Who’s Zoning Who?

Can’t tell a RSA-5 from a RM-2?  Answers here! East Falls’ proposed zoning changes in plain English, with context and links to all the important stuff. Thanks, East Falls Forward! 

So Philly is going thru an overhaul of zoning code, that’s this whole big deal including the mayor’s approval… Seems the code’s a million years old, and people aren’t being taxed right cause new business/development models exist now that need to be accounted for, and blah blaaaah… All this jazz that basically means they need to make some corrections and allow for new zoning designations.

Whenever you muck with what’s allowed where in a neighborhood, you have the opportunity to change it — and every change brings pros and cons. For instance, changing the zoning of East Falls’ train station on Cresson from residential to mixed-use/commercial would allow for a deli or cafe there when SEPTA rebuilds in 2019 (as planned). This jibes with every modern planning theory, and also is an overwhelmingly popular idea with commuters.

But some neighbors worry about traffic and parking — and would prefer to keep that wide hill of green space off the parking lot. And what if the cafe served alcohol & attracted rowdy students? And just where do they think they’re going to put all that trash they’re gonna have, and keep it from stinking up such a congested area?

GACK! Good thing the train station re-zoing is *NOT* currently included in this round of proposed changes. Neither is the area off Ridge Ave and Merrick Road, nextdoor to the East River Bank (aka “Pennrose”). Public meetings for both of these hot-button areas will be included in future zoning workshops, to be announced.

This first round is all about East Falls below the train tracks — current zoning shown above, the color-coding’s on the pdf file, just click on this link to view.

And here’s the “Proposed” map — again, you’ll need to view the pdf file to see what’s where but for this overview please note the numbered areas where changes are being discussed.

Much of the re-zoning is corrective, for instance, Ali Baba at Ridge & Schoolhouse is presently zoned for Industrial-2, but it’s a business so new zoning to Commercial/Mixed Use would correct that. NOTE: “CMX” means living spaces over first-floor businesses; this zoning does not affect current usage, just what can go here if the property were to sell (however, existing owners may choose to act on new zoning, if they wish).

Similar rezoning is also being proposed for the Rivage, DVHS, and Japanese Restaurant sites. Makes sense to us, all are currently in different stages of development already, let’s get some street-level shops or cafes in here if possible! CMX zoning paves the way.

On Indian Queen Lane, Fiorino’s will be switching from Residential (operating with a variance) to CMX-1, the lowest density of the “Commercial/Mixed use” designations. The auto repair shop at the railroad tracks is bumping one level down, density-wise, from Industrial-2 to Industrial-1. (Some residential properties’ zonings, too, are being tweaked.)

St. Bridget’s old school on Stanton is changing to reflect the building’s new status as a multi-family residence. Down on Midvale, St. Bridget’s church, parking lot, and other properties — still owned by the Catholic Church — are incorrectly zoned as Residential, back from when other structures were here.

Now the city feels re-zoning to CMX-3 would encourage density around the train station, which would support the neighborhood’s stated goal of becoming more pedestrian-friendly. But some neighbors are verrrrrry upset about this proposed change. They say encouraging growth puts our historic church — a local landmark — at risk for demolition (a representative from EFCC’s zoning committee shares concerns, below).

City planner Matt Wysong explained at last week’s public zoning workshop, though, that St. Bridget’s current zoning doesn’t include any more protection from the wrecking ball than the proposed would. But he agreed that CMX-3 provides more immediate opportunities for developers to make use of the land, whereas the current RMA-5 zoning technically limits future development to one-family dwellings.

But developers get variances all the time. If the Church wants to sell St. Bridget’s, nothing but an official Historical Designation might save it from developers with enough cash or influence in this city. And besides, St. Bridget’s current zoning is wrong, and should be adjusted some way, at least.

No, no, no! Said Paula Dougherty, jumping into discussions during Felicite’s recap of zoning proposals. Aside from the whole historical preservation thing, Paula was kinda appalled at the thought of developing St. Bridget’s when she saw so many empty storefronts on Ridge:  “You’ve got Ridge Avenue looking like a slum, and you want to develop where it’s green? It doesn’t in my heart make sense.”

Can’t we wisely develop both, though? EFDC’s Gina Snyder insists new businesses want to locate here, but issues like zoning and challenging landlords have been real roadblocks. Moving forward, new regulations will help ensure we won’t all be looking at vacant first-floor windows littered with RENT/SALE/LEASE signs that never come down.

(Aside:  hey, Dobson’s shops are finally filling now, which we’re taking as a good omen — also didja notice the old Fork & Barrel recently had some work done? If anyone’s talking, we’re all ears…)

What do you think about St. Bridget?  Is demolition of the church for development a realistic concern?  Should the property be rezoned to allow a possible shop or cafe in the parking lot, if the owners wish? Remember, none of these zoning changes affect how the property is used now — they come into play when/if the property changes hands, and new owners must apply for licenses, insurance, etc (current owners can opt in on zoning updates if they wish, though).

