Update: At its monthly meeting on Tuesday, February 18, the City Planning Commission will consider the bill described below. Those interested in testifying may attend the meeting, at 1 p.m., in Room 18-029 of the City of Philadelphia building at 1515 Arch Street. Read the meeting agenda here.
If the words “uniform cornice line” don’t mean anything to you, go take a stroll down 15th Street between Reed and Dickinson in South Philly. Look up at the tops of the buildings on both sides of the block, three-story brick houses standing shoulder to shoulder in perfect solidarity. It’s about as close as Philadelphia gets to the Platonic Form of cornice lines, enough to bring a tear to a city planner’s eye.
Not every block is so blessed, of course, and neighborhoods with predominantly two-story architecture have it particularly rough. Nobody wants to build two-story houses anymore, and on blocks throughout the city you can see new, three-story constructions jutting out from fists of two-story houses like so many middle fingers.
The zoning code has rules to temper that phenomenon. If you’re building on a lot surrounded on either side by two-story structures, you can still build up to the citywide residential height limit of 38 feet, but everything above the second story has to be set back at least eight feet. That can produce interesting results.
On Thursday, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell introduced a bill that would eliminate the setback requirement in favor a rule that would force builders to simply respect the cornice line.
If you’re building on a lot surrounded on either side by two-story structures, under Blackwell’s proposed amendment to the zoning code, you couldn’t build above the taller of the two structures. Moreover, new construction on a block where at least 50 percent of the structures are two stories tall could not be built higher than the tallest two-story structure on the block.
Councilwoman Blackwell said she introduced the bill as a way to help communities maintain the character of their blocks.
Representatives of the Planning Commission said they would review the legislation before commenting.
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter based in Philadelphia. His work has been featured in Philadelphia magazine, Hidden City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, City & State, and other publications. He covered development, zoning policy, historic preservation, and city government for PlanPhilly from 2011-2016.