Post #207: The last half hour of the 3/20/2019 joint work session

Posted on March 24, 2019

I attended last week’s joint work session of the Town Council, Planning Commission, and Board of Architectural Review.  But I only caught the first few hours of it, and left around 11:45.  As it turns out, the last half hour or so was probably the best part.  I downloaded the Town’s audio, and here’s a minute-by-minute summary of what happened in the last half hour of that meeting.

In brief, the basic idea that “things have have changed and are changing” was prominent.  Building methods, the nature of retail, the lack of demand for office space, all of these have shifted substantially in the past decade.  The idea of evaluating some alternatives to the current MAC configuration (four stories and nominally 54′) seemed to be on the table.  Though it was far from clear that this was accepted.  It was clear that any alternatives would have to be vetted for being “feasible”, i.e., being something that builders could profitably build on Maple. 

And I have to credit Councilman Noble for bringing up the issue of road noise and the usefulness of the areas directly adjacent to the road. This is an issue that I have harped on repeatedly on this website, and this is the first time that the issue has surfaced in Town pubic discussion.

Detail follows.

Background:   At this point in the meeting, they have talked at length about three versus four stories, density, the history of MAC, what can and can’t be built, and so on.

It is clear that majority of people who have a firm opinion feel that the current four-story and (nominally) 54′ limit are required to attract new construction. There were other options considered as MAC was developed (including even taller buildings).   As MAC was developed, they considered allowing larger buildings only in the central business district (where the commercial lots do not adjoin residential lots), but they did not want to create “winners and losers” among Maple Avenue property owners. And there was at least one opinion that 54′ was chosen based largely on how it looked, not on the economics of it.

If I had to characterize it, I would say that the individuals most deeply involved in creating the current MAC zoning were the strongest to defend it.

It was also clear that a handful of people around the table thought that the Town ought to consider a three-story limit, or something between three and four stories.

So, let me pick up the meeting at 3:45 into the Town’s audio recording, which you can find at this link (Note, if it does not play, try the Chrome browser or download it.)  Times below are approximate.

3:45:00 – 3:51:30 — Paul Layer, chair of the Board of Architectural Review, talks about how construction methods have changed, how retail has changed, and that you really have to focus on what it is feasible for builders to do.  His suggestion — made twice in this section — is that the Town needs to ask people who really know construction costs (i.e., builders) to assess what it is feasible and not feasible to build on Maple Avenue, before you change MAC.

3:51:30 – 3:53:30 — Councilman Majdi agrees with Layer, and that any alternatives to MAC need to be evaluated to see if they are realistic.  But his main point is that we should, now, in fact, evaluate some alternatives.  And he returned to an earlier point, which is that MAC as written tilts economic incentives strongly toward residential construction, and away from commercial and retail construction.  He says that this is particularly true due to the substantial parking requirements for commercial interacting with MAC incentives to have (expensive) parking garages (“structured parking”), rather than (cheaper) surface parking lots.

3:53:30 – 3:54:00 Patty Hanley, member of the Board of Architectural Review, suggests asking not just developers about costs, but also commercial lenders and commercial real estate brokers.  So that we have multiple independent takes on this from informed sources.

3:43:00 – 3:55:00 BAR member Couchman (I think) makes the point that the collapse of the office market also drives this toward housing.  They originally thought these buildings would include significant office space, but that’s not happening anywhere in Fairfax.  So the lack of office in these mixed-used buildings is not just a Vienna phenomenon.

3:55:00 – 4:01:30 Vice-Mayor Noble notes that, at this point, we are not going forward into new business, but really just  commenting on what occurred today, in this meeting.  Noble’s initial focus was on making the building code and the various Town master plans consistent.  E.g., MAC has a “typology” of side streets, and the Town Comprehensive Plan needs to match that.  We don’t have a master plan for parks, and we need one, because people living on Maple will use the parks.

Then be brought up the noise issue.  After walking on Maple recently, he believes we need to take a serious look at the issue of traffic noise in the “zone 3” outdoor spaces — what might be restaurant seating between the building and Maple.  When traffic is moving at speed (30 MPH), it’s difficult to hold a conversation, particularly as the buildings will reflect sound.  Some of this is (e.g.) tire noise that could be reduced by dropping the speed limit.  Some can be handled with plantings near the sidewalk.  Once you get well away from the road, the noise drops off rapidly, but within (say) 20′ of the road, it’s loud.

In terms of MAC exceeding the capacity of our infrastructure, the town’s Mster plans provide some idea of the buildout of the systems, and any impact that development has on that should be handled by proffers from developers.  (I.e., if development requires additional infrastructure to handled it, the developers should be asked to pay for that.)

Finally, the building code itself needs to be made consistent.   There are some elements where MAC created a unique definition — mezzanine is one key example — and where that occurs, definitions should have been updated in the Town Code as a whole, rather than just in the MAC section.  If something is already in Town code, and needs improvement, then do it throughout the code, don’t just write the improved definition into the MAC section.

4:01:30 They begin planning the schedule moving forward.  And that continues to the end of the meeting.  I’m not sure there was a firm date set for continuing this.