1/7/2019 Town Council Meeting, edited 1/10/2019 regarding the traffic study


My wife and I attended the 1/7/2019 Town Council meeting.  This is my report and view of what occurred.  Clicking on the numbered items below should let you jump to the discussion of the individual topics.

In hindsight, I have added a few key paragraphs to the discussion of the proposed traffic/transportation study.  Upon reflection, I’d bet that the main point of the traffic study is to speed up MAC development.

Briefly:

  1. The Town of Vienna will completely rewrite its zoning laws.
  2. For the first time, Vienna will create an economic development plan to encourage more business in Vienna.
  3. For the first time, Vienna will commission a study of transportation on Maple.
  4. The Town wants to get funding for Capital Bikeshare in Vienna.
  5. Other issues that arose.

In general, much of the discussion of the first three items had the same disingenuous, Alice-in-Wonderland flavor that the Town Council’s discussion of MAC zoning had.  E.g., the reason we need to have a 60′ tall apartment block bigger than a football field at the corner of Maple and Nutley is that … preserving the small-town nature of Vienna is of paramount importance.

You’ll see what I mean if you read the section on the discussion of zoning laws.

But the overarching point is to look at the first three items together:   Development, development, and dealing with yet more development.  Anyone who says the Town of Vienna has not adopted a strongly pro-growth stance is just not paying attention.

Just FYI:

You can watch these Town Council meetings live if you subscribe to either Cox (channel 37) or Verizon TV (channel 28).  I understand that quite a few people now routinely do that to keep up with what’s going on.  (Because that’s the only way we can keep up — see the last section of this post on the fact that the Town has a schedule for MAC projects but does not make it public.)

In theory, you can also see the meetings streamed live on-line at this URL.  And you can see video of past Town Council meetings via links on the Town website.  And you can download video of prior Town Council meetings.

For me, the streaming/stored video links only work with Chrome, and they do not work with any other browser (e.g., will not work with Firefox or Internet Explorer).   So if you’ve tried to access the on-line links and failed, try it again with Chrome.  (I have no idea why this is — my system is plain-vanilla Windows 7 home premium 64-bit.)


 

1: The Town will completely rewrite its zoning laws.

 They will ask Fairfax County to pay for half the cost of doing that, based on the idea that the new zoning laws will generate more development and more tax revenue.  This is expected to take maybe a year and a half to complete.

Despite the fact that we are “selling it” to Fairfax Count as an economic development measure, the Mayor flatly said “We are not changing any of our zoning.”  Again, “Our intent is not to change anything.”  So that Mayor characterized this as a purely technical “clean up” of an existing set of somewhat messy regulations.

Now, by contrast, when this was introduced late last year, it was clearly set forth with the idea that it would be used to increase the amount of mixed-use (i.e., high-density-housing) construction in Vienna.  You can read my post on that, with quotes from materials posted by the Town, here.

Just to add to the confusion, Councilman Noble characterized this effort as a complete rewrite of the law, “starting from scratch.”  (Which is why, per Noble, it needs to take a year and a half to do.)

And so, there you have it.  Clear as mud.  This was introduced late last year as a way to add more mixed-use development, including areas where that wasn’t currently possible (or at least, economically viable).  That surely would require a change in the zoning rules.  It is currently being “sold” to Fairfax County as a way to boost development, again suggesting that something material has to change in the zoning.  Councilman Noble characterizes it as a complete, “from scratch”, rewrite of the zoning.  But the Mayor — who has championed MAC zoning — assures us that literally nothing in the current zoning will change, and, beyond that, that there is not even the intent to change the zoning here in Vienna.

So, not guilty, swears the Mayor.

Then councilman Noble brought out the old fall-back, “we’ll get input from citizens, so you don’t need to worry”.  You can see my take on how poorly that worked out for the Maple Avenue Vision and MAC zoning here or here.

And we’re in much the same situation here, as we were with the Maple Avenue Vision versus the actual drafting of the MAC zoning law.   Citizens won’t write the new zoning laws.  Who will?  In this case, the Planning and Zoning department — the folks who introduced this late last year as a way to boost that “desirable” mixed-used development throughout Vienna.

