Stumpies, 2/20/2019

Posted on February 20, 2019

The pro-MAC members of Town Council tell you we are going to get some beautiful urban architecture for Maple.  Revitalize the downtown.  And all that.

But the buildings we’re actually getting are “stumpies”.  No doubt, the Town is going to assure us that our stumpies will look better than the neighbor’s stumpies.  But the fact is, they are still stumpies.

This Bloomberg Business Week article, “Why America’s New Apartment Buildings All Look the Same,” by Justin Fox, introduced me to the whys and wherefores of stumpies.

These buildings are in almost every U.S. city. They range from three to seven stories tall and can stretch for blocks. They’re usually full of rental apartments, but they can also house college dorms, condominiums, hotels, or assisted-living facilities. Close to city centers, they tend toward a blocky, often colorful modernism; out in the suburbs, their architecture is more likely to feature peaked roofs and historical motifs. Their outer walls are covered with fiber cement, metal, stucco, or bricks. 

They really are everywhere, ...

In fact, this article is more-or-less a complete explanation of MAC.  Including picture after picture that looks … just like the MAC visual preference survey.   This makes me think that MAC isn’t about Vienna revitalizing its downtown. MAC is about developers who needed a place to build new stumpies.

This article provides such a good explanation of the facts that I can build a whole Q-and-A about what’s going on in downtown Vienna, just using quotes from this article.

Q:  So, what is a “stumpy”?

A:  A stumpy is a “stick-built mid-rise podium apartment building”.  The podium is a concrete first floor, required to house the parking.  Above that, these are standard 2×4 wood construction with a “skin” of non-combustible material.

Q:  Why are stumpies all the rage now, for new construction?

A:  Wood-frame construction is cheap, and this method allows builders to get “near-high-rise densities at a wood-frame price.”

Q:  Why are there nothing but big, blocky lot-filling buildings?

A:  “The need for scale dictates hulking “superblocks,”.”

Q:  Why do they all have these ticky-tacky chock-a-block exteriors? 

A:  “… the desire to break up these blocks a little explains the colorful panels and other exterior choices.”

Q:  Why on Maple Avenue (emphasis mine):  

A:  “The boom has also been shaped by zoning that sometimes leaves downtowns and suburban commercial districts as the only practical spots for new housing.”

Q:  Why does MAC have the ludicrous parking “incentives”, so that builders can skimp on parking if they (e.g.) have a recycling bin or whatnot?

A:  You’d have to add a separate parking deck or dig deeper otherwise.  “Ordinances requiring a minimum number of parking spaces per apartment unit factor in, too: Where minimums are relatively high, as in Texas, the best solution can be wrapping the building around a parking deck, a style known as the Texas doughnut. Where they’re lower, the ground-floor podium will do.”

Q:  Is the obsession with ground-floor retail unique to Vienna?

A:  “City planners also often require developers to devote street-front podium space to shops and restaurants.”

So there you have it.  Based on this, MAC — as implemented — has more-or-less nothing to do with revitalizing Vienna’s commercial space.  (As if it needed it — see my retail vacancy estimate.)  MAC is all about housing.  An untouched commercial district like Maple Avenue is an ideal target for building stumpies.  And that’s just what we’re getting.  Read the article.  Look at the pictures.  MAC isn’t some some unique one-off attempt to create a beautiful new Vienna.  MAC is the means by which we’ll make Vienna look like all the rest of America’s stumpy-fied suburbs.