Philly Council members propose plan to boost development near transit stops

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The area around the 40th Street Trolley Portal is being improved with a landscaped seating area and a two-story Trolley Car Diner café designed by Group G for developer Ken Weinstein.

City Council members have proposed legislation aimed at encouraging development along Philadelphia's public-transportation corridors by giving developers breaks on height limits and parking requirements when they build near transit stops.

The measure, introduced by Blondell Reynolds Brown and William Greenlee during Thursday's City Council session, aims to boost population numbers along transit lines in an effort to fight vehicle congestion and aid the environment by increasing ridership, the members said.

"Development around transit hubs makes sense," Reynolds Brown said after the bill's introduction. "It's a win-win."

The legislation would simplify and streamline an existing ordinance aimed at encouraging so-called transit-oriented development that Reynolds Brown characterized as "not user-friendly," pointing out that it has not been taken advantage of for five years.

The new proposal allows for the establishment of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Overlay Districts within 500 feet of selected transit stations, within which developers would be permitted to build higher structures with less parking than is otherwise permitted by area zoning.

Philadelphia already offers such extra height allowances, known as "density bonuses," to developers who include features such as mixed-income housing, public space, and environmentally friendly designs in their plans.

The new measure also would prohibit paid parking lots inside TOD Overlay Districts, and in some cases would require new buildings there to have active ground-floor uses, such as retail, among other provisions.

Adie Tomer, a fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said Philadelphia is following in the footsteps of cities such as Denver and San Francisco that also have relaxed height limits and parking minimums in what have been successful campaigns to encourage building around transit stops. 

"Philly is not reinventing the wheel here," he said. "It's following the playbook we see in other markets, and that's a good thing. "

Philadelphia's proposed ordinance does not identify which stations would be surrounded by TOD Districts, so that they can be designated in consultation with the Council members in whose districts they would be located, said Reynolds Brown, an at-large councilwoman not tied to any district. 

The most natural locations for such zones would be around stations along the Broad Street Line and underground portions of the Market-Frankford Line, which offer the most ground-level space to develop, said Erick Guerra, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, who focuses on transportation and land-use issues.

But he said the prescribed size of the districts would limit the scale of anything built there.

"Five hundred feet isn't very far, so it's a pretty targeted program," Guerra said.

Staff writer Tricia Nadolny contributed to this article.