Philadelphia's Zoning History
To understand the present and plan for the future, it is important to review the past...
The following is a quick snapshot of key events in Philadelphia's zoning and planning history. From the initial founding of the City by William Penn to the last code revision in 1962, there are recurring themes and useful lessons that are important to know as the city begins a zoning code reform project.
The Past: What Lessons Can We Learn?
1683 - A "greene Country Towne" Is Planned
Philadelphia's planning and zoning history began in 1683 with the initial design of the city by William Penn. This first plan of the city appears in the Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia by Thomas Holme. Penn designed the city as a rectangle and divided it into four quadrants. He created a central square where City Hall now sits, and where the major north-south artery, Broad Street, intersected the major east-west artery, High Street (now known as Market Street). The City was framed by the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, which created a natural border and provided a key port significant to trade and commerce. William Penn designed parks and open spaces for this "greene Country Towne," and he planned for growth. In this regard, today, he might be called a "new urbanist." Penn's plan has endured as he stands atop the "centre square" and looks out over the city he designed.
1933 - The First Zoning Code and Zoning Map Adopted
The first zoning code was approved in 1933. At that time, the code had 13 zoning classifications (7 residential, 4 commercial, and 2 industrial). At the same time the code was adopted, a zoning map was also created of the entire city. The zoning map consisted of 27 map sheets and it was a project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. It was created based on a land use survey of existing conditions.
1942 - Philadelphia City Planning Department Created
A group of young reformers who cared about the city's future formed the City Policy Committee. A member, Edmund Bacon, was interested in planning and encouraged the Committee to work on this issue. In 1941, a national planning conference was held in Philadelphia. Building on the ideas and excitement from this conference, the City Policy Committee worked on a bill to create the City Planning Department. The legislation passed in 1942, and the first director was Robert Mitchell, a transportation planner.
1947 - The Better Philadelphia Exhibition
In 1947, the Better Philadelphia Exhibition opened. It is a fun and fascinating part of Philadelphia's urban planning history. Robert Mitchell, the planning director, Ed Bacon, Louis Kahn and several leading architects and urban planners from the era coordinated this exhibit to educate the public about city planning and what it could achieve. The exhibit sparked citizens' interest in planning not only for Center City, but also planning for their own neighborhoods. School children were taught about planning and designed model playgrounds. It truly shaped a vision for the City and energized residents and city leaders.
The showcase of the exhibit was a large model of Center City as it presently looked with 13 sections that rotated to display a model of how Center City could look by the year 1982 (the City's 300th birthday). The exhibit was housed in Gimbel's Department Store. Over the course of two months it attracted more than 340,000 people. Ed Bacon would later become the executive director of the Planning Commission, serving as a dynamic visionary from 1949 to 1970. During his tenure, he conceived and implemented major projects that dramatically transformed the City, including the revitalization of Society Hill and the plan for the far Northeast.
Click here for more about the Better Philadelphia Exhibition.
1962 - The Zoning Code Undergoes a Major Revision
The post-WWII era of the early 1950s brought changes in lifestyles and housing preferences, along with an ever-increasing reliance on the automobile. The 1933 zoning code no longer met the City's needs and development trends. In the mid 1950s, the Mayor established a task force to make recommendations to modernize the Code. The task force met for several years and finally issued a report recommending major changes to the code. The report called for the creation of 43 zoning classifications - 23 residential, 8 commercial, 8 industrial and 4 "special use" districts. The work of the task force resulted in the approval of a new zoning code that took effect in 1962.
Mid-1980's - A Debate Over Tall Buildings Leads to New Center City Zoning Controls
For decades, there was a "gentleman's agreement" that buildings in the downtown should not be higher than the statue of William Penn on top of City Hall Tower. In 1984, developer Willard Rouse proposed an office building that would exceed this self-imposed height limit. The desire to break this barrier led to a spirited public debate. In 1987, One Liberty Place was built topping out at 960 feet - towering over the 491-foot City Hall.
However, the concerns about tall skyscrapers and their impact on existing buildings and the residential neighborhoods within Center City, spurred the City Planning Commission to develop a new Plan for Center City. The plan was released in 1988 and it sought to balance growth with neighborhood preservation. To help implement the plan's goal, new zoning classifications were created for high-rise buildings. These new zoning laws were developed over several years of intense work with extensive public involvement. Thus, the One Liberty Place controversy led to the creation of a modern set of zoning regulations for Center City that are a reflection of Philadelphia's civic values in terms of building scale, livability, historic preservation, enhancement of public transportation, and the creation of safe, inviting and active sidewalks and public spaces.
