Board of Architectural Review work session, 3/15/2019

My wife and I attended the 8-ish AM meeting of the Board of Architectural Review.  This was a dry run of a presentation on the MAC “visual guidelines” that will be given to Town Council at the “mega-meeting” scheduled for March 20.  It was, in large part, an explanation of how those guidelines were developed.

Having sat through that entire presentation and the discussion of comments afterwards, all I can say is, I wouldn’t change a thing.

What, if anything, did I learn, that I can say in public?  Not much, really.  I’ll post the audio with an index, in case you want to listen to it.

OK, I learned one thing.  I was wrong about the Town’s drawings purporting to show that Maple Avenue MAC is just like Church Street.   The drawings that they will use to show that these two streetscapes have the same human “scale”.

The first time I saw those drawings, I didn’t notice the people faintly drawn in at the bottom.  I said they had omitted people.  I was wrong.  This time I went looking for them, and if you look closely, you can in fact see outlines of people at the bottom.  Either that’s new, or they were there and I missed them the first time.

Still, they don’t bother to mention the people.  The argument the Town makes about how “human scale” MAC will be is this:  Church Street, with 35′ tall buildings, had a 1:2 ratio of building height to street width. (Which it does, in a few places, but it’s actually less than that in others, as I measure it.)  The new MAC standard will produce that same ratio, as long as you (as always) mis-state the height of the buildings as 54′.  With the new broader sidewalks, there will be the same 1:2 ratio between building height and distances between buildings.  And so, they argue, because that one aspect is the same, then, ergo, MAC building will have the same feel, for pedestrians, as Church street does.

I will continue to point out just how wrong that is, as a matter of logic. The argument that as long as the ratio of height to distance is 1:2, then it will have the same human scale as Church Street. Many of the mid-size skyscrapers at Tyson’s Corner also have the same or better ratio of building height to street width as Church.  I took a quick stab at that this page and messed it up.  Let me now do a couple of carefully measured examples.

For my first example, if I have to tell you which building this is, you clearly don’t live here.  I used Google Earth Pro to estimate 107′ to the top of the bowl.

And depending on what you wish to count — I would include the parking lots as providing visual space, but others might exclude them — you still have way more than twice that distance to the next building.  Either 350′ or 280′, between them.

Does that intersection have the same cozy, human-scale feel as Church Street?  No, of course not.  So the argument that all streetscapes with a 1:2 ratio have the same human scale is clearly wrong. (Why?  Hint:  The people are the same size — they don’t scale up with the buildings.)

One more, from the same area, to show this isn’t a fluke.  You can find Tyson’s streetscapes that do not meet this 1:2 rule.  But my point is, you can find plenty that do.  And none of them have the ambiance of Church Street.  With this one, I’ll also give the location (aka, nothing up my sleeve, this is in fact Tysons).

Only a fool would believe that Tyson’s is just as cozy and human scale as Church Street.  But that’s literally the logic that Town staff are asking Town Council to swallow, regarding Maple versus Church. (Hint:  Again, the people do not scale up just because the buildings do.)

Do Town staff really think that Town Council members are that stupid?  Or is this merely cover, for those who wish to ignore the much larger scale of the MAC buildings?  I’m guessing the latter.  Any functioning adult should be able to realize that their argument is specious.  So let’s keep an eye out, to see which Town Council members glom onto this argument.  That will be a pretty clear way to separate the baloney artists from those who will actually engage in honest conversation about this.

But when I step back, this latest bit is of a piece with the rest of the Town’s attitude toward MAC.  Because what I really got out of this meeting was the astonishing lack of evidence, rigor, or logic in pretty much anything they presented.  They just assert stuff, and either believe it themselves, or hope that other people will believe it.

This is the way MAC has been all along, as far as I can tell.  No studies of the economics.  No studies of how much retail Vienna might support.  No study of the impact of additional population on traffic.  Nothing.  They just kind of asserted that all would be well, and went with it.

Let me give you an example.  Early on in this process, the Mayor asserted to me that these MAC buildings were “small town” buildings.  I, of course, tested that empirically, using SurveyMonkey.  And they aren’t.

They simply are not perceived, by the average US adult, as “small town” buildings.  It cost me all of $100 to find that out.  But that was $100 more than the Town spent on looking into that.

