Zoning changes in the old town make commercial use on the street mandatory

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As huge townhouses spring up along Old City’s shopping district, some worry the trend poses an existential threat to the historic neighborhood, one of America’s oldest commercial centers.

“With all the recent development, developers have decided that residential is a surefire option over commercial,” said Joe Schiavo, a longtime resident and activist. “And that choice is hurting the Old City commercial district.”

Schiavo not only looks back fondly on the changes to his neighborhood, he’s also written a zoning bill about it.

The bill, introduced to the City Council by Councilman Mark Squilla, would require nonresidential uses at street level in buildings zoned CMX-3 in the Old Town commercial core, a classification intended for small and medium-sized apartment buildings. Used for large detached homes.

Under current rules, properties zoned for that purpose are not required to have non-residential uses on the ground floor. The proposed law would allow things like lobbies and gyms for use by building residents, but would prohibit residential uses such as apartments on the ground floor.

“Old City is a very pedestrian-friendly area and we’re hoping to bring more attention to the street and more activity to the ground floor areas,” said Andrew Meloney, the city’s urban planner.

The bill would tweak the Old Town Overlay in the city’s zoning code, creating a special zone for the historic district and imposing slightly different building regulations on the area than the rest of the city.

Schiavo points to the Trenton Crockery building at Second Avenue and Arch Street. As an example of the problem, the building’s developer converted four storefronts into ground-floor apartments; two commercial storefronts remain in the building. Meanwhile, the John Glass Wood Turning Company building at 2nd and Quarry Streets was used as a commercial establishment for nearly two centuries, but was recently converted into private residential space.

Not everyone supports the bill. Members of the city’s Planning Commission questioned why the measure should be so narrowly focused on Old City.

After all, one of the reasons the city overhauled its zoning code in 2012 was to get rid of all the special exemptions and rules that had made the old code confusing and prevented it from functioning as a coherent policy document.

“My hope is that if there are problems with CMX-3, it would be nice to see that fixed rather than doing a bunch of overlays,” said Nancy Rogo Trainor, a planner at Drexel University and a city commissioner. “If this is an issue in a lot of areas, it would be great to see it addressed citywide.”

The Planning Commission decided to express its concerns by postponing consideration of the bill until October. For the bill to move forward, it would need to go before the City Council’s Rules Committee, which doesn’t meet until the next Planning Commission meeting.

Because the bill is specific to Squilla’s district, if he continues to push the effort, Schiavo’s bill is almost certain to become law.

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