2019-02-27 Planning Commission work session, comments part 1

Posted on March 1, 2019

It’s hard to know where to start, but let me begin with the low-hanging fruit.

Seriously, we pay them to do this?  Part 1

Arguably, the single nuttiest thing to come out of this meeting was beautiful set of poster boards, developed by Planning and Zoning, the purpose of which is to convince you that MAC development on Maple is just as warm, cozy, and human-scale as the development on Church Street.

Put aside that we’re apparently paying Town of Vienna employees to make up beautifully finished propaganda pieces.  (I mean, wouldn’t you like to have a job where you have nothing more pressing to do than that?)

The real point is the argument they were making.  It goes like this.

See, with the new broader sidewalks, they can now show that the ratio of building height to distance between buildings (across the street), is now the same on Maple as it is on Church.  So, that’s a fact.  But in addition, the claim is that, because of that fact,  Maple Avenue with MAC will have the same cozy, human-scale feeling that Church does.  And that second part is a total fiction.

Taken together, this pair of assertions is a textbook example of propaganda, specifically, a beautiful example of the semi-attached figure, as explained in How to Lie With Statistics.  One part fact, smoothly coupled to one part fiction.  It’s a classic attempt to mislead.

So, as I looked at those diagrams — those nicely-crafted, large-scale, painstakingly produced illustrations of of buildings, sidewalk, and roads — what I noticed is not what was there, but what was missing.

Can you figure it out, from the description?  Buildings, roads, sidewalks.  What’s missing?  Think about it a second, then scroll down.





People.  As I recall it, there were no people in the drawings.  Once you realize that, surely you realize that any claim about “human scale” or “pedestrian friendly”, based on that diagram — well, any such conclusion is suspect, to say the least.

But take that a step further, and you’ll see why I am calling this propaganda. In a set of diagrams intended to show that MAC is as human-scale as Church Street, the decision to omit all humans?  That had to have been done on purpose.  If you want to see how these buildings will look, scaled to humans … the obvious thing to do is to put humans into the picture.   And see how they look, scaled against humans.

And then, of course, the final realization is that they had to omit humans from the diagram, otherwise it wouldn’t show the point they are trying to get you to believe.  So, again, that’s not some innocent mistake.  If you put people in the picture, you’d see how large these MAC buildings are, compared to the people beneath them.  I’ve made that point a number of times, on this website.  Like here, for example.  Search “note the people in the foreground of the picture”.  If you want to assess human scale — compare the buildings to the humans.  If you see someone purposefully avoiding doing that, you should have the good sense to know that something is not right.

This isn’t an isolated incident, either.  This approach of avoiding the obvious method, so that you can make your propaganda points.  To me, this is of a piece with using a “visual preference survey”.  Instead of asking Vienna citizens what they want changed in MAC (smaller buildings, more green/open space), they … asked them to rate pictures, then read the resulting tea leaves.  And so the ratings on those pictures mean what Planning and Zoning says they mean.  This is just the way Planning and Zoning rolls.

Two more things to day.

Reductio ad absurdum.   So, let me get this straight:  The Town is arguing that as long as the ratio of building height to road/sidewalk width is the same, then any cityscape with that same ratio as Church Street will have the same human-scale feel as Church Street.

Really? Let’s test that out by applying that same logic to Tysons.  As you leave Tyson’s Corner Mall, Route 123 is about 150′ wide.  Here in Vienna, it’s about 50′.   For the sake of argument, let me assume the sidewalks would scale accordingly.

So, following the Town’s logic, if MAC buildings in Vienna are 60′, then, because the road at Tysons is 3x wider, obviously you’d get the same “human scale” feel as you get on Church Street, by walking beside Route 123 in Tysons, next to buildings that are 180′ tall.

And, in fact, 180′ is a typical building height for that area.  Here’s the building across the street from the exit to Tyson’s Corner Mall — just about 180′ tall (yellow line is the measurement.  (Orient this  picture, to the Tyson’s picture above, by the Metro pedestrian bridge over 123).

So, I guess Tyson’s, where the Mall exit hits 123 — that’s just as cozy and human scale as Church Street.? That’s just the logic the Town is asking you to swallow.  Taken to its logical conclusion.

Who would be dumb enough to believe that, or I have found my perfect negative indicator?   At this point, I’ve pointed out what’s missing from the Town’s illustration of “human scale” MAC — people — and I’ve taken their logic and shown that it is absurd. 

But the whole point of propaganda is that people are, in fact, dumb enough to believe it.  If that weren’t true, propaganda would not work.

So let me introduce you to the concept of a negative indicator.  In economics and finance, in effect, it’s something that’s always wrong.  A perfect negative indicator might be someone who always lies.  The key point is that the habitual liar still provides useful information, because if they say it, you know it’s not so.  And sometimes, knowing what’s not so can save you a lot of time when you are trying to sort out truth from fiction.

So, among all the Planning Commissioners, can you guess which one fawned over these diagrams, said they just exactly what was needed, and generally praised them to high heaven?  Yeah, the same one who couldn’t count to five, as described at the bottom of this post.   Possibly, I have found my perfect negative indicator for MAC policy.