The Town consistently makes specious arguments and turns a blind eye to inconvenient facts when it comes to MAC zoning.  They have their plan.  The plan clearly benefits some people.  And they ain’t going to change that plan in any material way.

I, by contrast, am more-or-less stuck trying to be a realist about Maple Avenue.    Working as a data analyst for 30 years kind of beats that into you.  I  would start any discussion from the obvious facts.

First, Maple Avenue gets 33,000 cars a day, on its peak sections. For a point of comparison, Maple Avenue carries one-fifth as much traffic as I-66.  As I have documented on this website, using a recording decibel meter, that generates a tremendous amount of noise near the road.  Loud enough to make it hard to carry on a conversation.  Also documented here, living directly on arterial roads like this is so bad for your health that the Federal government has programs to try to discourage it.  Just moving a few hundred feet off the road — as in, the depth of a parking lot — vastly reduces both noise and the density of fine particulate pollution that comes from the vehicular traffic.

Second, in today’s market, builders will do nothing but “fill the box”, where “the box” is defined by the lot line setbacks and the height restriction. (Technically, it’s a right rectangular solid, but that’s a lot harder to say).  Filling the box — packing ’em in — is what maximizes their profit.

Step back, look at the proposals coming in under MAC, and that’s what we’ve gotten. Great big boxes.

And yet, time and time again, the Town seems to be surprised or shocked that this is what they are getting.  And keeps hoping that somehow, builders won’t do that.  At some point, how dumb do you have to be?  In a town where every new house is more-or-less as big as it can be, the idea that these new high-density housing developments on Maple will do anything other than “fill the box” is just naive.

And then, these big new boxes have a few doodads stuck onto them, to try to disguise that they are big boxes (by which I mean, rectangular solids).  And then the Town spends its efforts harassing the builders to up the doodad content of the building.

Message to Town:  If you want anything other than a box, or you want a smaller box, you need to write that into the code.  Don’t write the code to give the builders every financial incentives to “fill the box”, and then plead with the builder to make it less of a box.

But this meeting wasn’t about changing the building code.  This meeting was mostly a discussion of how best to stick on the little doodads.  Carve out a tiny piece here, add a tiny piece there, change the roof line, step back this, vertical lines that.   So that you get better “scale” (I still haven’t figured out what that meant), and so on.

In other words, this whole exercise was about how best to plead with builders to disguise that they are building these structures to fill the legally-allowable box as defined by MAC.

There seemed to be an unquestioned belief that if you tack on enough architectural details, then, somehow, people won’t notice that they are standing next to a great big building, which is basically a box.  And by inference, I guess, they won’t notice that there are a lot of people driving across the pedestrian pathway to get to that building.  Or adding to traffic as more of Maple gets built out.  Or sending their kids to the already-crowded schools.  And so on.

So, being the kind of guy that I am, I went looking for the hard evidence that this works, at all, to disguise the size of the building.  Actual data.  Real studies that convincingly demonstrate that even the “disguise” aspect of MAC actually works.   (Versus my view, which is that this is pretty much lipstick on pig.)  I have yet to find any.  This isn’t my area of expertise, so I could easily have missed it.  But I will continue to look.

But at this point, this looks like it’s just a matter of belief.  Just as the Town believes Maple will be just like Church because they have the same 1:2 height-to-distance ratio.  Just as the Mayor believes these are “small town” buildings.  Architects believe that we will perceive these large buildings much the same as we perceive Church Street, because of the architectural detail.

Maybe I’m the outlier, but I don’t think that architectural details will fool my eye as to the “scale” of these new buildings.  Call  me out-of-step, but that new Chick-fil-A seems qualitatively different from the rest of Maple Avenue.  (And, recall, that’s a small MAC building.)  Seriously, does anyone really think that once they’ve finished it, including the 62′ tower, that somehow — it’s going to shrink, visually?  That once they put in the windows and doors, it’ll seem just like the McDonald’s next door?   I think that’s delusional.

I would feel slightly better about this, I think, if I could find hard evidence showing that disguising these big new MAC cubes actually will work, for most people.  So that even if those look big to me, at least the average citizen won’t notice.  If anyone can point me to that evidence, please email me, chogan@directresearch.com.