Planning Commission Meeting 8/8/2018 – Review

The Town of Vienna Planning Commission met 8/8/2018 to discuss, among other things, some potential changes to MAC regulations.  There were perhaps 20 citizens in attendance, and maybe 8 people got up to speak.  My overall take is that MAC zoning will proceed as business-as-usual, with minor changes.

For me, the absolute low point of the evening was when a Commissioner (who shall remain nameless) called out the citizens for spreading false information — and then proceeded to spread false information.

Some people, she said, had falsely claimed that 444 Maple West is 61′ tall, when it is only 54′ tall.   Here’s a snip from page 22 of the current set of plans (.pdf).

So 54′ + 7’6″ = 61’6″ to the tallest parapets.  As is conventional, that is measured from the average land surface (grade) below so the actual distance from the ground may be modestly more or less than that.

This really isn’t somehow debatable, or a matter of semantics.  The solid walls that we can see are going to rise to a little over 61′ above street level at their highest point.  The fact that the flat roof is only 54′ really doesn’t matter in terms of the mass of the building and how big it will look.   We can’t see the flat roof.

So that, to me, encapsulated the Town’s position on MAC.  Even though the walls, on the plans, are clearly 61′ tall, the Town is going to persist in saying that these buildings are 54′ tall.  Just as they continue to say that these are “small town” buildings, when objective evidence says otherwise.

All together — the stubborn insistence on things that are not factual, the minor and typically unenforceable tweaks to the language of the law, the willingness to confound the size issue by publishing pictures of cute buildings much smaller than 444 Maple West — these do not suggest a lot of flexibility on the part of the Town.  No evidence that they are willing to change their thinking in any material way.  They will probably continue to describe these as 54′ tall small-town buildings for the foreseeable future.

Second, she called people out for talking as if all of Maple were going to be redeveloped.  Nobody that I know of does that.  Instead, people who want to have a fact-based discussion of MAC use the figures supplied by the Town: Between two-thirds and 70 percent of the 106 MAC-zoned acres are expected eventually to be redeveloped under MAC.  The range of estimates is due to various sources at various times (Town Council, Town staff, or Town Comprehensive Plan, page 50 (pdf.)).  No source of information from the Town suggests otherwise.

The only entity that is misleading it its discussion of all of Maple Avenue is the Town itself, because they consistently ignore the long-run impacts of what they are doing.  This is something I have noted repeatedly on this website.  At last night’s meeting, I called for the Town to routinely add a set of “all Maple” projections to every property review.  E.g., what will traffic on Maple look like if the expected 70% of property on Maple is redeveloped at the density of 444 Maple West?

The key point is, they don’t really avoid the issue by not talking about it.  They just plan exceptionally poorly.  Whether they like it or not, they are planning for the future of all of Maple Avenue.  They are just doing it poorly.  Why do I say that.  By failing to consider the cumulative effect of all the likely changes, that is identical to doing your planning assuming zero additional change, other than the one building you happen to be looking at right now.

So, where I do my projections assuming 70% of the property on Maple will eventually be redeveloped under MAC, the Town is doing it’s planning assuming that 0% will be redeveloped, beyond the single proposal they are considering at the time.

My assumption of 70% may or may not be close to the ultimate impact of MAC zoning.  It was based on the only publicly-available information about likelihood of redevelopment.  Anyone is welcome to substitute some other reasonable number, if they can support that with some argument or evidence.  But an assumption of 0% additional growth is wrong, for sure.

The problem with the Town’s one-building-at-a-time myopia is that, slowly but surely, the cumulative effect will make traffic, school crowding, and other population-related issues materially worse than they are now.  And at each step of the process, the Town government, officially at least, can turn a blind eye to that.

For example, the traffic analysis for 444 Maple West said this one building would have no material effect no traffic.  It would not materially disturb the traffic at that intersection, and expected cut-through traffic is below the level the Town cares about.  And, likely, a similar statement will be made about each individual new building.  But the cumulative effect on traffic, if 70% of the MAC acreage were developed at the 444 Maple West density would be truly horrific.

Several people called on the Planning Commission (and by inference the Town Council) to stop such big buildings, in essence because they do not fit the “small town” mandate of the Maple Avenue Vision.  I applaud the sentiment, but have pointed out in letters to Town Council and Planning Commission that vague notions like “small town” are not legally enforceable.  If the Town turns down a development because it fails to meet some unspecified “small town” standards, the Town is just begging to be sued.

One fellow, whose name I did not catch, questioned this whole approach of adding a lot of new population to the town.  I completely agreed.  But when he asked who was responsible, and whom he could talk to about it, the answers were not forthright.  For the record, only the Town Council and Mayor could roll back MAC zoning.  If you think the whole idea behind MAC zoning is wrong — pretty much my take on it — direct your complaints to the Town Council.  The Planning Commission has a very limited ability to address technical aspects of zoning changes, and to look at the issues that the Town specifically asks them to look at.

I did not stay to the end of the meeting.  Basically, the sense I got is that MAC zoning is going to proceed with a few tweaks.  My review of the proposed changes is here.  Perhaps I’ll ask around and see if there were any surprises, but it seemed pretty clear that a) all the minor wording changes were going to pass, and b) they were not going to add a density limit.  If I find out otherwise, I’ll rewrite this.

Probably the most important bit of news that I learned is that the owners of a highly successful restaurant chain are going to put a 300-seat restaurant on the first floor of 133 Maple East.  The described Vienna as an extremely desirable location for a restaurant, and said they’ve been looking for two years to find a suitable location.  The location is the pleasant brown-brick three-story building that sits between the library and Whole Foods, adjacent to the W&OD (the white-roofed building in the Google Maps clips below.)  Why is it, again, that we need MAC zoning to maintain a vital downtown?