The City of Philadelphia can be a cruel mistress. When filing permits, it’s common to be told that the thing you’ve done 176 times needs to be laid out a different way the 177th time – but then, on the 178th time, to go back to the regular way. Sometimes, the way the application process works depends on which staffer is on lunch. This is life on the mean streets of 1401 JFK Boulevard.
But every now and again, the City smiles upon us all, and cuts away some of its own red tape. It has recently cut some tape around its troubled sign permits by creating what we in the permit game have previously only dreamt of: EZ sign permits.
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Contractors fear them. Old real estate brokers shiver at their mention. Property owners try to pretend they don’t exist, though those property owners also feel a chill in their spines. In much the same way Old Nan warned Bran of the White Walkers, experienced Philadelphia developers and homeowners warn newcomers of that greatest of terrors: a Philadelphia Code violation.
When Philly’s Department of Licenses and Inspections finds a property illegally used or under unlawful construction – think building a house without a permit, or opening a restaurant without a food license – L&I issues a “notice of violation and order.” This notice should, according to the Code, be a written document which tells the owner of the property the nature of the Philadelphia Code violation, what can be done to address the violation, and how long the owner has to fix the problem.
These things are terrifying: if L&I decides that the owner isn’t complying with the Philadelphia Code violation notice, L&I can shut down operations at the property. It can also take the owner or operator responsible to court to force them to address the problem or shut down the project. And to be clear, this includes businesses that are already up and running: the Philadelphia Code says specifically that “the premises shall be vacated of all employees, patrons and occupants” once a Cease Operations Order is in effect.
If you want to argue your case in court, or parse exactly what counts as a violation, you will need a lawyer – and Permit Philly is happy to recommend some! But if you want to just comply with the City’s order and get it over with, here’s how to make sense of a Philadelphia Code violation on your property – and the steps to clear it up.
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Realtors ask me a lot of questions about permits. They want to know what they’re allowed to do with a property in Philly, how to get a legal construction project off the ground, and how to get rental licenses (so many rental licenses). Some of these questions are specific to one project. But some apply to almost any property in the City of Philadelphia. I’ve culled the most common questions and areas of interest to give you the top five things every realtor should know about Philly permits.
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There’s a very important phrase in Philly’s Department of Licenses and Inspections literature that doesn’t mean much to anyone outside of development in Philadelphia: prerequisite approval. So today, Permit Philly is going to answer some questions about this process.
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The most common question I get here at Permit Philly is, “What permits do I need to build this?” As documented in our blog, Philadelphia has a dense administrative system that might require you to get a lot of permits. “It depends on the project,” is the answer I usually give. But people don’t just want to know the specific permit they need: they want a conceptual picture of the permitting system. A Philadelphia building permit checklist.
And wouldn’t you know it: there is a Philadelphia building permit checklist, made by the City itself. You can find it right here.
But before you dive into it, let’s give you a companion piece: an overhead view of the permitting maze in Philly.
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You’re ready to open a restaurant in Philadelphia. You have everything you need: a great building, all the right equipment on order, a dedicated team, and some amazing recipes. Now you just need to get a food license from the City of Philadelphia. Is that just one form? Maybe a little inspection?
Not quite. While you do need an inspection from the Health Department to operate a restaurant, and there is a simple form that says “Food License,” actually getting complete approval to open a restaurant in Philadelphia can be a long and complicated journey. As Philly Health Commissioner Thomas Farley once said, “The night is dark and full of terrors.”
Okay, maybe he didn’t actually say that. But getting officially certified to open a restaurant in Philadelphia can be a nightmare if you don’t know what you’re in for. Fear not! Permit Philly is here to break down the process for you.
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In this space, we’ve explained what zoning districts are, and summarized the three main categories of zoning district: commercial, residential (single-family and multi-family), and industrial. We’ve even reviewed the basics of sign permitting. So you might think that our Philadelphia zoning guide is complete!
… you would be wrong.
Having a zoning code with detailed regulations for each parcel of land in the city might seem like the definition of a zoning code. But Philly’s zoning code doesn’t merely define types of parcel. It also sorts those parcels into geographic units. In certain areas of the city, it’s not enough to know that your property is considered RSA-5 (that is, residential single-family, attached). Your property might also fall under regulations for the Center City district – CTR – or the Central Delaware district – CDO. There are twenty of these in all, and they are called Overlay Districts.
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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.
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Zoning Guide to the Philadelphia Sign Permit
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 that sweet sweet hipster zoning. Now we’re going to talk about the Philadelphia sign permit. Warning: this story features graphic descriptions of bureaucracy.
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Welcome to Permit Philly’s Philadelphia Multifamily Zoning Guide!
If you’d like to see the other parts of this series, click here.
Oh my god we’re back again. We’ve covered Commercial MiXed-use (CMX) and Residential Single-family Attached (RSA) zoning in our Philadelphia zoning guide. Now it’s time to tackle Philadelphia multifamily zoning.
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