July 30 Planning Commission Meeting, updated 7-24-2018

Updated 7/24/2018 to reflect new information posted on the Town website.

Despite the huge crowd and uniform public opposition to the 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande proposal at the July 9 2018 Town Council meeting, my guess is that the Town Council still intends to allow 444 Maple West to be developed pretty much as the builder proposed: Footprint bigger than a football field, more than 60′ tall, 160 apartments, no affordable housing, and essentially no usable open space.  Basically the complete opposite of everything the “Maple Avenue Vision” called for, and unlike anything that currently exists on Maple in Vienna.

That decision will be made at the August 20 Town Council meeting.

In the meantime, on Monday July 30, at 8 PM, in Town Hall, the Vienna Planning Commission will consider amendments to the MAC law.  These likely WILL NOT AFFECT the 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande proposal, but they WILL affect all future MAC development.   The meeting notice and agenda are here on the Town of Vienna website.

I am hoping that citizens of Vienna will attend that meeting and continue to speak up about MAC zoning.  Until such time as the Town Council realizes that most of the people in Vienna do not want the development at the scale MAC is giving us.

The main indication that little is likely to change is the staff recommendation regarding housing density:  50 units per acre for parcels under 5 acres.  For the first time, the Town is considering have a maximum allowable density (dwelling units per acre) under MAC zoning.    Town staff have proposed a limit of 50 units an acre for parcels under 5 acres (.pdf)

Ironically, the justification is that other local jurisdictions have had projects at that density, including Falls Church.  Perhaps irony is the wrong word.  But the Falls Church downtown has repeatedly appeared in citizen comments as an example of what we don’t want to happen to Vienna.  So explicitly modeling the density standard based in part on Falls Church is just … perhaps a bit tone-deaf.

Although the proposed density limit WOULD NOT APPLY to 444 Maple West, if it had applied, that would have reduce 444 Maple West from 160 units to 140 units.  As currently proposed, 444 Maple West would have 57 units per acre.  The reduction to 50 could plausibly be accomplished with no reduction in the size of the building, merely by combining 40 efficiency and one-bedroom apartments into 20 two-bedroom apartments.  As I note elsewhere, such as change would actually increase the number of people living there.   When applied to an apartment building, this type of limitation actually increases the density of persons per acre, even as it reduces the number of dwelling units.

The upshot is that if this density limit had applied to 444 Maple West, we’d have gotten the same building size, with more people living in it.  This density limit would have in no way addressed citizen concerns about about the size and density of 444 Maple West.

What will be affected by this limit, however, is a possible assisted-living facility for the intersection of Center and Maple.  Looking at a similarly-sized and sited facility just built in downtown Falls Church, an assisted-living facility large enough to achieve economies of scale would likely have about 80 dwelling units per acre.  That is quite substantially higher than the revised law would allow, and it is not clear the Planning Commission is aware of that.  If I have done the math correctly, that sets up an interesting conflict if , in fact, property has been bought for an assisted-living facility.

Finally, if they have a maximum density, they can have a true zoning-driven affordable housing program But there is no indication that the Town has an interest in doing that.  Possibly there is some obscure legal reason that bars it, but the plain reading of the law says that any local government can implement affordable housing as part of their zoning law.  But they must enact a density limit first, in order to do that.

I need to state this more clearly:  Putting in a density limit of 50 units per acre  prevents the town from having having an actual, legal, affordable housing program as part of MAC.  If you want affordable housing, you have to set the limit low enough that builders will routinely want to exceed it.  That way, as explained in the link above, Commonwealth of Virginia statute allows the zoning law to trade additional density for affordable housing.  If you set it at or near the highest density that can feasibly be built, you’ve left yourself with nothing to trade.

In a nutshell, these proposed changes mainly affect the optics of the law, and correct things that are flaws from the Town Council’s perspective.  Otherwise, they don’t do much, if anything, to correct what I see as the main complaints of citizens or main flaws in the actual operation of the law.  Here is a summary of changes, from my perspective.

Excessive building height:  Changes allow even taller buildings.  The only change is to “greenwash” the building height by allowing builders to add solar panels and green roofs in excess of the current height limit.

Large building size:  Did not address it.  The amended MAC will still allow the largest building that will fit on the lot, subject to the setbacks.

Ineffective open space requirement:  Did not address it.   The open space requirements can still be met with dribs and drabs of space that is already required to be open.  This suggests that the Town will never get a substantial park-like or plaza-like area from MAC, except if the builder feels like donating such an area to the Town.

Lack of affordable housing:  Did not address it.  BUT, if they add a maximum density (housing units per acre) requirement, that opens up the potential to have an actual affordable housing requirement in the future.  But for now, no, still none.

Increased Town tax revenues and other financial benefits.  They will now require the builders to show this, for the Town.  I guess that’s a step in the right direction.  To me, as noted in the link above, the only part of MAC that makes sense is that it will raise substantial tax revenues for the Town government.

Housing density.  The is a placeholder for some to-be-determined maximum allowed density (dwelling units per acre).  Indirectly, I guess, this will at least begin to address the eventual impact on the Town’s population.   To me, on this last point, there does not appear to have been a lot of thought put into this.  For example, for apartment buildings, if all dwelling units count equally, a maximum density law (dwelling units per acre) can actually increase the number of new town residents per acre.  See this analysis:  Unintended impacts of limiting dwelling units per acre

Minimum required commercial space.  The Town now requires the “footprint” of any commercial space to be retained.  Several passages now require builders to build at a minimum amount of commercial space.  The square footage of whatever first-floor commercial space currently exists sets the minimum that the new building must have on its first floor.   And the spaces cannot be shallow storefronts — they must extend at least 50′ into the building.