In the end, I think Councilman Majdi nailed it.  He said pretty much what I was thinking, and, unusual for a guy who is unfailingly polite in the public eye,  he said it in a way that might have ruffled some feathers.   His point was that no matter what they said, somehow, he’d bet that the end result of this is higher density development in the Town of Vienna. And people who live here really don’t want that.  In the meeting, he bet two years’ of his Town Council salary (about $10K), that, when the dust has settled, one way or the other, this re-writing of the law will lead to more higher-density housing in Vienna.

Councilman Majdi was so adamant about Vienna residents not wanting higher density that he did something I have not seen before in a Town Council meeting:  He had a commercial publication entered into the public record.  As it turns out, when national urban planners talk about how high-end residential communities vehemently reject growth, they use well-to-do Northern Virginia towns as their poster children.  And I have to say, it is sort of striking that national reference books on this topic point to a handful of little communities here in NoVA when they talk about towns that rejected high-density growth.

So that’s the bottom line.   Our aggressively pro-growth Planning and Zoning director introduced this as a way to spread mixed-use (i.e., high-density-housing) development in Vienna.  She’ll be in charge of overseeing the actual rewrite of the law.  We are selling it to Fairfax County as a way to cram more development into Vienna, and so raise the tax base.  But the Mayor flatly stated that the zoning laws will not change, and that changing the zoning is not the intent of this exercise.   While Councilman Noble assures us that we’re rewriting the law “from scratch”, and that any changes will be OK, because we’ll have citizen input on those changes.

Make of that mess what you will.  I’m betting with Majdi.


2:  For the first time, Vienna will create an economic development plan.

This is another part of what I termed the Ready-Fire-Aim approach to MAC development.  Five years ago the Town expressly forbade their contractors to look at either economic issues or traffic issues when they wrote up the MAC zoning regulations.   And now, five years later … the Town is finally going to study the economics of what’s happening on Maple and what could happen on Maple.

This will be a roughly $100K study to be done in 2020.  Again, they are asking Fairfax County to pick up half the tab.  So, again, they can only do that if they expect this to boost development and so raise Fairfax County’s tax base.  I.e., this can only be funded by Fairfax if it helps to cram more housing and/or commercial activity onto Maple Avenue.

Probably the most important takeaway here is that this is a first for Vienna.  Vienna has never before had an economic development plan.  We’ve never been in the business of trying to get more business to locate here.  So this is yet another part of a pro-growth, bigger-tax-base strategy that Vienna is now adopting.

Councilman Majdi made a point that any notion of “growing” Maple Avenue needs to be coordinated with the study of traffic on Maple Avenue.  You really need to have some notion of Maple’s capacity to absorb more traffic before you start talking about boosting economic growth along Maple.  You don’t want to set in place policies to boost economic development along Maple if that’s going to result in a significant degradation of the qualify-of-life here in Vienna via increased congestion along Maple.

Needless to say, that point fell on deaf ears.  Either that, or the folks sitting at the table just didn’t understand what Councilman Majdi was saying.  (Edit 1/10/2019:  Or, as I now believe, that traffic study isn’t really about getting a handle on the long-run impact on traffic, but is instead a tool to help speed up MAC development — see blue text in next section.)

But I think that’s probably OK, because as I see it, the traffic study is already shaping up to be a sham.  See next section.


3: Five+ years after they promised they’d do it (but then forgot …) the Town will do some sort of study of Maple Avenue traffic and MAC development.

And based on the discussion at the Town Council meeting, my take on it is, don’t bother.  At least, don’t bother until Councilman Noble is no longer there to influence it.  Because this one hasn’t even been funded and it’s already shaping up to be what I call Looney Tunes consulting:  the consultant draws a bullseye around wherever the client’s bullet happens to hit.  And in this case, it surely looks as if Councilman Noble — a strong proponent of MAC zoning — is already working hard to make sure this report says nothing bad about MAC.

Nominally, this would be a study to look at a projection of what Maple Avenue will look like in the future, and to see if there are ways to reduce the congestion.

