Rowhomes on the 400 block of N. Holly Street.

Updated Sept. 14

In an old city like Philadelphia, development is a constant. We’re often left with two choices: fork over cash to preserve old buildings, or tear them down and start fresh.

Here’s the good news: You’re not powerless when it comes to the look of your community. All it takes is a little knowledge about how zoning works in the city, and you can have a direct say in the future of your neighborhood.

If you want to take a class, the Citizens Planning Institute offers a slate of evening courses on the topic for $100 each. Or if you just want a free primer on Philly zoning, read on below.

We put together a quick guide with everything you need to know to stay engaged.

What is zoning, anyway?

Simply put, zoning is what regulates land and development in the city of Philadelphia.

The rules are set by the Zoning Code, and they’re enforced by the Department of Licenses and Inspections.

The Code’s purpose, as it’s written, is “to guide the land use and development of the City and in so doing, promote the public health, safety, and general welfare of its citizens and visitors.” Translation: The Code sets rules to ensure you’re not building something you shouldn’t be building. It makes sure your buildings are safe.

With action from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the Code also watches out for ridiculous development proposals. It probably wouldn’t allow, for example, a giant industrial waste plant to be built right next door to your house.

A sign on an empty storefront at the corner lists a June 13 ZBA hearing Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Each lot in Philly is zoned under a particular category — i.e. residential, industrial, retail sales — and a developer can’t go against it without approval from the local community and the ZBA.

What are the zoning categories?

Glad you asked. There are exactly 10 categories:

  1. Residential
  2. Parks and open space
  3. Public, civic and institutional
  4. Office
  5. Retail sales
  6. Commercial services
  7. Vehicle and vehicular equipment sales and services
  8. Wholesale, distribution and storage
  9. Industrial
  10. Urban architecture

Here’s the tricky part: Within those categories, there are about a million subcategories. Some of them are totally expected; others are downright hilarious.

Under the residential category, for example, there are subcategories for single-family, two-family and multi-family homes. Within office zoning, there’s a business and professional subcategory, plus one for your medical, dental and health practitioners.

And then under retail sales, you’ll find your casual drug paraphernalia and gun store subcategories. Under commercial services, there’s a ton of space exclusively for adults: you’ve got your adult cabarets, your adult motion picture theaters and your adult massage shop, which is literally defined by the Zoning Code as:

An establishment having a source of income or compensation derived from the practice of any method of pressure on or friction against, or stroking, kneading, rubbing, tapping, pounding, vibrating, or stimulation of, external parts of the human body

A zoning board violation outside a building in Morrell Park Credit: MICHAELA WINBERG / BILLY PENN

How can I figure out the category of a building or lot?

Luckily, there’s an easy tool to help you with this one. Recently, the City of Philadelphia rolled out an interactive site called Atlas, which lists how every single lot in the city is zoned.

Type in the address or the cross streets of the lot you’re wondering about, and Atlas will pull from open data sets to provide lots of details about the location. That includes the category under which it’s zoned, the owner’s name and any documents associated with the property.

Are those zoning categories set in stone?

The owner of a property can change its category, but it takes some serious legwork.

Let’s say a developer in your neighborhood wants to tear town a few rowhomes and build an apartment complex. First, they’ve got to reach out to L&I and apply for a zoning variance — what a change in category is called when it’s applied to a single property. In this case, they’d want a variance to change the zoning from single-family to multi-family housing.

A flow chart showing how a developer can change a zoning category Credit: Philadelphia Zoning Code

If the developer’s first application is deemed to not fit the current code, they can appeal. In that case, they’ll have to undergo a review by the City Planning Commission and get approval from at least one of the neighborhood’s Registered Community Organizations.

Both entities can make a recommendation to the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA), which will ultimately decide the matter.

What’s a Registered Community Organization?

Also known as RCOs, there are hundreds of these in Philly. Even if you’ve never heard of them, your neighborhood has one, and you’re allowed — encouraged — to get involved.

Basically, these are neighborhood groups. They can be business districts, local political wards or civic associations. And whenever a developer wants to make a change in a neighborhood, it’s the RCOs that hold the primary power to deny or approve.

To find your RCOs:

  • Open this map and filter the search by “Registered Community Organization”
  • Search for your address

So there’s a developer in my neighborhood trying to build something I don’t like. What can I do about it?

There are two points when you can make your voice heard: at an RCO meeting, and at a ZBA meeting.

If a developer is denied by L&I, they’ll turn to the RCO for approval. They’re required to give notice to the public that the meeting is happening. Usually, that means they’ll post fliers around the neighborhood — so you should catch wind of it in time to make the meeting. Many RCOs also send out email newsletters and maintain Facebook pages or groups that advise of upcoming developer requests. You can also contact your RCO leaders directly via phone or email.

Then you need to attend the meeting. The developer will pitch their idea to you, and the RCO will take it to a vote. The vote isn’t the final decision the matter, but it carries weight with the ZBA when that board considers to appeal.

More than 200 people showed up to the FNA zoning meeting to discuss the future of St. Laurentius Church. Credit: Anna Orso / Billy Penn

Then, if you’re still invested in the project, you can attend the ZBA meeting — where the developer will pitch their idea all over again — and voice your approval or disapproval directly to the board.

How do I find a ZBA hearing?

You can visit the appeals calendar to find out exactly when the ZBA meets. But generally, you can bet that the board will host a hearing every Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. The hearings are located on the 18th floor of 1515 Arch St., and you’ll need photo ID to enter at the front desk.

To find out when they’ll hear a specific case, try calling your RCO.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...