Our assets become our liabilities, 1/10/2019

Posted on January 7, 2019

It’s tough for me to sit in on Town Council meetings and do the writeup of what’s happening.  I just grit my teeth and do it.  So now that that chore is done, I’m going to write up something that’s a little more theoretical, and a lot easier to think about.

The thesis of this article is that privately-owned open space in Vienna has gone from being an asset to its neighborhood to being a potential liability.  And if you live anywhere near a chunk of privately-held open space, in the current market, you are at risk for radical changes in your neighborhood.

What got me thinking of this is the Seventh-Day Adventist Church’s request to put in a pedestrian crossing light across from their school on Courthouse Road.   I went to the 11/27/2018 meeting of the Transportation Safety Commission to offer my support for that.  You can see the current crosswalk at the end of Glen Ave in the picture below.

At that meeting, some people were upset by plans to expand the Seventh-Day Adventist school.  But I was not.   And I met the principal of that school, and explained to him exactly why I was not upset.  And why I wanted the Seventh-Day Adventists to be as happy as they could possibly be with their present location.

Why do I want the Seventh-Day Adventists to be happy?  Briefly, Paul VI High School in Fairfax.   Paul VI high school rests on 16 acres of land in Fairfax City.  Paul VI has decided to move out to a 68-acre campus in Loudon County.   So what was once a set of historic buildings dating back to the 1930s, with significant open space, is now slated to become … a mixed-use development of high-density housing.  More than 250 homes — mostly condos and townhouses — will now fill that open space.

That will be quite a shock to the people living in that neighborhood.  Buy a house across from a ball field.  End up with a house next to a four-story shopping center/condo building.

But suppose that sort of thing happened in Vienna, with our MAC zoning and our current Town Council?   The proposed density for the Paul VI site is about 15 “dwelling units per acre”, which is less than a third of the density the Town is allowing for both the 444 Maple West (Marco Polo) and 380 Maple West (Wade Hampton office building).  (Both of those have more than 50 dwelling units per acre.)

The upshot is that if a property the size of Paul VI became available in Vienna, with MAC zoning and our current Town Council, we’d be looking at 800 new dwelling units, maybe 1600 residents, or roughly a 10% increase in the Town of Vienna population.

So when I look at the 8.25 acres owned by the Seventh-Day Adventists, I no longer see the just the beautiful green space.  After Paul VI, I see a ticking time bomb.  If that church decides to move, I wonder just how many people could be jammed into that site, given our pro-growth Town Council.

And so that’s why I want the Adventists to be happy where they are.  Because if they move, under the current economic climate, with our current Town Council, there’s no telling what would take their place.  Let them expand their school, I think.  Because if they move, whatever replaces them will be higher density.

More generally, any large bit of privately-owned open space in Vienna — be it a parking lot, a play area, or somebody’s yard — is now both an asset to its neighborhood  and a threat.  There is increasing economic pressure to profit by  increasing either the number of residences or the size of the residences. Click this link to see an example of what can happen if you are unlucky enough to live next to some innocuous commercial property in Vienna.

My point is, privately-held large open spaces are historical artifacts.  They wouldn’t be here if the Town of Vienna were built from scratch today.  They are dinosaurs, headed toward extinction.

And if you happen to live near one, you are now at risk.  Which is why I want the Adventists — right down at the end of my street — to be as happy as they can be with their current location.

This got me thinking about other large parcels of open space in Town, other than parks, schools, or churches.  Looking at a map, my eye immediately fell on a big empty space on Beulah, 442 Beulah Rd NE.  This is eight acres, owned by the Town of Vienna, that I believe the Town uses for a mulch pile and not much else.  (At least, that’s the way it was around a decade ago.)

Isn’t it ironic that a Town that is cramming high-density housing onto Maple, that makes a big deal about making efficient use of scarce urban land — that same town owns what is probably the single largest piece of open land in Vienna.  And what does it use it for?  A mulch pile.

Not exactly anybody’s idea of high-valued use.

So, what other land does the Town own?  Looks like the town uses about 17 acres of land, at the end of Mill Street, to park its trucks and whatnot.  That’s the northside property yard, just south of Northside Park.

Again, looks like a pretty low-intensity use of “scarce urban land” to me.

So while the Town is busily stirring things up on Maple Avenue, maybe it needs to review its own land use policies.  Town Council members mock the building code for being old.  I wonder how old the Town’s land use policies are?