one had to go to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission to view their maps of the City or go to the CHCA and ask to see the City-issued atlases that mapped every property.
Today it is all on-line. This, and a whole lot more, are available on OpenMaps.phila.gov. A mountain of information exists on this website. Want to find out where the nearest basketball court or athletic track is? This map will tell you. Farmers markets and school catchments? You are in the right place. Recycling diversion rate? Hmm, what is that? – I’ll have to learn more, but Chestnut Hill’s is dark blue. And Zoning Base Districts? They are right here, displayed in full color.
On this map, you can view the range of zoning districts in Chestnut Hill. “District” is the term used to identify the category of zoning regulations that apply to a given property. Along Germantown Avenue, you will see a lot of red. Click on a block of red, and its zoning district pops up. The majority is zoned CMX-1, the most restrictive category of commercial zoning, and it maintains a requirement to match neighborhood surroundings in height and mass. A few blocks are zoned CMX-2 or 2.5, which has somewhat looser regulations, the most significant of which, in Chestnut Hill, is whether an eating establishment is permitted.
These commercial categories also have height allowances, but in Chestnut Hill, these are regulated by the more restrictive Germantown Avenue Overlay, which limits building heights to 38-feet except for corners, where the allowance is 45-feet.
Also along and near Germantown Avenue are a few areas designated as CA-1, meaning Auto-Oriented Commercial. Most of West Evergreen is so designated, as are two blocks at the southern end of the Avenue approaching Cresheim Valley Drive.
At the northern end of Germantown Avenue, if you click on the blue blocks, you will see that Chestnut Hill College has the special zoning category referred to as SP-INS. This is a Special Purpose Institutional district granted by City Council based upon a community-supported master plan.
Going further away from Germantown Avenue, you will find areas identified mostly by yellow, brown and green. The yellow represents all the residential zoning categories; one must click on a given section to see the specific residential zoning identification. Residential zoning spans from RSD-1, the largest district for single-family detached houses, to RSD-3, the smallest district for single-family detached houses. Additionally, residential zoning includes RSA-1, the largest district for single-family attached houses, to RSD-5, the smallest district for single-family attached houses.
The brown indicates various categories of Residential Multi-Family, including many apartment complexes. These RMX-1 and RMX-2 lots are mostly near Stenton Avenue, but also exist on W. Evergreen and near Wissahickon Park at the Cherokee Apartments and behind Drum Moir.
Happily, Chestnut Hill is amply dotted with spots and large sections of green, indicating Active Parks and Open Space – SP-PO-A.
Details on the zoning of specific lots can be found by going to Atlas.phila.gov.
The requirements for each zoning district are identified in a publication provided by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. Simply google: Philadelphia-Zoning-Code_Quick-Reference-Manual. This well-designed guide is a reference that identifies the specifics of each district in an easy to grasp style that allows quick comparisons between districts. The guide also provides simple explanations of how the zoning permitting process works, and some specific areas of interest, including requirements regarding signage, landscape and trees, and fencing and walls. For instance, many people do not realize that, when they decide to replace an existing fence, its legality is not grandfathered in for automatic replacement of the same style. To its credit, the city’s code addresses the interest of the public realm in regard to the height and opaqueness of fences along street fronts.
The actual zoning code itself is to be found in The Philadelphia Code. This is where all legislation governing the city resides; Title 14 contains the Zoning Code. It can be found by googling The Philadelphia Code. You will see it is published by American Legal Publishing Corporation.
The CHCA recommends that, while it is informative to read the code, a professional in the field should make its correct interpretation for any financial or legal decision, be it architect, planner, or attorney.
It is common to seek variances to assigned zoning, but it is very rare for a property to be assigned a different zoning district and requires legislation.
In the coming months, you may read about updates to the zoning maps in Chestnut Hill. Known as remapping, this is part of the District Plan process that was completed for the Upper Northwest in 2018. Some of this work was recently completed in Mt. Airy. We will make announcements of the public meetings for the remapping for Chestnut Hill when they are ready to be held.
Celeste Hardester is Development Coordinator for the Chestnut Hill community Association’s Physical Division.