The first problem is that this might look as little as five years into the future, based on the oral presentation.  In that case, plausibly none of the four existing MAC housing projects (all except Chick-fil-A) will have been finished.   And all the additional ones that this Town Councils will surely approve (cough, cough, Giant Food, cough cough) will be off the table as well.  So you could plausibly get a five-year projection that mostly does not include the impact of MAC construction at all.  Or at least in no material way.

A second issue is that, based on the discussion, the main thrust of the study isn’t going to be to assess what’s going to happen with MAC, the main thrust is to try to find ways to reduce congestion.  So even under the best of circumstances, this isn’t going to be about assessing the long-run impact of MAC zoning.  It’s primarily going to be about the (incremental) changes that might be implemented — traffic light timing and encouraging non-car modes of transport.  None of which, in my opinion, is likely to have a material affect on Maple Avenue congestion.

But it was the interaction between Councilman Noble and Councilman Majdi that underscored the real reason not to do the study.   Noble made a big deal about having a baseline traffic scenario that embodied significant growth in traffic absent MAC zoning, due to development under the existing commercial zoning regulations.  Majdi countered that you should (EDIT:) NOT assume that developers would max out Maple Avenue under existing regulations, you need to assume they will only do development that makes good economic sense under current regulations.

And Noble was clearly ticked off by that.  He interrupted Majdi to say that Majdi had mis-characterized what he was asking for.

Obviously, I was not privy to the closed-door discussions that occurred prior to this.  But I’ve done enough consulting work that when I see somebody pro-acively pushing for a high baseline number, I know exactly what that means.  It means that any alternative to the baseline — MAC zoning, say — will just look that much better.

As I said in a prior post, it’s always dangerous to do studies like this after-the-fact.  “The danger is that the consultant will “somehow” get the message that the main goal of the study is to justify what has already been decided upon.”  So when you see Deputy Mayor Noble already putting down his marker for a high baseline rate of traffic growth, to me, that’s already tainted anything this study will say about traffic impacts of MAC zoning.  It’s already jiggering the game to show how beneficial MAC zoning is.  Add to that the fact that Noble is a big wheel in traffic engineering circles and this is not an ideal situation for getting any sort of unbiased estimate.

I made my living as a consultant.  When you see the client pro-actively starting to tell you exactly how you must do a particular study, that’s always a bad sign.  They don’t do that because they think that you are an incompetent consultant.  If they thought that, they wouldn’t hire you.  They do that because they want some particular answer.

So, all together, given the short time horizon (possibly as little as five years), and given an influential member of the industry (Noble) pushing for a baseline that (all other things equal) will make MAC zoning look good, my advice would be, just scrap any part of this that tries to estimate the impact of MAC.  The study is already tainted in that regard.   Focus it on ways to reduce traffic, regardless of the source.  And leave an unbiased estimate of the impact of MAC to some entity that isn’t under the influence of one of the principal architects of MAC zoning.

The final coda here is that only one member of the Town Council tried to make excuses for not doing the traffic study, as promised, when MAC was passed years ago.  I’ll leave it to the reader to guess who that was.  To his credit, even though the excuses where lame, at least he implicitly acknowledged that the Town Council dropped the ball on that, which is more than we’ve gotten out of the rest of the individuals who were on the Town Council at that time.

 

EDIT 1/10/2019:

  I may have missed something key in my original write up.  Upon reflection, I think that point of this study is NOT to estimate how much the additional development on Maple will add to traffic congestion.  (And really, it was naive of me ever to have thought the Town would sponsor a legitimate study to answer that question.  If they did a legitimate study, they might get an answer that they didn’t like.)

Instead, I now think that the point of this study is to speed up MAC development by developing a standard “voluntary” proffer for MAC projects.  That’s far more consistent with the Town’s pro-growth planning.  And that’s also consistent with the ludicrously short time horizon (five years).

So:  Toward the end of the discussion there was mention of coming up with a set of changes along Maple that would (supposedly) reduce congestion, and then pro-rating the cost of those across all MAC projects.   In that context, the point of the study is to develop a standard “voluntary” transportation proffer that would be imposed on all further MAC development.

With that, the Town would kill two birds with one stone.  First, this would eliminate the need for demanding a specific “voluntary” proffer from each developer.  Second, they would then use this study, and those proffers, to tell the peasantry citizens to shut up about traffic.  No matter how ineffective the proposed measures would actually be.  Because, see, they’d had experts put together a plan.

