Philadelphia Neighborhoods Leverage Zoning Overlays for Local Control

Overlay districts provide a tool for guiding the future of development and environmental controls at the neighborhood level.

February 3, 2021, 6:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Library of Congress / Strawberry Mansion, Philadelphia

little-known zoning tool that has helped neighborhoods restrict new development in the name of historic or architectural preservation is getting new attention as more communities want to understand how zoning changes can help them shape development. According to Ryan Briggs, "overlay had become something of a dirty word in Philadelphia, following a years-long zoning code reform process that sought to simplify the city’s development rules. Now these bespoke zoning districts are back in a big way." Overlays can vary widely in their range and use. "Some covered whole neighborhoods, others single blocks; some curbed development, others encouraged it. Others already on the books can stipulate environmental, advertising, or noise pollution controls."

The Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District, recently approved by Philadelphia's city council, is one of the first districts in a working-class community to establish "preservation standards much like those used in wealthier, often whiter areas" which give residents more control. Tonetta Graham, president of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation, told WHYY "We’re just trying to keep some sense of the neighborhood that we know."

Overlay districts play a significant role in other cities. Los Angeles, for example, has 35 Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs), which aim to "identify and protect the distinctive architectural and cultural resources of Los Angeles’s historic neighborhoods" by adding an additional layer of local planning control.

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