Planning Commission work session 3/13/2019

I attended the 3/13/2019 Town of Vienna Planning Commission work session.  The purpose of this was to review proposed changes to the Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) zoning law.  This page is a summary of the high points.  I will post my audio file of the meeting, with index, as soon as I have processed it to remove noise.

Briefly:  Five floors, cram ’em in, and pave it over.  And hurry up about it. That’s pretty much the gist of the proposed changes.  There was a rear-guard action by Commissioners Gelb and Kenney to slow that down.  But that’s definitely where the Planning Commission and Department of Planning and Zoning are headed.

Five floors.  There is a move to get rid of the four-floor limit — just strike that language entirely — so that the people of Vienna will not be “confused” when five-story buildings get built.  MAC zoning was sold, in part, based on the idea that the buildings would be no more than four floors, and so would preserve the “small town” character of Vienna.  (That’s wrong, but that’s what they said.) I have written quite a bit about the weird and ambiguous proposed re-write of the section of the law limiting building height.  Here is one example.  I have pointed out that both recent MAC buildings have five floors.  The Town’s response was, more-or-less, we meant five floors all along.

That is now reaching its logical conclusion with a move to strike the language about four floor limit entirely. The apparent logic being concern for the citizens:  Some Commissioners didn’t want citizens to be confused when (not if) five story buildings are built legally under MAC.  Commissioners Gelb and Kenney objected enough that Planning and Zoning couldn’t ram that through.  But, as it I understand it, that’s the language that will be presented to Town council, with some notation that the Planning Commission was not unanimous about that.

Cram ’em in.  In the long-standing MAC tradition of writing the law to match whatever the developers want, they are going to make a fifth floor, in the form of an extra garage floor, absolutely unimpeachably  A-OK under MAC.  No pesky need to ask for an exception there.

This was presented as an unambiguous benefit.  Ain’t nobody don’t like parking, that was pretty much the gist of the reasoning.  I think I may have heard some fleeting mention of the word “density”.  But only fleeting.

And, again, so that there would be no “confusion”, there’s a move to call this something  — anything — it doesn’t matter what — so long as you don’t call this a fifth floor.  Again, for the citizenry’s benefit, so that we would not be confused, and somehow think that this fifth floor is a fifth floor.  To his credit, Commissioner Kenney took great exception to this Newspeak approach to redefining the law.  (Fifth floor:  doubleplusungood.)

Just to be clear, the whole reason you have height and floor limits is to limit the density of development.  In their rush to help the developers, much of the Planning Commission appears to have forgotten that.  And, as you start throwing those away, you encourage more and more dwelling units and residents per acre.

Take 380 for example.  If faced with the prospect of barely-legal parking, and so a dysfunctional building that is a pain for the tenants to use, what do you think the profit-maximizing builder would do?  Would he build a dysfunctional building and hope he could sell it for top dollar, or would he reconfigure it, somewhat, at somewhat lower density, to provide a better match to the constrained parking?

Or, as I wrote a few weeks back, if you are going to allow the fifth floor of parking — and so encourage higher density in the building — you could at least ask for more open space on the lot as the quid-pro-quo.  But nobody at this meeting even considered that option.

Get it?  Either way, you give the developer pause to think, and maybe not cram in quite as many dwelling units.  Maybe scale back the density of the development?

But by simply giving away the fifth floor, you’ve made it a no-brainer for the developer.  The only rational (profit-maximizing) thing to do is to cram ’em in, as tight as you can pack them, consistent with maximizing profits.  Take the cube defined by the lot-line setbacks and height limits, and cram in as many people as it takes to maximize profit.

So, clear message from Town to Developers:  Cram ’em in.  Any sense that there is some need to limit density has been all-but-entirely lost.  In fact — and here I will need to find the quote — at least one Planning Commission member said more-or-less literally that.  As long as the building looks like four floors, the builders should be allowed to cram anything they want to into the interior.

And so, density be damned.  By my estimate, this one — at 40 two- and three-bedroom condos on about 0.85 acre, comes in at more than 100 persons per acre.  Far denser than the objectionable 444 Maple West (Tequila Grande) building.   You can see my crude estimates of what density like that will do, in the long run, for Town population and for Maple Avenue traffic.

Pave it over.   As I demonstrated on this page, the existing 15% “open space” requirement does absolutely nothing.  And, when I asked Vienna citizens what they wanted to change in MAC, more green space was overwhelmingly the number one answer.  (Please read the survey page linked just above for important caveats about this random-sample survey, including both small size and potential non-response bias.)

And so the Town’s response is to change that to an equally-useless “gathering space” requirement.  To his credit, Commissioner Kenney went to the trouble to show just how useless the requirement is, by showing what the “gathering space” would have looked like at 444 Maple West.  He was, of course, completely ignored.

And just to rub salt in the wounds, when the issue of green space came up, several Commissioners flatly rejected it.  “This isn’t another Waters Field” or some such.  The point being that these places were going to have to be paved, and so just deal with the fact that these “gathering spaces” are going to be paved.  Town to Citizens:  Shut up about green space, already.

I’ll just note in passing that the Town keeps the same “double counting” trick that made the 15% “open space” rule completely useless.  Land that is legally required to be open, already, is also counted as satisfying the “gathering space” requirement.  So this new 10% “gathering space” rule is just as much of a sham as the prior 15% “open space” rule was.  Let me just quickly show that the new 10% “gathering space” clause does nothing.  Why?  Because once you count the legally required setbacks, you have probably met the “gathering space” requirement, and then some.