If they play this right, when all is said and done, the Town will end up telling us that traffic congestion on Maple is going to go down, even as they add thousands of new residents to Maple in the coming years.  In that sense, this is just the Mayor’s current strategy on traffic, writ large.  Currently, the Mayor argues that we needn’t worry about traffic from MAC projects because MAC projects result in selectively closing some curb cuts on Maple Avenue.  (I kid you not.  She has no numbers to back that up that I know of, but that doesn’t stop her from saying it.)  And now, with this, she can have a consultant put together an entire package of steps like that (bike racks! bus shelters!) to show how “seriously” the Town takes the traffic issue. 

And if we’re dumb enough to believe it, then we’ll get what we deserve.  Which is a Maple Avenue materially more congested than it is now, lined with high-density housing.


4 Capital Bikeshare

The Town is putting in for funds to cover some Capital Bikeshare racks.  Briefly, Capital Bikeshare has racks of bikes that you can unlock with your credit card and use for short-term trips.  The idea for Vienna is that Fairfax would put Capital Bikeshare racks in at the Vienna Metro if we’d put some “destination” bike racks around town in Vienna.

The gist of my analysis is that Capital Bikeshare is not likely to amount to much here.  It’s really set up to work well within dense urban areas.  You can see my full analysis of the Capital Bikeshare issue at the bottom of this page.

Councilman Majdi got it — he talked about the difficult of providing transportation for “the last mile”.   In Vienna, “the last mile” typically means the mile or two from the Vienna Metro to your home.  But Capital Bikeshare is not set up to cover that type of trip.  You can’t keep the bike overnight at your home without paying an absolutely exorbitant rental.   You have to return it to a Capital Bikeshare dock to stop the charges.  So, as a way to get home from Metro, say, this would only benefit a handful of people who happened to live near a Capital Bikeshare bike dock.

Councilman Majdi asked if this could be expanded to explore various “dockless” technologies, including electric scooters and dockless bikes.  I am unclear, from my notes, what the answer was to that.


5 Other items that caught my attention.

The main item that caught my attention is that the Town of Vienna actually has a well-defined schedule for addressing the two additional proposed MAC projects.  They just won’t (or at least, don’t) disclose that to the public.

Bear that in mind the next time the Town Council blathers about open government and how much they value citizen input.  As citizens, we sometimes get less than 24 hours notice that the Town is going to discuss something relevant to new development.  I now know that this isn’t because the Town doesn’t have a schedule — apparently it does — it’s because they don’t bother to tell the peasantry citizens what the schedule is.  You have to be an insider to know.

So, by dribs and drabs, based on this last meeting, I know that the Town has a quite well-worked-out schedule.  So, just by-the-by, Town Council’s Feb 11 2019 work session will focus on the two new MAC projects.  So put that on your calendar, I guess.  Because without the Town just casually mentioning it, you would likely have no notification of that prior to (maybe) February 9 if you are lucky.

5.0  There was a bit of kerfuffle over “proffers”, a fallout from the last-minute change in the 444 Maple West deal.   Proffers are offers that developers make to sweeten the pot and try to get their developments past the Town Council.

Council members Springsteen and Majdi really didn’t want to be surprised at the last minute as they were with 444 Maple West.  For those of you who are not aware of it, those Town Council members were literally asked to vote on 444 Maple West, when they only got to see the full details of what was being offered when they sat down at the Town Council meeting at which they had to vote.

Predictably, Councilman Noble — who was made aware of the changes in the 444 Maple West deal in advance of the meeting, and who apparently passed it based on some small change in the proffers — he was just fine with such last-minute surprises.  Firmly defended the right to change things late in the game.

The Town Council is going to do a work session on this, but it’s clear to see how this particular game is rigged.  I’d be shocked if this results in showing any type of courtesy toward Majdi and Springsteen.  For example, by requiring that they be given full information about what they will vote on some time in advance of the meeting where they have to vote.  Why?  Because that would make it harder for other Town Council members to cut back-door deals with MAC developers, and so make it hard to pass more MAC development.  Simple as that.

