We’ve been alluding to an explanation of Floor Area for weeks now, ever since we started our COUNTDOWN TO THE CODE. Without further ado, let’s have at it, Q&A style.
Q: Floor Area doesn’t really seem that complicated to me.
A: Off to a good start, then. In our opinion, the code does a great job of defining Gross Floor Area, and lots of other things too, thanks to an entire chapter (14-200) devoted exclusively to definitions! As you suggested, the concept is simple enough that you can probably intuit what it means, but the devil’s in the details. Not only does the new code specify where the measurement starts and ends, but it also provides an exhaustive list of the building features that the measure of GFA includes (such as porches, basements, and elevator shafts), and excludes (such as underground accessory parking). Ah, the sweet taste of simplicity.
Q: Yum. So with that out of the way, how exactly does one calculate Floor Area Ratio?
A: Hold your horses, not so fast! We’ve only defined Gross Floor Area. Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is a calculation that divides the total proposed GFA of a proposal by the lot size.
Q: I stopped paying attention to math class somewhere around long division, and therefore fear the word ‘ratio.’ Can you provide an SAT style example?
A: Doris leaves Pittsburgh on a train traveling east at 220mph (this SAT takes place in a future in which High Speed Rail happened in a big way). Hank leaves Philadelphia on a bike traveling west at 8mph. Given this discrepancy in speed, they arrive at a hypothetical lot in West Philadelphia at about the same time. This lot is one acre in size and is zoned RM-4. What is the maximum Floor Area Ratio permitted on this lot?
Q: I can’t answer that.
A: Oh, but you can, young Jedi. The dimensional standards tables in the Development Standards chapter (14-700) explain it all, like Clarissa. Flipping to page 7-6 of the Zoning Code, we see that RM-4 allows an FAR of 350. Ignoring other dimensional standards to simplify this explanation, this means that a building on this parcel can occupy the equivalent of 3.5 times the lot area (or 350% of the total lot). Since an acre is 43,560 feet, this project could be just over 152,000 square feet. (Editor’s Note: the final product would necessarily be smaller after taking minimum open area, setback requirements, and side and rear yard requirements listed in the table).
Q: Ok, I get it. Since it’s a ratio, it’s usually expressed with two zeros after it, as a percentage of the lot area?
A: By George, we think you’ve got it!
Q: In Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen.
A: We really can’t speak to that. Let’s stay on Philly, shall we?
A: We should note that savvy wonks often chop the zeros off. It’s easier to talk about that way. So for example, you recall Super CMX-5? This allows an FAR of 16 by-right for CMX-5 parcels within the mapped area, with bonuses available up to a total FAR of 26. What we mean here is that a building could occupy 1600% of the lot area without bonuses, and 2600% of the lot area with all bonuses.
Q: So if a building got all the bonuses and could cover 100% of the lot area, it could be 26 stories tall in this area?
Q: That isn’t very big at all. How does a building like Comcast get so big?
A: Keep in mind very few buildings cover the entire lot area. That same hypothetical 26 story building could be 52 stories (double) if it covered half the lot area. If it covered a quarter of the lot area, it could be 104 stories! (Editor’s note: this again ignores other controls found in the Center City Overlay, including view corridors, sky plane, etc).
Q: Ok, this is all pretty clear. So which districts are subject to FAR controls instead of pure height controls?
A: Higher Density Residential Districts (RM’s 1-4, RMX’s 1-3), Commercial Districts CMX’s 3-5, and all Industrial Districts except I-P (Port) have floor area ratio controls. This wouldn’t make as much sense in a lower density residential district where we use height controls (38 feet in virtually all cases) to encourage contextual development.
Q: Is there one place that visualizes this stuff clearly?
A: Our Quick Reference Guide to the zoning code is fairly rockin’ in this regard.
Q: And what are these bonuses we keep hearing so much about? Who’s entitled to them? What do they mean? And what can they do for me?
A: ‘A’ for enthusiasm, but we will discuss these in a later post. (Editor’s note: REALLY SOON, WE PROMISE).