Post #203: A summary of the 3/20/2019 public meeting.

Posted on March 21, 2019

The Town Council, Planning Commission, and Board of Architectural Review met jointly last night.  I  believe that’s a first for Vienna.  The meeting started at 7:30.  I gave up around 11:30 or so and went home.  My understanding is that they went until just past midnight, so I’ll have to listen to the Town’s audio recording to catch the last of it.

I’ll post my recording of the audio on a separate page, once I have cleaned up the noise and such.  The Town should have its audio recording up no later than tomorrow, so if you want to listen to it, you might do better by waiting.  I have no doubt that the Town’s recording will be better than mine.


Facts were thin on the ground.  Let me just give the facts here, and leave any interpretation to the sections below.

  1. The schedule for revising MAC has been extended to October.
  2. The MAC moratorium on new buildings will (should) likewise be extended.
  3. They are going to continue discussion at another meeting.

I think that covers it for facts.  For the rest of the four hours, I don’t even know where to begin.  I’m going to discuss:

The about-face on the schedule.  In a complete turnaround from just last week, the MAC moratorium will be extended to October.

What is building mass.  As it turns out, when the Town talks about reducing building mass, that has absolutely nothing to do with reducing the size of the building.

Getting feedback from citizens.  Or, more properly, how not to go about that.

Are smaller buildings an option? I think we got a kind-of-firm maybe on that one.  At least, several of our elected and appointed officials talked about that in ways that seemed to make sense.

Guidelines morph into guidance.  Or law.  Or something.  So the things that were guidelines were now presented as law.  But I think that’s incorrect, as I explain in this section.

The about-face on the schedule.

Up until this meeting, the party line from Planning and Zoning had been that the hurry-up schedule was no problem, they’d have the MAC revisions finished well before the June 27 end of the MAC moratorium.  Rock solid.  Unwavering in the face of considerable heat from three Town Council members.

The only caveat per Planning and Zoning was if the citizens of Vienna said “no, no, no” at the forthcoming “community workshops”.  But there was never going to be any serious attempt to get an proper estimate of citizen opinion regarding MAC.

And now, that’s all gone.  Poof.  Down the memory hole.  Moratorium extends to October, or so.

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What is building mass.

Thanks to a simple, direct question by Councilman Majdi, we actually now have some explanation of what the Town means by building “mass”.  He literally had to say “length x width x height” to bring some clarity to this.

So, thanks to that question, I now know that if I want to have a factual discussion about the size of a building, I have to say something like “building volume”.   Because building “mass” isn’t that.  Furthermore, mass apparently … has nothing to do with that.  Nothing to do with (e.g.) the height of a building.  So this chart, focusing on objective measurements of the size of these buildings, is NOT what the Town is talking about when they say “less massive” buildings.

Instead, “mass” is the impression that the architect gets when looking at the building on paper.  When there is more architectural detail, the building appears “less massive” to the architecturally trained eye.  Whereas a blank building face appears “more massive”.

That seems fair to me.  So “mass” is a term that architects use to describe, in effect, the degree to which the face of a building has been broken up by windows, doors, offsets, and other architectural detail.  A drawing of a blank facade appears “massive”, a drawing of an intricately detailed facade is “less massive”.

Unfortunately, and not clearly stated, there seems to be the additional belief, on the part of the Town, that adding detail will make the buildings seem smaller in real life.  I have already done a thorough rant on this, bottom of this page.  I won’t repeat that here, other than to say, I would love to see some actual empirical evidence that this is true.  Which is a nice way of saying, I doubt it.

So, to be clear,

  • When the Town talks about “less massive” buildings, they are not talking about producing smaller buildings.  “Reducing building mass” is their code phrase for adding appropriate architectural detail. 
  • And, again courtesy of some simple questions by Councilman Majdi, we have also clarified that reducing building “mass” has nothing to do with (e.g.) reducing the number of persons living there.

I really can’t fault them for taking a common word and using it as jargon.  That’s confusing, but that’s not unusual.  Where I have a problem with this is the unquestioned belief or assumption that “mass” will actually correspond with how people will perceive the building, standing next to it in real life.

I think that assumption is wrong.  But, at least I now I understand why the Town thinks it somehow is doing us a favor, by adding architectural detail to a building without materially reducing its sizeWithin their echo chamber, they hold the belief that citizens will be fooled into thinking the building is smaller, without reducing builder’s profits by requiring a building that actually is smaller.

In the end, then, to me, “mass” is basically a dodge.  It’s a way for the Town to claim that buildings are smaller, without actually materially reducing their size.  But at least, at this point, we can talk in a common language.

Maybe I’ll get some t-shirts printed up:  MASS ≠ SIZE

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Getting feedback from citizens.

To cut to the chase, the Town still is not “getting feedback from the citizens” in any way that I consider reliable.  But at least — again thanks to a few simple sentences from Councilman Majdi — we have a little more clarity about that.

