What do the citizens of Vienna want, 2/8/2019

Posted on February 8, 2019

The Town is, in theory, in the process of revising the guidelines for the look of MAC buildings.  It’s not clear what this is supposed to accomplish, because, first and foremost, these are guidelines.  They aren’t zoning law.  They are voluntary.

But the Town did its visual preference survey, and now they are going interpret the resulting chicken entrails as if they have found out something about what the citizens of Vienna want.  As I have noted, it’s tough to get any information whatsoever out of a visual preference survey.  Doubly so when your survey uses pictures of cute little buildings that have nothing to do with the reality of these large MAC housing projects.

Just so we’re all on the same page here, let me briefly review the Town’s methodology.  We’re going to carefully select pictures of buildings and such, that vary in all kinds of ways.  We’ll have a self-selected internet-based non-random sample of people rate each picture on a scale of 1 to 5.  We won’t tell them what characteristics we are focusing on, in those pictures, so we don’t even know the basis upon which people are making these ratings.  (Color, shape, size, blue sky, number of cars on the road?)  Then we’re going to take that jumble of pictures and ratings, from that non-random sample, apply some undisclosed and likely subjective methodology, and present the results as somehow showing what citizens of the Town of Vienna want, in their MAC buildings.  (OK, I made up the part about undisclosed and subjective — we won’t know until they release their conclusions.  But I’d bet money on it.)

There’s an easier way to do this.  If you want to know what Vienna citizens would prefer in these MAC buildings …. why not just ask them?  It’s not hard to do.   And it’s not like the Town doesn’t routinely survey its citizens anyway

In fact, I already did.  (See the .pdf on this page for methods, full results, and significant caveats.)  I asked people what they would change, if they could change MAC zoning.  Like so:

I mean, it ain’t rocket science.  Smaller buildings, more green space.  Not exactly a surprise, is it?  Just take what’s been proposed for 380 Maple West (fill the lot, no public green space, wall in the front-of-building eating area, fence in the “dog park” in the back, and so on) … and do the opposite.

Here’s the first thing to realize:  Nothing in the Town’s “visual guidelines” for MAC can address any of the things that citizens would like to see changed.  See the word “require” up there?  Those guidelines don’t require anything — they are suggestions.  In fact, the MAC statute itself already embodies visual guidelines, as discussed here (see bottom of page).  They just have no effect whatsoever on building size, placement, or green/open space.

So the MAC statute was already full of pictures of cute little buildings like the one below.  But that has nothing to do with the size and lot coverage of what’s actually getting built under MAC.

So, let’s be clear.  People appear ready to vote out the five members of the Town Council who approved the large apartment block at 444 Maple West.  Among all MAC projects, the size and density of the 444 Maple West project make it uniquely disliked. (Results are from the same survey referenced by .pdf above, with the same caveats.)

So it’s not like this is some sort of secret.  People don’t want the large, tall, lot-filling buildings that MAC is bringing to Vienna, and people are fairly clear about what they would change, if they could.  This is, in theory, a representative democracy.  So what’s the big deal?  Why is the Town spending its time fooling around with this visual preference survey, when the only thing that is going to fix this, in the eyes of the public, is a material change in MAC zoning:  Smaller buildings, more green space.

Here’s my view:  MAC is about maximizing the profits and tax revenues to be made from Maple Avenue redevelopment.  Plus a couple of kickers reflecting the preferences of the people who oversaw the writing of the law.  So there’s a height limit.  The Town requires all the buildings to have the fake-multiple-buildings look.  The Mayor is obsessed with getting “destination retail”, so all the retail space has to be upscale space (buh-bye to marginal local businesses).  And the Mayor has a thing for underground power lines, so every builder must “voluntarily” proffer to bury the utility lines.

But mainly, it’s about maximizing the value of the property. And any real requirements for open space — not the sham written into current law — would reduce property values.  And any reductions in building size, ditto.

And so what we have is five Town Council members who don’t want to hear what the citizens want.  So they just aren’t going to ask.  Because doing what the citizens would like would reduce property values on Maple Avenue.  And as far as I can tell, the majority on Town Council is all about maximizing those property values.  No surprise, and nothing new, because they had Maple Avenue property owners directly oversee the writing of the MAC statute.  I’m sure they’d claim that blah-blah-blah would be impossible because builders couldn’t make enough money at it, if the MAC statute were changed.  But given the history here, I’m not sure I’d take their word for anything of that nature.

So that’s it.  There’s no mystery here.  The citizens don’t want buildings the size of 444 Maple West.  They would change MAC to require generally smaller buildings with more open and green space.  The majority on Town Council is doing its best not to ask the citizens those plain and obvious questions tabulated above.  Because hearing those answers, and doing something about it, would reduce Maple Avenue property values and tax revenues.

Once you understand it, it all makes sense.

So, instead, the Town is waving its hands, I mean, doing a visual preference survey.  And now it’s getting ready to tell us how responsive it is being, to what the citizens want in MAC zoning.  But that’s just smoke and mirrors.  Starting from the fact that visual guidelines are just that — guidelines.  Not law.  And I hope the citizens of Vienna are smart enough to figure that out.