Review of 1/17/2019 BAR meeting re 380 Maple Avenue West, 1-18-2019

The Vienna Board of Architectural Review had a public meeting last night, and 380 Maple Avenue West was on the agenda.  This is a proposed 40-condo building to replace the small office building at Maple and Wade Hampton, across from the Amphora restaurant.

You can access my writeup prior to the meeting here, and you can access the most recent site plans and renderings of the proposed building on the Town of Vienna website, here.  I didn’t note any major changes in the building compared to the last set of drawings.

This was your one and only chance to speak up in front of the BAR regarding 380 Maple West.  How you were supposed to know that, I have no clue.  I only found out because Vienna Citizens for Responsible Development (Steve Potter) sent around an email.  If not for that, I would not have been able to tell, merely by looking at publicly-available materials, that this was a meeting where public comment was invited.

Despite the snow, 13 citizens got up to talk.   The only recommendation from the BAR was that the wrought-iron fence at the back should be replaced by a masonry wall.  That’s because a lot of citizens mentioned that, and said that a wall would be provide a much-needed sound barrier.  Otherwise, they said that the building complied with the aesthetic standard in the zoning law, i.e., it was not an unusually ugly or garish building.  And they quite pointedly noted that they do not “approve” or disapprove building proposals.  They only certify that, to the best of their understanding, building proposals comply with the portions of the Town of Vienna building code that the BAR is supposed to address.


Some common themes in the comments, other than the masonry wall.

This building is about as big as it can legally be and still fit on the lot.  And it provides no material public space — nothing like a public plaza or public park-like area (i.e., a place where people can gather without having to buy something.)  So several people said, in effect, this is all about private profit, but MAC is supposed to balance that with some public benefit.  The public benefit here is a couple of benches at the back of the property.

Several people wanted to see the internal “couryard” of the building moved around to the back, so that there were be less building mass and fewer eyes facing the neighbors.  If this building directly abutted the neighboring single-family homes, that would be legally required.  But, somehow, because there’s a narrow roadway between this property and the adjacent neighborhood, it’s not legally required.  (Which may be legal, but certainly makes no sense.)

The developer won’t budge on this issue, the BAR made no recommendation, so it seems unlikely that’s going to change.  The developer also noted that if the tenants use that courtyard for parties, the noise might be objectionable, so he pointed the opening into what is (currently) commercial space next door.  (But see my comment at the end of this page.)

Several people thought the private “dog park” at the back of the building was going to end up being an eyesore.  Basically, the bet among commenters was that the proposed grass would not survive.  (I would have bet that in any case, given how little sunlight is going to reach the grass, a 20′ wide strip sandwiched between tall evergreens on one side and a 54′ building on the other side.)

The builder is going to write clauses requiring maintenance into the eventual condominium documents for the building.  That seemed to be the end of that discussion.

There were several comments that pointed out how jarringly out-of-place this big building is compared to the essentially rural portions of Wade Hampton and Glen that this abuts.  In the space of about 100′, you’re going to go from a 54′ modern facade painted in primary colors to a narrow road with 100-year-old houses and white board fence.  In terms of “fitting into the neighborhood”, this just doesn’t.  The BAR’s response seemed to be that the size of the building wasn’t part of their mandate.

One commenter pointed out that the building has no “primary entrance”, and that with five separate shop entrances, it’s really no different from the shopping centers that the Town is so desperate to replace.  Again, the BAR’s response was that this was outside their mandate.

Several commenters pointed out that by putting all the vehicular entrances to the building directly on Wade Hampton, that was going to generate a lot of hubbub on a narrow little street.  One comment was that the law requires the building entrance to be internal to the lot, not directly onto the street, and went so far as to suggest that the current configuration was not legal under MAC.  Others suggested moving (e.g.) the trash collection to the other side of the building (and so facing a commercial area, not Wade Hampton), and moving the principal vehicle entrance to Maple (again, not Wade Hampton).  My recollection is that the BAR once again said all of that that was outside of their mandate.