Which brings up our last re-zoning challenge — the four (five?) townhomes near the post office, currently zoned CMX-2.5, which is technically incorrect because these are single-family homes. They’re also quite lovely with those arches, so the City suggests changing the zoning to Residential to help preserve this little stretch of unique character.

But many residents at the zoning workshop — and at East Falls Forward’s informal zoning proposal recap the following night — felt keeping the Commerical/Mixed-use designation better supported the pedestrian-friendly business corridor East Falls was working so hard to create.

In fact, the houses back up to a really lovely swath of green, with river views yet — great potential for a cool enterprise like White Dog Cafe in University City. Furthermore, if any owner were to sell, the CMX-2.5 zoning would likely attract more buyers, and higher value.  Sounds good to us but if you can think of any Cons to consider before removing this area’s commercial zoning, head to East Falls Forward to share your thoughts for public discussion (or email Felicite privately).

BTW, big thanks to East Falls real estate legend Heather Petrone-Shook, whose wealth of zoning knowledge provided so much helpful insight. Fingers crossed she’ll be coming to more meetings, and sharing her thoughts as a highly-invested, life-long local.

And finally:


Some of the most exciting buzz for East Falls lately is this coordinated city effort to better connect residents and visitors here to our beautiful Wissahickon park. The plan is to re-do our streetscape (over time) with well-lit and landscaped access to the creek, plus retail & restaurants to help draw people up into our business corridor.  Plans include a boat landing, as well!

Lots of changes heading our way, we hope this summary helps bring you up to speed. Consider yourself urged to please take a look at the original documents you can view and download with just a mouse-click on EastFallsForward.org’s Remapping Dropbox.

But what if I hate reading zoning stuff?!  Skim the city’s Super Basic Zoning Guide, you’ll be surprised how painlessly you can ingest this info, if it’s presented in nice bold text & images.

Time-table for changes? Ideally, EFCC and East Falls Forward will agree on tweaks needed to approve the plan so Curtis Jones can present it to City Council this May. That means we only have a month to come to a consensus — yikes! If more time is needed, though, we can have another public meeting and push things back to Fall.

ABOVE: some of Felicite’s briefing on zoning she provided upon request at EFF’s well-attended neighborhood mixer (just an overview, please join the lively discussions online to participate in voting, planning, and more).

NEXT EFF MEETING:  Thursday, March 24th  6:30 to 8:00 PM FYI the first half-hour will be for introductions and socializing. Come meet your neighbors, learn about the community, and discover lots of fun ways to help make East Falls the best place on earth (or at least Philly).  **COMPLIMENTARY SNACKS, BEVERAGES  & BABYSITTING**  New Members, enter to win Dinner for Two at Fiorino!  

ONE LAST NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:  Hi! I am not an expert on zoning but I took notes and then went thru my video of Matt Wysong’s presentation to explain what I think were the main points (holler if you want a Dropbox link).  I glossed over some intricacies of zoning to help simplify matters so please chime in if you notice errors or omissions that should be addressed.  Hope my summary was helpful, thanks for any corrections and clarification you can provide.





  1. Anybody who thinks that a cafe at the train station would be anything but a good thing needs to have their head examined.

    Take a 15 minute drive to the Allens Lane Station and see how nice it is there. Another 5 minutes up the road and there’s a nice little news stand at the Chestnut Hill Station. Look at the Jenkintown Station’s cafe…. I could go on and on. Parking shouldn’t even be on anybody’s radar, because the train station is a 5 minute walk from ANY part of East Falls.

    If we want to erase blight in East Falls, we have to zone to consumer preferences. Nobody is going to risk buying properties or investing in businesses if they’re just going to hit a brick wall.

  2. Thanks for a very lucid summary, and for the constructive attitude. As a longtime EFCC member, I haven’t gone to a meeting in several years because I can’t stand the unremitting hostility toward change.

    Like the previous commentator, I can’t believe anyone can seriously object to the notion of a cafe at the train station. I also can’t believe that anyone believes that a mere zoning category can keep the archdiocese from doing whatever the heck it wants with its property.

    • You are SO welcome! I appreciate your feedback, and hope that practical, realistic, progressive-minded East Fallsers will speak up during this rezoning process, and help set us up here for positive change… and that Wissahickon Gateway! 🙂

  3. Thank you for the great summary! I have a young family at home, and simply can’t attend these evening meetings. However, every other young family I talk to in the neighborhood, like me, longs for more commercial development. We see how historical/greenspace preservation and commercial development can work side by side, not exclusively of one another.

    • Thank you Tennyson for chiming in! With Matt Wysong now looking to EFF and EFCC for more community input, we’re hoping there are more people like you who speak up. Zoning can seem boring or not terribly important until you realize it can be a roadblock to progress (and preservation) if it isn’t done right.

  4. It’s very unlikely that the church will ever be demolished, even if it were to be sold to commercial interests.

    Europe is full of repurposed church buildings. And closer to home, there’s a church right on Ridge Ave. in Roxborough that was repurposed to house an MRI for the hospital across the street. Tech companies like to build office space in old churches, and real estate developers do very well subdividing churches into apartments.

    The possibilities are there, should the church ever close down. The structure is likely to remain in any event.

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