Draft changes to MAC zoning, 2/17/2019

Posted on February 17, 2019

The Town has posted their proposed changes MAC zoning.  You can find this 50+ page .pdf on this page.

I have read it, and I have detailed comments, to be posted at some other time.  Because here, the details don’t much matter.  Let me attempt to boil it down to just four key points.

  • Buildings the size of 444 Maple West will now be written into the law, so there can be no possible challenge to further buildings of more-or-less that size.  (But, on the bright side, the Giant Food lot will have to have more than one building on it when it is redeveloped.)
  • Two key clauses are being altered in a way that appear to make future five-story MAC buildings legal.  One clause I am sure about, one clause, that’s my guess, because the Town appears to be simply removing it and replacing it with nothing.  (So, presumably, that issue will be at the discretion of the very pro-developer Director of Planning and Zoning.)
  • They adding 3′ to the Maple avenue sidewalk, and 5′ to the putative outdoor dining areas directly adjacent to Maple, for a total of eight more feet between the building and the road.
  • The completely ineffective 15% open space requirement appears to be replaced with an equally useless 10% “gathering space” requirement.

For the first key point, let me use 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande as an illustration, and talk about what would be different, if that had been passed under the revised statute.  (NOTE:  The revised MAC will NOT apply to this building.  I am just using it to show what the Town changed.)

Ready?  Take the proposed building at 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande.  Change nothing.  But move it 8′ further from Maple, and 5′ further from Nutley.  That’s it.  There might be some minor tweaks needed after doing that but that’s the gist of it.  That building is A-OK, by the Town.

Now, I exaggerated that for effect.  I think that proposed building is about 375′ long, and 175′ wide.  The actual standard in the proposed law is 350′ long, and 200′ wide.  So, OK, sure, they’d have to change the shape of the building a bit.  But otherwise, the gist of what I just said stands.  Big building = A-OK.

But now, they’ll rewrite the law make it explicit that the Town of Vienna is perfectly happy with a building this size.  And then there can be no legal challenges to other buildings this size along Maple, because the Town has given its blessing.

Essentially, they patterned a new piece of the law on 444 Maple West, so that a building like that is guaranteed to OK by MAC.  Anything larger than that (Giant Food lot) will have to be broken up into buildings no larger than 444 Maple West.

So when 444 Maple Avenue West/Tequila Grande passed, and I (and others) said, you realize this sets the standard for future development on Maple — we had no idea how literally right we were.  No idea the Town would take that building and model the law after it. 

Second, the Town is making two changes to the height limit section of the law.  It appears that these are explicitly designed to make five-floor MAC buildings legal, under our supposedly four-story MAC height limit, so long as they are done as the two most recent proposals would do it.  See my write up of five floors, here.

The Town would add one clause to make sure five floors at a building like 380 Maple West would be legal, as long as the outside of the building looked like four floors.  This one I’m fairly sure about, and you can read the five floor writeup linked above to see why.   In addition, they removed language dealing with mezzanine floors,  which to my eye seems clearly patterned after the way Sunrise Assisted Living plans to create a five-floor building within our supposed four-story MAC zoning law.  For that one, if the law is no longer explicit, then my guess is, it’s up to the judgment of the Director of Planning and Zoning.  Which strongly suggests to me that builders will get their fifth floor when they want it.

So, as with 444 Maple West, the Town has taken what the builders want to build — as evidenced by these last two proposals in the link above — and simply made the law conform.  They are patterning the law after what the builders have revealed they would prefer to build.

Again, as with 444 Maple West, these new changes don’t apply to the already-proposed buildings (I think!).  But they have the effect of codifying the two ways that builders have figured out (so far) to get around the four-story limit.  And making sure they are legal under MAC.

Third, the now law would add 3′ to the Maple Avenue sidewalk, and 5′ to the supposed outdoor dining space adjacent to Maple.  For a total of 8′.  And would make similar-but-smaller changes on the sidewalks on some of the side streets.

Finally, they replace the absolutely useless 15% open space clause in the current MAC law, with a different but seeming as-useless 10% “gathering space” clause in the revised MAC.  Now, for example, any arcade or hallway that is open to the air on one side is a “gathering space”.  Any fully-enclosed building atrium is a “gathering space”.  And, of course, the front and side setbacks are gathering space, as long as they are out of the right-of-way.

They did, I think, throw out the stupidest-of-stupid from the prior law, by requiring that the “gathering space” be ground-level space accessible to the public.  So the internal courtyards of apartment buildings and green roofs (!) counted as open space, but will no longer counter as gathering space.

There are a bunch of other changes as well, but to me, those are the ones that matter.

Summary:  The buildings are just as tall, and just as big (plus-or-minus some minor changes in all the setback regulations). And it certainly appears that at least one, possibly two varieties of five-floor MAC buildings are being written into the law.  And if you are waiting for this to produce significant green or open space — well, you’ll be waiting a long time.   (At least until Giant Food gets redeveloped, because now that will now have to consist of multiple buildings, so presumably there will be some space between the buildings.  Hey, I have a great idea!  Let’s put the Vienna farmers’ market there.)

If these changes make you happier with MAC buildings, then more power to you.  But to me, these are just more tweaks by a pro-developer town government.  If something about these proposed changes is intended to result in some vast improvement for the citizens, somebody is going to have to point it out to me.  Because I’m not seeing it.

Looks like the only way we’re going to get a material change in the MAC statute is to have a material change in who sits on the Town Council.  If that’s even possible.  You can see my endorsement, and why I made that endorsement, here.