(Notes:  The side setback areas are counted after netting out the front and rear setbacks.   More importantly, this calculation is not completely correct, because I need to remove the portion of the setback that is literally located in the Town right-of-way.  But this serves to show that the setbacks alone will almost surely account for all, or nearly all, of the required “gathering space”.)

On the “380 Maple West” calculation, it is possible that the last bit of space — the side lot line setback — would be counted as a “private yard” and so not count for gathering space.  But as of now, with 10′ wide “dog park” now open to the public (attractive, right?  Who wouldn’t want to sit on the grass in a dog park?), even without netting out the right-of-way area, it’s pretty clear that 380 Maple West meets the “gathering space” requirement merely by double-counting the legally required setback area.  So much for this clause in MAC:  “Encourage the creation of publicly-accessible community gathering spaces, such as parks, plazas, …”

No parks or plazas here.

But if I look at a Giant Food-type lot under the new, proposed MAC setbacks, the legally required setbacks by themselves, ignoring the rear setback as a “private yard”, only account for 9%.  So they’d (e.g.) have to add some landscaping covering 1% of the interior of the lot to meet the requirement.  Or, if they declared the back lot line to be accessible to the public, they’d have 11%, and exceed the threshold.  (Again, this is a quick-and-dirty calculation, and to do this right, I’d have to get detailed maps and net out the portion of the setback that is in the right-of-way.  So this is a modest over-estimate of the “gathering space” accounted for by the setbacks.  But the main conclusion is correct:  the legally required setbacks, by themselves, are enough to account for all (380 Maple West) or most (Giant Food) of the “10% gathering space”.)

You know the saying “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”  Shame on the Town Council if they fall for this trick twice.

My suggestion:  Just get rid of it.  If this is the best they can do, then just drop the “gathering space” requirement.  As it stands, it’s just a bit of propaganda, designed to fool the citizens.  It gives the Town nothing that we don’t already get from the legally required setbacks.

Or, only as a last resort, fix it.  Make it a requirement for additional gathering space, beyond what is already legally required by the setbacks, or required merely to use the building (e.g., a sidwalk to the entrance.)  Set minimum dimensions for it.  And so on.

The final irony here is the following:  The MAC “gathering space” is, mainly, the streetside area in front of the shops.  So, if you (e.g.) ran into a friend outside of the CVS, and stopped to chat, in the past, we didn’t have a name for that.  Now, you are utilizing the “gathering space”.  The only difference is, that space in front of the CVS is almost 400′ off Maple.  You can actually hold a conversation in that “gathering space” without having to shout over the traffic noise.  But shouting over the traffic is going to be the norm in the new “gathering space” the town is providing for us under MAC, just 15′ from Maple.

I have said repeatedly how delusional it is to think that people are going to sit in front of these MAC buildings for pleasure.  You can my analysis of typical Saturday-afternoon noise levels here, using a recording decibel meter.  And all you have to do is use your eyes to see how much outdoor seating is located within 20′ of the road now.  This is not a hard point to get — these “gathering spaces” in front of the buildings will have all the ambiance of our bus shelters, because that’s how close to the road you will be.  And that’s the only seating we have now, that close to the road.  Heck, if you don’t have the time to sit and try to have a conversation in one of our bus shelters, here’s a little number I call “Fine Dining on Maple”.  It’s an audio recording of me, talking into my phone, sitting that close to Maple.  And it’s not even rush hour.  Consider this your virtual introduction to MAC “gathering spaces”.

Anyway, based on this meeting, you can just kiss any notion of some sort of peaceful green space goodbye.   It’s mostly going to be paved, and it’s mostly going to sound something like the recording above.

May I say one more thing about how weird this “gathering space” notion is?  If you have a restaurant, and people gather to meet inside of your restaurant, that’s NOT gathering space.  But if you have tables outside, directly adjacent to Maple, so that nobody wants to sit there due to the noise …. that IS gathering space.  In a very real sense, for most of these lots, if it isn’t a highly polluted and noisy space (i.e., adjacent to the public right-of-way), it can’t be counted as “gathering space”.  In what world does this make sense?

And hurry up about it.  Due to the (perceived) need to railroad these changes through Town Council before the end of the MAC deadline/seating of new Town Council, the Director of Planning and Zoning would not take “we don’t know” for an answer.  So, every question had to have some answer, because she needed to post the results of this meeting this morning (3/14/2019) in order to meet all the deadlines.  If I can find it — I seem to have misplaced it — I’ll just copy in here the audio of several Town Council members’ reactions to the proposed schedule as “unrealistic”.  This is several audio clips, separated by silence, from a Town Council meeting earlier this year.   This is council members Noble, Majdi, and Springsteen, reacting to the proposed schedule for revising MAC.

Let me sum this up.  You want smaller buildings?  Not even on the radar.  You want more green space?  Ah, shut up already, this stuff has to be paved.  You want parks and plazas?  Hahahah, the same trick they used to avoid that under the last version is absolutely still in the new version.  You are confused that four stories has morphed into five?  We’ll fix that … by doctoring the language of the law.

But above all — hurry, hurry, hurry.  At a time when Fairfax has decided to step back in their push to increase density in Reston, Vienna is going full speed ahead.  Take the lot line setbacks, and the height limit, figure out the cube that defines, and cram ’em in.