Several commenters brought up the potential for cut-through traffic.  The builder had several features to try to discourage that.  He proposed “pork chop” barriers to prevent the retail customers from turning down Wade Hampton.  (I am pretty sure he did not mention doing the same for the residents of the building, only the retail customers.)  He said that Town was considering a no-left-turn sign at the exit of the building, but it would be up to the Town to enforce that.  And they were planning to stripe Wade Hampton to provide two exit lanes onto Maple, one of which would be for left turns (so that those waiting to turn left across Maple would not hold up all traffic trying to exit onto Maple).

I brought up an issue for the proposed sidewalk, as did one other commenter.  In a nutshell, not only will the proposed bit of sidewalk not connect to anything further down Glen, but in all likelihood, it will never connect to anything, given how expensive it would be to build sidewalks down that side of Glen.  (That side of Glen has an extensive network of deep swales.)

The builder’s response is that Vienna is requiring that sidewalk, and we need to talk to the Town about it.

Several issues about lighting and the spillover of building lighting into the adjacent neighborhood.  Mainly, the stairwell going up the building on the Wade Hampton side will be glassed in.  The builder says the glass will be tinted and you won’t notice it when the lights go on and off.  Residents were skeptical.  I also noted that the proposed “old-time” glass-globe streetlights were the worst possible choice from the standpoint of light pollution, and asked that they please adhere to the Fairfax County standard of dark-sky-compliant light fixtures.   The builder’s response is that the Town is mandating the “old-time” light fixtures, so take it up with the Town.


 

The one thing I didn’t say, and wish I had, is that the Town is making a big mistake by treating these MAC buildings as one-off zoning applications.

I’ve said that, in writing, to the Town, as emphatically as I could.  But let me use this building to illustrate exactly what is so wrong about that.

Nobody even thinks to ask “how will this look when the next lot down gets developed the same way”?  And that short-sightedness allows the developer visually to “borrow” the open space from the adjacent lot, in effect disguising the extent to which they have filled the lot with that building.

To see what I’m talking about, look at the east side of the building now.    The side facing what is now a parking lot for the commercial property next door.  Looks OK, I guess — a bit of landscaping, some stairs, some balconies, all overlooking the parking lot next door.

(You’ll have to use your imagination, and look at the drawings for the building, because I could not find a set of drawings that would let me show the point I’m trying to get across here.)

Now imagine that somebody built a mirror-image of 380 Maple West on that next-door lot.  I.e., in your mind, replace the existing parking lot with a MAC building that is the mirror image of this one.  This is what I would call the long-run, fully-built-out look of this block of Maple.

All that MAC law says is that you have to stay five feet away from the side lot line (maybe it’s 10′ — that’s not material).  Unless you build a totally blank wall.  So, legally, the Town can’t stop the next guy from doing, at that lot line, exactly what the current developer is doing.  And so the Town couldn’t legally stop that “mirror image” building from being built.

Now how does that look, with two of these side-by-side.  Hey, that side of the building doesn’t look quite so spacious, does it?   That’s because the building can no longer visually “borrow” the empty space of the parking lot next door.

From the most recent plans, this building stands 10′ from the lot line, and now has balconies jutting out about 5′ into that open space.  The stairs to the deck appear to be 5′ from the lot line.  And they are squeezing in some landscaping along the lot line.  Add in the mirror-twin building, and you end up with 10′-20′ wide alleyway running almost the entire depth of the lot.  My guess is, there will not be enough light to grow anything.  And you’d have balconies facing each other across the 10′ gap.

There’s nothing like that in the TOV now.  I don’t think there’s anything like that in Northern Virginia now.  Add to that the fact that the actual next building will likely look completely different from 380 Maple West, and … it’s tough for me to think of something more jarring, on Maple Avenue.  It’s our own little urban accident.  You end up with a 10′-20′ wide air shaft, the length of the property line.

We’re already getting one of those (ugly paved alleys between buildings) from Chick-fil-A, but that’s a purely commercial area at present, full of ugly commercial buildings.  So it’s ugly and urban but at least nobody’s living there.

