Revised proposal for 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande, REVISED 10/2/2018

The revised plans for 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande are available on the Town of Vienna Website.  These will be used at the Town Council work session, to be held 7:30 PM on Thursday, October 4 in Town Hall.

A brief review of changes follows.  The bottom line is this:  If you thought the original plan was way off the mark in terms of number of apartments, building height, overall size, and so on — then you’ll think the same of the new proposed building.  By contrast, if you thought the original proposal was very close to being acceptable, then you might find the changes make the new one acceptable to you.  I make no bones about belonging to the “way off the mark” group.

There is no material change in the number of apartments, or the density in terms of dwelling units per acre.  The original proposal was for 160 apartments.  The new proposal appears to have about 153 apartments, based on my count from the sketch of one floor provided by the builder.  The original 58 dwelling units per acre drops to a (rounded) 56 dwelling units per acre. 

EDIT:  I originally thought there was a slight reduction in the number of dwelling units.  A colleague of mine asked the builder directly, and the answer is no:  The building still contains 160 dwelling units.  There was literally no reduction in dwelling units or dwelling units per acre.  It’s fundamentally the same building.

RE-EDIT:  Number of apartments drops from 160 to approximately 151.

Just FYI, here’s the illustration from my post on medium-density housing.  The corner of Nutley and Maple is at the upper left.  The small red box is the 444 Maple West proposal with (then) 160 housing units.  So this proposal would change that drawing by replacing the 160 with 153 leave that unchanged at 160 dwelling units.  The large red box is the entire neighborhood bounded by Nutley, Maple, and Courthouse, with 157 dwelling units.  Don’t think of this as adding one building.   Think of this as adding an entire new Vienna neighborhood, that size, jammed into the little red box at the top.

There’s a modest improvement in the “additional open space” — open space not already required by the zoning or required to get into and out of the building.   There are now courtyards (“plazas”) breaking up the Maple Avenue side of the building (70′ x 30′) and the Nutley Street side of the building (35′ x 25′).   All told, these two new open spaces account for about 2.5% of the area of the lot.   The original plan offered 0.8% of the lot as “additional open space”, the new plan offers 3.3%.

I think this is a great preview of how MAC zoning will work in the future, absent significant changes in the law.  The Town has shown no interest in making the “15 percent open space requirement” into a true requirement for additional open space.  So if they let 444 Maple West pass, this, along with Marco Polo, shows us how MAC will work.  If you are willing to raise hell, at length, separately for each and every new MAC building, then you might be rewarded with something like these two courtyards directly adjacent to Maple and Nutley.  That’s just an inefficient and dysfunctional way to do zoning..

Much (but not all) of what I said about the noise and pollution levels for the small area at Nutley and Maple will hold for these courtyards.  The centers of these courtyards will be about as far from the road as the area that I measured at the Nutley/Maple intersection.  But they won’t have a glass sound-reflecting wall behind them, and the building walls should partly shelter them from incoming sound energy.  (And, there’s less traffic on Nutley than on Maple).   My best guess is that the back edges of these courtyards will be somewhat quieter than the exposed corner of Nutley and Maple.  But that’s just a guess.  Actually estimating that quantitatively is more than I know how to do.

The main fix for the traffic complaints is to make the turn lanes on Maple and Nutley longer, so that they can hold additional cars.  And that’s some improvement, I guess.  At least there is some acknowledgement that there will be more cars, and that may require the Town to do something.

There’s also a commitment to do what it takes to get the people who live there to use their cars less.  That’s nice, but there’s no plan for enforcing it.  It wouldn’t be hard to make it enforceable, but nobody is talking about that.  (E.g., nothing would bar having the Town put a traffic counter on the entrance to the residential parking, and then doing something — imposing a penalty, making the builder step up efforts, or what have you — if the hoped-for reduction in car trips fails to materialize.  But nobody here is thinking even that far out-of-the-box.  Or, for that matter, thinking about putting some teeth on what is now just a soft, feel-good kind of exercise.)

Finally, I think the builder realized how tough it’s going to be to turn left on Maple during morning rush hour.  In part, the extended turn lanes will give cars a place to “land” as they turn left.  But the builder also added separate left and right turn lanes out of his building, so that cars stuck trying to turn left will not hold up those who want to turn right …. so that they can cut down my street to get to the Metro.

About the cut-through traffic for the neighborhoods behind this, and moderating that in any way:   Town staff’s opinion is that connecting 444 Maple West to Nutley South would be unsafe.  So they’ve killed that option.  The revised driveway now gives people the option of waiting try to make a left across traffic on Maple to get down to the Metro.  Or having their own lane for turning right and cutting through my neighborhood (to get to the Nutley/Courthouse light).  The Town has already rejected the need to do anything about that, based on its pre-established criteria.  The clear headline there is “Town Staff to Citizens:  Drop Dead”.  (Extra points if you are old enough to get the historical reference.)

The only even remotely humorous issue here is the power lines.   If you look carefully at the (over-the-top) illustrations of the property, you’ll see the Nutley Street power lines in one picture, and you’ll see them missing in another picture.  So the builder either goofed, or he’s hedging his bets, based on the bizarre interaction at the last Town Council meeting over this issue.

And about the new pictures of this building:  By analogy to food porn, I hereby dub these new renderings of the building to be architecture porn.

I do think that the new “courtyards” will make the building facades look better by breaking up the building a bit.

But the renderings of these new buildings are just over-the-top.  The soft lighting, the warm and sensuously glowing interiors, the immaculate sidewalks, the flawless grass — my hat is off to the artist on this one.  The pictures are extremely nice.  Completely unrealistic, but very nice.

These are pictures of a town where the traffic lights are always green, the sky is always blue, and the people are very nearly all extremely white.   Where all the people are good looking, and where obesity, disability, infirmity and garden-variety ugliness just don’t exist.  It’s a town where you are never bothered by noisy trucks, buses, or motorcycles, and where the widely-spaced cars only need one lane on each side of Maple.   It’s a town where cell phones are only used to make calls, and where no one — not even among the copious young people — is looking down and texting as they walk.   It’s a town where the many bicyclists all ride slowly, using identical old-fashioned single-speed bikes, and where collisions never occur, so the lovely young blond girl bicycling in a skirt (?) has no need of a bike helmet, despite the law.

Anyway, do your own game of “spot the stereotype” and you’ll get the drift.  Old couple holding hands?  Check.  Mandatory baby-in-stroller?  Check.  Neatly dressed clean shaven young people?  Check.

In a situation like this, you have to take your humor where you can find it.

Unfortunately, architects actually use the term “architecture porn” in a positive sense, so I’m going to have to find a different pejorative term for the use of architectural renderings as propaganda.  It does not look like there is an acknowledged term for that.

EDIT:  The other thing that these drawing highlight is how little the Town of Vienna cares about some things that are now environmental standards elsewhere, such as limiting light pollution.  If you build commercial property in Fairfax County, you have to adhere to the dark sky standards for your outdoor lighting fixtures.  A summary of the Fairfax County standards is here (.pdf).  Town of Vienna?  Apparently never heard of it, based on these drawings.

While all that outdoor lighting makes this look lovely,  it’s very last-century in terms of limiting impact.  I would hate to live next door to or across the street from all of that.  You’d need blackout curtains on every window facing all that light.  Near as I can tell, Vienna’s only reference to such things is in its standard for industrial sites, where the Town can, if you complain, attempt to limit glare from industrial lighting.  But no such regulations appear to apply to commercial sites such as this.