First, the proposed system of getting feedback via Post-It notes appears to have been scrapped.   It now appears to have been replaced by getting feedback via “worksheets”, as citizens complete various elements of the forthcoming Community Workshop on MAC.

But Majdi made the obvious point:  The Town isn’t actually going to let the citizens see any significant alternatives to MAC-as-written.  So, a simple sentence like “would you prefer to limit building height to three stories or four stories”, nothing like that will be an option.  In exactly the same way that the “visual preference survey” never gave a three-story building as an option.

So, Majdi nailed that.  His point was about getting citizen feedback on something like his alternatives to MAC.  He won’t get any unless they have another community workshop.  Which then, apparently, got put on the table. So we may end up with a series of community workshops.

The only point I care to add is that ad-hoc uncontrolled non-random samples of opinion are more-or-less worthless for finding out where the average citizen stands on these issues. 

True anecdote:  I grew up in Manassas.  At one point, a developer wanted to build an amusement park right next to the Manasssas National Battlefield Park.  One  county supervisor said he had proof that citizens wanted that, because he had surveyed them.   Turns out, he surveyed them at the Prince William county fair.  Which, in case you’ve never been to one, is more-or-less a temporary amusement park.

If you understand what was wrong with that methodology, then you will get it when I say that any ad-hoc method for gathering opinion is unlikely to provide accurate results.  (Where “accurate” means providing a good estimate of the average for all Vienna residents.)  The more ad-hoc, the less likely to be accurate.  I’ve said all I care to say about the current method for obtaining citizen input, this on this page.   Either you get it, or you don’t.

In this regard, Commissioner Kenney got it right, in my opinion.  If we want to know what people think, do a proper survey and provide them with images of buildings that all have the same amount of floor space, configured different ways.  A narrow five-story building, somewhat broader four-story, broader-still three story, and so on.  Give the people a properly structured set of choices, and ask them to rate them.

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Are smaller buildings an option? 

Several people around the room brought up (e.g.) a three-story limit.  So maybe that is being taken seriously.

First, I have to hand it to Planning Commission chaiman Gelb, who absolutely nailed the key question.  When they put MAC together, they weren’t sure what was going to work, to bring in new buildings.  They looked at five floors versus four floors, and figured (hoped) that allowing four floors 54′ was enough to bring in new construction.

Now, in a nutshell, they know for sure that four is enough, because they’ve gotten all these proposals to build.  Is it now time to reconsider that and say, hmm, maybe three floors, properly done, would be enough to bring in development?  To me, if you believe that new development is necessary, then that would seem to be the key question, from where I stand on this.

Second, I have to hand it to Councilman Majdi for getting in the second key point regarding three-floor buildings.  I’m going to paraphrase.  At this point, all we are getting is proposals for buildings that are as big as the law allows.  Instead of having a default of four-floors, and then having the Town beg the builders to make the buildings smaller, why not have a default of three floors, and let the builders beg the Town to make them larger?

In other words, let’s shift the starting point for the negotiations in favor of smaller buildings.  (Which, see Gelb above, would then let you test the market for three-story buildings, instead of just taking flatly rewriting the law.)

To me, it was one of those things that was simultaneously brilliant, and yet, not exactly rocket science.  And of course, it was immediately both attacked and misinterpreted.  As I heard it, Majdi held his ground.  And I certainly hope he continues to do so, and that this idea comes up again.

So, I hate to sound hopeful, but there were several people around the table who, quite reasonably, in their own separate ways, brought up the idea of “maybe three floors would work”.  All I can say is, please keep saying that.

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Guidelines morph into guidance.  Or law.  Or something.

Go back a few months, and you’ll see that the visual guidelines for MAC were just that — guidelines.  They were to be a lengthy statement — with illustrations — of the type of construction that the Town wanted to see.

But, as with the visual guidelines currently written into MAC, they would not have the force of law.  What actually determines whether a building is legal or not is the language of the MAC statute — the height limit, setbacks, floor limit (or not), and so on.  Not the pictures of the styles the Town prefers.

But now, I’m not sure what the guidelines are.  And I don’t know if that was fuzzied-up on purpose, or merely by accident.  But I definitely think that needs to be clarified.

Because, now, as I heard it, the guidelines are kind-of part of the law.  But I’m not sure that the Director of Planning and Zoning actually said that.  She said they’d be an appendix to the MAC statute.  And parts of them would be referenced in the statute.

And yet, I’m pretty sure that, despite everything said, the visual guidelines will not, in their entirety have the force of law.  Except sometimes?  Maybe?

So, as with many prior discussions (see “mass” above, see walkability here), the Town staff left me completely baffled on this one.  The Director of Planning and Zoning certainly worked hard to give the impression that these “visual guidelines” would be law.

But if you start to think about the details, a) I don’t think she actually just-plain-said, this will be the law (she said, this will be referenced as an appendix to the law, and more to the point, b) these guidelines are not written in a way that can be enforced as law.

