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BMC Cities Prof Daniela Voith '76
Tackles Philly's Outdated Zoning Code

Philadelphia's new mayor, Michael Nutter, has asked Lecturer in Growth and Structure of Cities Daniela Holt Voith '76 to join the city's brand-new Zoning Code Commission.

The commission, created last spring by a public referendum, has a big, long-overdue job: to overhaul the city's ancient zoning code. The code hasn't been updated in nearly 50 years. Meanwhile, in the last five years alone, 22 of the country's largest cities redid their own codes.

"It's been a long time since the code has been changed, and I think the city has become a very different place than it was in the sixties," says Voith, a partner with the Philadelphia firm Voith & Mactavish Architects.

A city's zoning code determines what kinds of buildings can be built where. Anyone who's played the popular computer game SimCity can name three basic zones: residential, commercial, and industrial. SimCity devotees probably understand that placing a nuclear power plant next to a pizza parlor would be bad planning, and that connecting the suburbs to downtown with light rail is good planning.

Real-life zoning codes tackle the same issues, says Voith. "A huge array of issues goes into a really well-written code. How do we create transit-oriented development? What does sustainability mean? How can zoning impact a city's health and the welfare of its citizens?"

Philly's code is both old and bulky. It's over 600 pages long and includes 55 different zones. The new Zoning Code Commission is made of City Council members, trade leaders, urban planners, attorneys, architects, and real-estate developers.

Voith is one of two architects on the board. After graduating with a Growth and Structure of Cities degree in 1976, she received her Master of Architecture degree from Yale University in 1981. She is a registered architect in five states and a past president of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The commission has a year to present its recommendations—it won't actually rewrite the code, but suggest what changes are needed. The commission is in its infancy, but one thing Voith is sure of is the need to create smart, fair zoning for the city's future. She points to Houston to illustrate why thoughtful zoning is important.

"Houston has no zoning code whatsoever," she says. "Any building type can occur next to any other building type. The thinking was that capitalism should drive all development. You ended up with some very strange juxtapositions there."

Voith says it's also part of the commission's job to point out rules in the current code that are no longer useful. "For example," she says, "it's currently written that if you build a new townhouse, you must also provide parking for that townhouse. On the face, it makes a lot of sense.

"But since most townhouses don't have both front and rear entry, a lot of developers ended up building garages on the first floor. In reality, that just takes away the curb in front of the townhouse, so it doesn't create an additional parking space. Instead it gives the space to a particular family, which isn't good for the pedestrian environment. A garage isn't inherently attractive—it's probably not going to built of brick—and now the sidewalk in front of the townhouse can't have trees, either.

"It was a well-intended rule that actually eats away at the quality of the urban fabric, and runs counter to what makes older neighborhoods of Philadelphia great."

Voith says her Growth and Structure of Cities students can get involved with the Zoning Code Commission by attending its bimonthly meetings, which are open to the public. "We try to get our students to understand the relationship between sustainability and design decisions," she says. "We look at what's allowed and what's not
allowed, and what's encouraged and why. I love when students come down to the city to examine what Philadelphia looks like, up close."

—by Tasneem Paghdiwala '04

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Posted 2/7/2008 by Claudia Ginanni