Philadelphia Zoning Guide: Industrial Zoning in Philadelphia

Industrial Zoning = Hipster Zoning

Welcome back to Permit Philly’s Philadelphia zoning guide!  In this series, we’ve covered commercial zoning in Philadelphia, single-family residential zoning, multi-family residential zoning, and the age-old question, “Yo, can I turn my single-family house into a multi-family house?”  But you’re not here for that conventional stuff: you’re into the darker, grittier, back catalogue of Philadelphia zoning.  Artistic zoning.  Hipster zoning.  You want to know about old factories, and the best places to start a craft brewery, and where to get like just a super fly loft space for your innovative yet socially empowering start-up.  You’re the kind of person who walks around Kensington, sees graffitied factory towers, and thinks, “I bet we could use this as a distillery but also a community center.”  You want to learn about industrial zoning in Philadelphia.

The Basics of Industrial Zoning in Philadelphia

Industrial zoning in Philadelphia comes in two flavors: mixed-use industrial zoning, and plain old industrial zoning.  Mixed-use means exactly that: you can use the building for some light manufacturing or mechanical work – think metalworking – and also for more traditional commercial enterprises.  In the industrial-residential mixed-use category (IRMX), you can even use the space for housing units (think loft apartments in an abandoned textile factory, which describes half the development in Fishtown).

Regular industrial zoning, on the other hand, is only for industry: factories and ports, basically.  This kind of is split into four categories:  I-1, I-2, I-3, and I-P.  I-1 is zoned for “low-impact” industrial use; I-3 for heavy industrial use – the kind of work that oil and gas companies do.  The “p” in I-P stands for “port” – I-P is Philadelphia’s shipyard district.

Since heavy industry and shipping are not really applicable to curious browsers of Philadelphia zoning regulations, we’ll leave them to the side for now and talk about the industrial districts that business and property owners are most likely to deal with:  Industrial-Commercial Mixed-Use (ICMX), Industrial-Residential Mixed-Use (IRMX), and Light Industrial Use (I-1).

Industrial-Commercial Mixed-Use Zoning (ICMX)

ICMX is an exquisite find among the districts of industrial zoning in Philadelphia.  It allows for office work as well as light industry.  This sounds like only two things, but let me be clear: this covers a lot of stuff you might want to use a building for.  Community garden?  Legal by right (meaning, no variance necessary) in ICMX.  House of worship?  Go right ahead.  Warehouse?  Distribution center?  Check and check.  Doctor’s office?  Why not?  Or why not make it a library, also?  And maybe a marina!  That’s allowed too.

You can even open up an assembly hall by right in ICMX districts (provided that assembly space is not a casino).  This is pretty rare in Philadelphia: assembly uses are super difficult to get in most areas of the city.  If you own an ICMX property, you don’t even have to ask zoning permission to have a bunch of people hang out (though naturally, a liquor license is a different matter).

While ICMX is a wonderful, wonderful thing, be aware that you still need a Special Assembly Occupancy License to operate a nightclub – and “nightclub,” according to the City of Philly, can even mean a wedding venue (technically, it’s any venue for more than fifty people that has dancing – the Zoning Code is not really of this century).  If you don’t get an SAOL, do not open a wedding venue.  I’m not naming names; but, you know, I do hear stories.  ICMX is a perfect category for a bar or music venue, but you still need special, extra permission from the City to use it that way – don’t make assumptions!  Licenses and Inspections moves slowly, but they will shut you down if you give them a reason.

The only things you can’t use an ICMX property for, essentially, are residential units and heavier industrial uses.

Of course, for residential units, there’s always…

Industrial-Residential Mixed-Use Zoning (IRMX)

Want a residence inside some industrial zoning in Philadelphia?  Well, you can have it, with IRMX!

IRMX isn’t quite the wonder category that ICMX is, but it’s a boon to any developer or property owner looking to add housing to a large industrial space.  The catch – and it’s important – is that you need to have 60% of the building dedicated to commercial uses; or 50% dedicated specifically to industrial uses.

The weird thing here, though, is that artists and hipsters seem to have written this part of the zoning code, because you can only use an IRMX building for two industrial things: artist studios and “artisan industrial” work (like custom woodworking); or research and development.  So if you don’t want to try for a zoning variance, then the only things you can use IRMX for are hip apartments, arts and crafts, and curing cancer.

(This might be my favorite zoning category.)

Please note that you can’t use the IRMX building for everything you can use the ICMX building for: there is no free pass for assembly uses, and there are tighter controls on distribution centers and some other business uses.  You also can’t open a retail space on any floor other than the first floor.  Basically, you can use 40% of your building for housing so long as the other part is used for handmade products or office space.

Light Industrial Zoning in Philadelphia: I-1

“Light industry” sounds like a pretty good band name, but it also describes your friendly neighborhood warehouse and manufacturing center.  In I-1 zoning in Philly, you can make things so long as it’s not too loud, basically.

You can’t build an apartment complex by right in an I-1 district, but you can use it for a bit more than ICMX in certain ways.  Notably, where auto body shops are forbidden in IRMX and only allowed under certain conditions in ICMX, you can fix all the cars you like in I-1 – just so long as you don’t sell any of them.  Why?  I have no idea.  The Code is a cruel master, sometimes; I’m just a lowly student.  You are allowed to sell commercial vehicles and open a gas station on I-1 land, if that makes you happy.  You can open parking lots, too – one of the few I-1 advantages over ICMX.

Industrial Zoning in Philadelphia: Aim at ICMX; settle for IRMX

After these three categories, industrial zoning in Philadelphia is all shipyards and chemical plants; so unless you’re Dow – in which case, feel free to contact us! – you probably just need to know this:  Philly parcels zoned ICMX are the most flexible commercial and (light!) manufacturing parcels in the city; if you’re a developer, buy these!  IRMX is not quite as flexible, but is a killer zoning category if you’d like to open up a cool apartment space with artisanal studios.  And I-1 is handy if you’re really into repairing cars, but don’t want to actually open a whole vehicle assembly line.

Until next time: please zone responsibly.

2 Replies to “Philadelphia Zoning Guide: Industrial Zoning in Philadelphia”

    1. Hi Shmiel,

      No, I-1, I-2, and I-3 are all different types of industrial zoning in Philly. Each classification has different rules about what you can and can’t do with such a property. They all allow more industrial use than, say, a normal commercial zoning would. But they aren’t all the same.

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