5.1  The new police station is only going to cost $12M, down from about twice that amount in the prior planning cycle.  I have no idea how that miracle occurred.  It will be interesting to see if the Town just split the task into two parts to avoid sticker shock.

Councilman Majdi talked about opportunity cost here — he thinks that capital budget money would be better spent elsewhere right now.  But he declined to mention where.

Oddly, it was also clear that the Town of Vienna is purchasing yet another piece of real estate in town.  But, again, the details were not divulged.

5.2 Councilwoman Sienicki will not be running for re-election.  As she has been a staunch advocate of MAC zoning, I certainly applaud that.

5.3 The Town Council endorsed “School Choice Week”, even though two Town Council members (Sienicki, Majdi) pointed out that we had no business doing so.

The reason I find this one so fascinating is a) a Presidential proclamation endorsing National School Choice Week was one of President Trump’s first acts in office, b) School Choice Week is beloved by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization promoting the right-wing agenda through changes in state laws);  and c) despite a veneer of bipartisan support, this is widely held to be a stalking horse for voucherization of public schools, again a very Republican agenda item.

So this is the first time I’ve seen the Mayor and selected Town Council members using their influence to promote the national Republican agenda, however mildly, however cloaked in nominal bi-partisanship, on what is formally a non-partisan body.  I sincerely hope this is the last time I see it.

And note, not only endorsed it, but went way out of their way to endorse it.  As was pointed out by some Town Council members, Vienna doesn’t run a school system and has no unique formal policies in place with respect to private schools here in Vienna (e.g., Green Hedges).

The part I find most ironic here is that the Town has all the time in the world to endorse School Choice Week.  But no time whatsoever to analyze the impact that all the new MAC-building residents will have on school overcrowding in Vienna.  In the 9/17/2018 Town Council meeting (where they passed a temporary moratorium on new MAC applications), one of the action items raised by Town Council was a request to study of the likely impact on local schools.  This is an issue of major concern to residents whose children attend Fairfax County Public Schools.   And so far, the Town’s response has been to ignore that in favor of … well … quietly pandering on a core a right-wing Republican issue.

5.4 The owners of the Marco Polo property are seeking a demolition permit following the fire there.

5.5 The Town of Vienna Community Enhancement Commission will become the Conservation and Sustainability Commission. 

I need to preface my next remarks by saying that I am a staunch environmentalist.  From my geothermal heat pump to my aftermarket kit for a plug-in Prius to my insulated siding to heating my house mainly with wood … I try to walk the walk.

Here’s my remark:  I am sure that this is well-intentioned, but … basically, it’s a bad joke in the context of the rest of the Town of Vienna.  I mean, Vienna has not adopted even basic 21st century stuff, e.g., there’s a single mention of LEED in the MAC building code and any energy-saving measures are voluntary and earn “credit” for the builder.  E.g., The Town sponsors an essentially ineffective “solarize” fair each year, but doesn’t even appear to give “credit” under MAC for installing solar panels as part of new MAC construction.   E.g., we just built an oversized Community Center that is largely empty most of the time but is heated/cooled/lit 24/7/365.  E.g., we gutted our mandate to reduce Chesapeake Bay pollution by counting our street sweeping as providing full compliance with the law (.pdf).  E.g., where Fairfax County has required dark-sky-compliant outdoor lighting (to prevent light pollution) for more than a decade, Vienna does not.  (And proudly installed oldey-timey pseudo-gas-light street lighting along Maple, absolutely the worst possible choice from the standpoint of light pollution.)

Once upon a time, Vienna was a leader in recycling, and to their credit, our Public Works department still manages to keep tons of lawn waste out of the public landfill annually.   But now everybody recycles and we’re just average (see rates here, .pdf).  We no longer recycle glass (even though the Town website says that we do.)  Add on the ongoing conversion of small houses to huge houses, nobody would think of Vienna as even remotely close to a sustainable community.

I could go on. But sustainable and environmentally friendly, we are not.

End of rant.  Good luck to them.  They have to work in a context of voluntary actions only, which means there really isn’t much they can do that’s effective.  So I don’t fault this Commission.  My only real point is that a Conservation and Sustainability Commission is more-or-less greenwashing in the context of Vienna as a whole.