Parking! Parking! Parking!

Let’s talk about parking rules in Philadelphia.  You have to abide by them, even though you may not know what they are, and every living human in the city has a very angry opinion about them.  Many RCOs rage against developments without parking.  Residents want their curbside parking secured – keep the new people away from my spot! is the cry from people who moved to Northern Liberties only six years ago.  As more people move to Philly, the tide of grumbling increases.  Everyone is angry about parking.

And this anger reaches City Council pretty quickly.  Right now, the Council is debating a new bill to require stricter parking rules in Philadelphia.  [update: this was written in 2018, but Council is pretty much always debating parking bills.] Specifically, the bill would require more parking spaces to be constructed with each new development in the City.  You might have seen some of Plan Philly’s outstanding reporting on this – take a look at this interview and this article for a good introduction.

Since the future of parking rules in Philadelphia are in some uncertainty, I want to quickly review the overall zoning rules for parking spots in the city, and talk about the ways in which the new bill might change them.

(Update: the bill in question did not pass in the Summer 2018 session.  However, something like it is regularly proposed by at least one Council member, so the rest of this article is still applicable for those looking to understand parking rules in Philadelphia and the debates surrounding them.)

Developers are usually required to create a set number of parking spaces for every certain number of units – or every certain amount of area – in a development

In the “Special-Purpose” districts – which can include colleges (SP-INS, for “institutional”) or parks (SP-PO-A), there are many rules like this:  An SP-INS development, for example, must include one off-street parking space for each 4,000 sq. ft. of cumulative gross floor area of buildings in the district.

In most districts, the number of required spaces depends on the use of the building as well as the zoning district of the building

The parking space rules for commercial districts are laid out in this chart.

The parking space rules for residential districts are laid out in this chart.

And finally, the parking space rules for industrial districts are laid out in this chart.

Most notably, rowhomes – classified as RSA-4, RSA-5 and RM-1 – do not require parking spaces at all for residential use.  The space requirements for most other designations is also pretty light: just one space per unit for RSD homes, for example; which are more or less suburban houses.  CMX-2 and CMX-2.5 buildings are also exempt from parking spot requirements – and CMX-1 buildings are exempt if their neighboring lots don’t require parking spots (CMX-1 is always like this: it depends on its surrounding buildings for the rules governing its size and some other particulars).  Industrial buildings used as residences have less leash – they need three spaces for every ten units.  Still, it’s not too strict a code, as far as parking goes.

The [Summer 2018] bill would specifically target these provisions: it would, according to Plan Philly’s review, require developments in industrial-residential districts to include five parking spaces for every ten housing units.  It would also take smaller commercial zoning categories – CMX-1 (sometimes), CMX-2, and CMX-2.5 – from no required parking spots to three parking spots for every ten units of housing.  Most notably, it would change the requirement for rowhomes:  The proposed legislation would require developers building in RM-1 and RSA-4/5 districts to include three parking spaces for every ten housing units if the developers build ten units or more at once.

(This is a change – the original proposal required three parking spaces for every ten housing units even if no single developer put ten units in at once – so developers could be on the hook for creating a parking space if a certain block was determined not to have enough spaces – it would’ve been quite the headache.)

Parking rules in Philadelphia can get confusing in a hurry

Say that you have a CMX-3 building: this is a category that might have a business on the first floor and residential units above.  This means there could be two main uses of the building: commercial and residential.  So: which parking requirements apply?  The commercial parking requirements or the residential parking requirements?  How many spaces will this building need?

The good news is that the zoning code foresaw this problem.  The bad news is that the solution is insane, and it is in Title 14-802-8: adjustments and alternatives.  It’s a short description of a short table showing exactly how to divide the total number spaces determined by each use, depending on the use.  I’ll let the code speak for itself:

“Total off-street parking required shall be the sum of the two parking requirements for the two uses divided by the factors in Table 14-802-6. For example, where a development includes both (a) public, civic, and institutional uses and (b) retail sales uses, the amount of parking required is the sum of the parking required for the two uses divided by 1.3.”

So.  Figure it out if you have to, and godspeed.

Keep in mind that as always, there are also competing overlay districts in the code – special sections of Philadelphia that are marked for even more regulations – and some of these will affect parking rules as well.

There are two types of parking in Philly: accessory and non-accessory

So now you know that off-street parking is required for certain development in the city.  However, if you decide, “You know what?  I want happy neighbors – I’ll build a whole parking lot in my new building!  For the whole block!” you need to pump the brakes: you might not be allowed to do that without a variance.

Parking for your business or residence or residential complex is called accessory parking.  It’s the same idea as for signs, discussed in our last post: the parking space is an accessory to the use of the building.  If you want to create a parking lot that is only a parking lot – and perhaps charge admission – there are limits to that non-accessory parking use.

Parking rules in Philadelphia don’t allow every zoning category to be used for non-accessory parking.  These same rules distinguish between a parking garage (structured parking) and a parking lot (surface parking).

Non-accessory parking is allowed in all the industrial zoning categories, and allowed with a special exception in industrial mixed-use zoning categories.

Parking garages are allowed, without a variance, in CMX-3 districts.  Parking lots require a special exception.  In all other CMX districts, non-accessory parking is either forbidden or requires a special exception.

Residential zoning lots may not be used as parking lots or garages without a variance (and in my professional opinion… good luck with that).

Parking rules in Philadelphia will probably change again

This is one of the most contentious arenas in Philly’s development.  People want a chunk of the street outside their house for themselves, forever.  They do not want to deal with someone else parking there, and they also don’t want to pay for it.  And they will bug the City Council about this.  Neighborhood groups will fight developers about this, even when developers are not technically required to add more spaces to a project.  Even if this particular bill doesn’t pass, this fight is not ending soon.

So: if you’re a developer, or you’re just looking to build or renovate your own home in the city, be aware: the parking rules in Philadelphia can change quickly.  Stay on your toes so you know where to put your wheels.

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