This is an odd requirement from many different perspectives.

First, the Town apparently now realizes that, given the opportunity to build lucrative residential space, builders have little interest in building commercial space.  MAC zoning produces a strong financial incentive against commercial space.  So the Town has had to counter the anti-commercial incentives built into MAC by literally requiring the builders to build a set amount of commercial space.

Second, whereas MAC was sold as a way to revitalize retail in Vienna, that appears to have changed.  The Town now literally requires a minimum amount of commercial space, presumably because builders don’t want to build it.

Third, as I have noted to the Town, we now have government fiat replace what was a market-driven decision.  As long as MAC is in force, and produces strong financial incentives NOT to build commercial space, then this clause in MAC will determine the amount of commercial space built on Maple.

Finally, I think it odd that they didn’t require any particular percentage of existing commercial space to be retained.  Instead, they just required whatever is currently on the first floor to be retained.  If you demolish a low-rise one-story set of doctors’ offices, 100% of existing commercial space must be retained.  By contrast, if you demolish a four-story office building, 25% of existing commercial space must be retained.  I see no evidence of any analysis to back up the logic of this decision.

All the illustrations used in the MAC planning process now must be of four-story buildings.  They have been called out several times for “selling” MAC with illustrations that were of much smaller buildings than the four-story structures being built under MAC.  So the old misleading illustrations are going down the memory hole, to be replaced with illustrations that, presumably, reflect the actual size of MAC buildings.

Other architectural changes:

All sides of the building have to have architectural detail on them.   (My opinion is that they forgot the clause in MAC that allows builders on interior lots to build right up to the side lot line.  The point of that clause is to allow adjacent buildings to adjoin, as they do in a big city.  I.e., you’d put up one building with a blank wall, and when they built next to that, they’d build right up to the blank wall.  Requiring these architectural details would appear to prevent that.)

You can’t make a building that appears to have more than four stories.  I honestly didn’t know that was a problem.  Or, really, I don’t know what problem that was attempting to address.

Feel-good clauses that appear unenforceable to me.  Finally, there is a series of clauses in the preamble that sound nice, but do not appear enforceable.  E.g.:

Review of applications will take account of the welfare and needs of the Vienna community, …”.  I thought that’s what the Town Council should have been doing all along.  But it’s nice to see it in writing.  No idea what that means in practical terms.

” development … that includes …neighborhood-serving retail”.  The original MAC was so focused on destination retail that they didn’t even mention the garden-variety retail that we need (grocery stores, drugstores, dry cleaners, and so on).  It’s nice of them to remember us in this version, but given that they don’t know who will rent the shops when they approve the building, this is absolutely unenforceable.

While they added this verbiage, they didn’t change any of the physical requirements for the retail space.  Physically, it’s all still all required to be “upscale retail” space with minimum 15′ ceiling height,  minimum 50 foot depth into the building, glass front wall and glass back wall (“transparency”).  I don’t think I’ve ever been in a barber shop or hair salon with 15′ ceilings, and floor-to-ceiling glass in front and back.  Perhaps that kind of garden variety retail can compete against upscale retail for that kind of space.  Perhaps it can’t.  But either way, it will have to pay for the upgraded space or locate somewhere off Maple.

” … meet the needs of town residents …”.  Again, nice but totally unenforceable, because in the typical case, we have no idea who will actually rent the space.  We use restaurants.  Mark the space for restaurant use, and you’re done.

” … a variety of small, independent and locally-owned businesses …”.  Again, nice words, but impossible to enforce, unless you are going to require the builders to have the commercial tenant list in hand before you approve the site.  Near as I can tell, this is just there because people (correctly) complained that the new upscale retail space would likely cater to national chains, and force unique local small business to locate elsewhere.  Again, there were no changes to the physical requirements — every bit of new retail space on Maple must have 15′ ceilings, glass front wall, be “transparent” (which I interpret as having a mainly-glass back wall), and go back into the building at least 50′.  That doesn’t sound like any of the unique small business currently in the Town.

My bottom line is more-or-less that the Town wants huge buildings on these lots, so that’s what we are going to get.  None of these changes materially affect that.

1) This does nothing to address the size of the buildings allowed under MAC.  But the proposed density limit appears to set up a conflict with an expected assisted living facility to be built under MAC zoning.

2) This does nothing to address affordable housing issues.  But if the Town adds a density limit to the law, it could then actually implement a zoning-based affordable housing program.

3) This does nothing to ensure that the Town gets some actual, usable public open space from MAC.

4) Whether or not it has any impact on the number of new Town residents or the density of the housing remains to be seen.

5) The Town will now be explicit about the tax revenues from these new buildings, but will take the builder’s figures for that impact.

6) The Town now sets minimum commercial space requirements by law.  Oddly, it grandfathers the first floor of whatever is there now.

7)  And then, a bunch of stuff that doesn’t much matter (to me, anyway) or is just verbiage that can’t be enforced..  The Town has to use actual four-story buildings when illustrating what MAC will do.  MAC buildings must have architectural detail on all sides, and can’t be set up to look like five-story buildings.  And then, a bunch of feel-good but unenforceable clauses about retail that serves local needs and has local ownership.  But no changes to the requirement that all new retail be built to an “upscale retail” standard — 15′ ceilings and “transparency” (glass front wall and back wall) are still required.