The Present: Are We Entering Another Reform Era?
Similar to Philadelphia's experience in the early 1950's that led to the first major revision of the zoning code, the City has experienced significant change in the past 50 years. Population changes (this time a decline), a shift from heavy manufacturing to high tech companies, a residential construction boom, and changing lifestyles make the current code out-dated. In addition, piecemeal amendments over the years have resulted in a code that is overly complex, burdensome and unpredictable. The official version of the code is 642 pages long and has grown to include 55 different zoning classifications and dozens of special district controls.
2004 -- The Seeds of Reform Are Planted
In October 2004, the Building Industry Association issued a report called, "If We Fix It, They Will Come." This report discusses ten fixes to improve and streamline Philadelphia's cumbersome and unpredictable development process. One of the ten issues identified as impeding growth and revitalization of the City was the fact that "Philadelphia's zoning code is outdated, cumbersome and difficult to use." The long-term recommendation was to "completely revise the Zoning Code and the Comprehensive Plan upon which it is based, with substantial public input." The report was widely distributed to city leaders, policy makers and stakeholder groups who cared about the City's positive growth.
2006 -- A Charter Change Is Introduced in City Council
On September 21, 2006, Councilmembers Frank DiCicco and James Kenney introduced an amendment to the Home Rule Charter to create a Zoning Code Commission to "conduct a comprehensive analysis and make recommendations regarding reforms to the Philadelphia Zoning Code." The measure received widespread support from community organizations, urban planners, design professionals and the building industry at a public hearing on December 6, 2006. And, on February 8, 2007, Philadelphia City Council unanimously approved the legislation. Thus, paving the way for a ballot question calling for the creation of a Zoning Code Commission to be presented to the voters in the May 2007 primary.
2007 -- Mayoral Candidates Talk About the "Next Great City"
The 2007 election was an "open" Mayor's race for the City. Mayor John Street was prohibited from running again due to term limits, and five major democratic candidates entered the race. A dedicated website called "the Next Mayor" was created by the Philadelphia Daily News, WHYY, and the Committee of 70 to cover the candidates and the issues. A civic engagement project conducted by the Philadelphia Inquirer and the University of Pennsylvania, called "Great Expectations," focused on key issues of concern to the voters. Good growth, planning and urban design were among the many issues discussed at forums and in the media. And, the Next Great City project -- which had issued an action agenda for cleaner, safer and healthier neighborhoods in early January -- had the good fortune of hosting the first Mayoral forum. Among the questions posed was the need for zoning reform.
May 2007 -- Zoning Code Commission Referendum Passes
Voters overwhelmingly approved the charter change to create the Zoning Code Commission with 79% of the voters saying "yes" to Ballot Question #6. A voter education and community outreach strategy, funded by the William Penn Foundation, helped inform citizens about the importance of zoning reform. The educational campaign was called "Zoning Matters" and an informational website was created along with flyers, a dedicated phone line and an email address. Speakers addressed community associations, attended candidate forums, and leafleted high traffic areas to spread the word about the need to revise and modernize the zoning code. To see, the early version of this website, click here.
August 2007 - Inaugural Meeting of the Zoning Code Commission
With its members appointed, the Zoning Code Commission gathered for the first time on August 3, 2007 to begin its first task of identifying the problems with Philadelphia's current code. In later sessions, the Commission heard testimony from zoning experts on possible directions for reform, voted to establish committees to guide vital aspects of its work, and hired a consultant team that is working to translate its conceptual goals into a new zoning code. The Commission has complemented and informed this work with a robust civic engagement process through which thousands of citizens have articulated their objectives for a new code and reaffirmed their commitment to zoning reform.
The Future: Are We Ready to Embrace Change While Preserving Our Past?
From its inception by William Penn as four squares, to the first zoning code in 1933, the explosive growth in the 1950s, and the new challenges of today, urban planning and zoning have played a vital role in shaping the future of our City. Now, with the Zoning Code Commission set to compile its recommendations for a more effective zoning code, and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission poised to complete the City's first comprehensive plan in decades, that future is looking especially promising and exciting. To learn more about the nexus of zoning and city planning in Philadelphia, continue on to Planning Initiatives.