What this does is highlight the following:  Sure, you can get away with filling the lot with a big building on a small lot  for the first one in an area.  They can cram the lot and pretend that it doesn’t look so bad, because it’s surrounded by open space.  Key point:  it’s surrounded by other people’s open space.  From the standpoint of how it looks and functions, they are effectively borrowing the open space from the adjacent properties, in their renderings.  But when (not if) those adjacent properties fall to MAC, only then do you fully realize the extent to which they have crammed the lot full of building.

Now, if this has the effect of “spoiling” the next lot over — preventing the construction of another lot-filling mixed-use building — then I’m all in favor of short-sightedness.  But I don’t think that will be the outcome, because there’s just too much money to be made by building housing on Maple Avenue.  Instead, I think the eventual outcome will be two such buildings, side-by-side, each filling its own lot.  With a 10′-20′ air shaft between them.

I realize the town is hell-bent on not looking at the long run, but I think it would be fair to require each building that goes up adjacent to other MAC lots to produce the architectural rendering of their building PLUS a mirror-image of their building next door.  If you don’t do that, and instead plan to step in a prevent the next guy on the block from doing what the first guy did, it’s a property rights issue.   The only way to treat both properties equally is to see what putting the same building on both lots would do.  And from my perspective, this would prevent the builder from effectively disguising how large the building is, relative to the lot, by visually “borrowing” the open space of the lot next door.

There is ample precedent for this type of thinking in building codes.  That is, for planning for buildings that might eventually be put on lots.  In particular, the setbacks applying to rear of 380 Maple West are NOT calculated from the location of the existing single-family homes.  Instead, they are calculated from the closest point at which some single-family home might eventually be built (i.e., from the side-setback-line applicable to the lots where the adjacent single family homes sit.)

Not even the builder is thinking about what’s going to be built next door.  His rationale for placing the internal courtyard facing east is that it faces commercial property.  Yeah, right now it does.  But given the profitability of MAC development, I’d say it’s a fair bet that the lightly-used medical office buildings next door will eventually be replaced by yet another large MAC building.   And that that point, the courtyard will face residential property — only this time, it will be just 20′ away.

It is absolutely standard and common practice for building codes to say, sure, there’s a small building there now, but we really need to plan this for the potentially larger building that might replace it.  But nobody is thinking of the next building at this point, along Maple.  Even if the Town steadfastly and resolutely refuses to look at the long-run picture of what MAC will do to Maple, it should at least, purely from a property-rights perspective, produce those mirror-image renderings as described above.

Otherwise, down the road, the Town may well have to try to explain to Builder B why they won’t allow them to do what they allowed Builder A to do, under the exact same law.  For example, if they required the eventual next-door building to stay well away from the side lot line, to avoid encroaching 380 Maple West, then they effectively seize property from the latecomer, to the benefit of the first builder.  I don’t really think that want to be in the business of redistributing property rights.  But I doubt that they have thought it through that far, or, possibly, they just don’t care.


Finally, I remain fundamentally confused about what the BAR’s mandate is.  The BAR chairwoman noted that they only deal with the aesthetics of the building, and that much of the public comment was on issues they could not address.  But in the end, the BAR made a recommendation for a masonry wall based not at all on the aesthetics, but on how it would function as a noise barrier.

Nor was that an isolated incident.  Earlier, they requested a change to a proposed sign based on presumed lack of readability.  Once again, that’s a question of functionality, not aesthetics.

So I’m glad to see the recommendation for a masonry wall, but I have no idea how that fits into a mandate narrowly focused on aesthetics.  They didn’t ask for a masonry wall to improve the looks of the building, they asked for it because the neighbors want it to be a noise barrier.

I also note that the BAR deals with everything from a $200 sign to a $40M building.  And yet,  its word is law, more or less.  Or, at least, a recommendation that Town Council takes seriously.  It’s like having the same judge handling parking tickets and death sentences.  Ultimately, I just could not make much sense of the whole process.