Let me just give one example.  The Town would like to see varying building height, and they want to see buildings that look like they were actual city buildings, built over time.  But there’s no quantity there — there’s no minimum amount of building height variation specified.  In short, there’s no law there.

So, to be clear, they are never going to be able to declare that a building is illegal, under MAC, for having too little variation in building height.  I guess they can hassle the builders by pointing to a picture and saying, make it look more like that.  But in terms of legal or not?  No, they can’t use some pictures and illustrations to declare a building illegal.

So this doesn’t turn these guidelines into law, in the sense of what determines legal or illegal.  This is still all about the good will of the builders, and their willingness to forego profits in order to produce somewhat smaller buildings.  This is really no change from the status quo.

The only thing this does is address a point made by BAR chairman Layer:  Architects do what you ask them to do.  They work for the builder.  And if nobody tells the architect that building height must vary, then … don’t be surprised when building heights don’t vary.  The moral of that story is, if you want building heights to vary, you have to set this up so that the developers will ask the architects to vary the building height.

As I see it, these guidelines don’t fundamentally change the situation one bit.  We are still in the situation where the Town must request that the builder create a less-profitable building in order to meet the Town’s preferred architectural style.  In this case, a building with a mix of three-story and four-story segments (i.e., true variation in height.)  So far, profit motive has trumped any type of requests from the Town.  It’s wishful thinking to believe that will now change, just because we have a better set of illustrations to use when making that request.

Instead, look at what they are actually writing in the law, to see how this will play out.  They law is NOT requiring true variation in the number of stories.  The law is requiring that some portion of the fourth floor be set back 10′.  And then they will give that space back to the builders, by letting them build on the street setback in the gathering space.

So, in the end, I think this is just another attempt to muddy the waters.  What actually matters, for determining building mass volume, height, and density is the statute.  And appending these guidelines to the statute does not make them law.

Some parts of them, where they are strictly quantified, as in the sidewalk widths and such, plausibly, those can have force of law.  You can just say, dimensions of the sidewalk must match section such-and-such of the visual guidelines.

But places where the guidelines are just that — just a discussion of the style the Town would like — it’s nonsense to say that’s law.

This discussion was further muddied by a Commissioner who conflated “guidelines” and “guidance”  These guidelines, she said, are just like legal guidance issued by Federal regulators.  I believe that’s false.

Guidance issued by a regulatory agency is a statement defining a situation that they believe to be legal, under a particular regulation or statute.  It’s a statement clarifying the behavior that the regulatory agency believes complies with the regulation.  Or, behavior that they believe clearly does not comply.  Although guidance is not legally binding — it does not substitute for the law or regulation — there is an an assumption that obeying the guidance means you won’t be prosecuted for breaking the law.  If you do exactly as the guidance says, you should be fine.

Now go back to the visual guidelines, and you soon realize they are not, and cannot be, guidance. Other than a few sections that strictly quantify (e.g.) the dimensions of the sidewalk.

Let’s suppose, for a moment, that the Town had some vague part of the MAC statute that required building heights to vary.

Guidance on building height variation would be something like this:  If no more than 50% of the building is four stories, we believe you are in compliance with our height-variation regulations.  That’s guidance.  It’s a clearly defined line demarcating what is known to be acceptable.  If that’s the guidance, the builder knows that a plan with 50/50 mix of four- and three-story will pass the height-variation rules.  And that if they propose something that is (say) 75% four-story, the building risks being deemed out-of-compliance with the law.   And that risk was made clear, up front, by the guidance.

In short, guidance has teeth.  It’s not the law, but it’s close.  It tells you what behavior is (more-or-less) guaranteed to be legal.  And, by inference, what behavior puts you in a gray area.

A visual guideline on building height variation is a set of pictures showing buildings that vary in height, along with a statement that the Town would like to see something along those lines.   That in no way tells the builder whether a particular proposal complies with any height-variation rule.  And I’m pretty sure that if a builder comes in with a 100% four-story building, the Town can’t use those pictures, and that request, as ground for declaring  the building illegal under MAC.

Visual guidelines, where they are not accompanied by quantities (e.g., setbacks shall be 28′), have no teeth.  They are not guidance.  At least, not as I understand that term.

The practical point I am trying to make here is that just because the Town puts nice pictures in an appendix to the law, that doesn’t mean that builders are legally required to build nice buildings.  They are required to comply with what’s written in the law.  And saying, we have some pictures of buildings with height variation, and that’s what we prefer — that’s not law.  Not even if you put it in an appendix.  Again, not as I understand that term.

If you take the law, and point to specific quantities as shown in that appendix (e.g., sidewalk width), then, sure, that little piece of the visual guideline becomes law.  So they can and will make some part of the visual guidelines the law.  That in no way means — and should not be implied — that those guidelines, in their entirety, will be law.  And it was that implication, made in this meeting, that left me — and I suspect, others — confused.  And it’s that implication that needs to be clarified, and corrected, in public.

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