Post #212: Planning Commission meeting TONIGHT 3/27/2019, on 380 Maple West

Posted on March 27, 2019

On Wednesday 3/27/2019 at 8:00 PM in Town Hall, the Planning Commission will have a public hearing to discuss 380 Maple West (40 condos plus retail at the intersection of Maple and Wade Hampton).

PUBLIC COMMENT IS INVITED.    You may speak for up to three minutes regarding the 380 Maple West proposal.

The proposal

You can find the materials for this portion of the meeting at this link.  Documents 2 and 3 are the two slightly-different options under consideration.  That’s a first for me, as I though they were supposed to present a proposal for Planning Commission consideration.  Items 3 and 4 are the renderings (drawings) of the building, but be advised that these tend to be done so as to make the building look as attractive as possible.

I live just up Glen Avenue from this proposed building.  To me, it’s a poster child for everything that is wrong about MAC zoning for the Town of Vienna.

First, it has a high residential density. With 40 two- and three-bedroom condos on roughly 0.85 acres, this will likely pack in new residents at a rate of about 120 per acre (assuming an average of 2.5 persons per condo.)   This is about 20 times the residential density of Vienna as a whole (~16,000 people in ~2560 acres).  In fact, this one site will have almost as many dwelling units as all of the streets that feed into Glen Avenue.

Yes, it is smaller than 444 Maple West.  But it’s significantly more dense.  And if you expect much or all of the property at this end of Vienna to develop under MAC, it’s the density that matters.  The 444 Maple West building would not have been any less objectionable if they had promised to build that in different stages, at different times.  Which is what this will amount to, as the adjacent properties, in turn, are redeveloped under MAC.

And this new proposal, along with 444 Maple West, together?  They have more dwelling units than the entire neighborhood bounded by Maple, Courthouse, and Nutley.  And so, with the stroke of a pen, the Town has more than doubled the number of people who will be living in my neighborhood.  And by “neighborhood”, in this case, I mean that entire area — any place I could walk to without having to cross a busy road.

Second, the builder couldn’t have a building, at this density, with adequate parking, if they Town would enforce its four-floor rule.  It’s not merely that this building packs in a lot of people, it’s that, in order to do that, and have adequate parking, the builder added a fifth story, inside the building, for a second parking deck.

Note, please, I am not talking about legal parking.  MAC’s rules, with various “incentives”, allow parking that is extremely skimpy by Vienna historical standards.   So, sure, the builder could legally build this, with dysfunctional skimpy parking.  But to make the building work well, at this density, with retail, that fifth floor matters.

So far, Town of Vienna seems to look upon that fifth floor as an unambiguous good.  But the other side of more parking is more density.  I don’t think that a builder who takes pride in what he builds would intentionally skimp on parking, law or no law.  Perhaps if the Town didn’t allow that fifth floor in “four story” MAC buildings, we wouldn’t see quite so many residential units there.

So, as I wrote earlier, the message from the Town, to this and all future developers is, cram ’em in.  Make it  as dense as you can, and the Town will accommodate you.

Third, the building very nearly fills the lot.  And so illustrates the point I have made repeatedly about the “open space” clause in the current law:  It’s a joke. It’s a joke on anybody who was stupid enough to believe it would result in “parks and plazas”, or whatever the flowery language of the MAC statute is.  And it’s a joke that Town intends to keep playing, by changing it to an equally ineffective “gathering space” standard.  As illustrated here.  Just the legally-required setbacks more than account for the “gathering space”.

And this ignores that the “gathering space” is mostly directly adjacent to Maple,where the noise levels will make it difficult or impossible to carry on a conversation.  Finally, at the last Town Council joint work session, Councilman Noble seemed to get that point.

To clarify that last point, take a look at the Chick-fil-A-car-wash, the next time you drive by.  Imagine sitting in front of that — between the building face and Maple Avenue — on some Saturday afternoon.  Imagine trying to hold a conversation with your dining partner.  Well, all these MAC buildings are going to be more-or-less exactly that close to Maple:  20′ from the curb to the building face.  The only real difference between the “scale” of Chick-fil-A-car-wash and 380 Maple West is that the 380 building will be somewhere around 10′ taller than the top of the masonry on the Chick-fil-A building.

So here’s what your fine dining experience is going to sound like (this is the same recording I have posted several times on this website).  Note that this recording is mid-afternoon — this isn’t even as loud as it’s going to get.

Here’s the kicker:  This developer is merely doing exactly what MAC zoning incentivizes him to do.  Not only is this legal, this building exemplifies exactly what MAC zoning drives profit-maximizing developers to do:  FILL THE BOX.  Where “the box” is the rectangular solid determined by the lot-line setbacks and the height limit.  In this case, this box (sketch courtesy of John Pott):

The Box

This is what the Town is asking for, for the future of Maple Avenue.

Fourth, MAC is NOT about the commercial space in our commercial zone.  This lot will go from the current 23,620 square feet of commercial space (gross floor area, per Fairfax County tax assessment), to 7500 square feet of retail space.  With no clear need for the resulting retail space.   MAC is about housing, housing, and more housing.  And, as necessary, however much retail space is needed to comply with the law.  For a piece of legislation that was sold on the basis of a need to revitalize our commercial corridor, getting rid of two-thirds of the commercial space seems like an odd way to go about it.

Fifth, so, what do I want?  Basically, if I don’t have to see it, hear it, or deal with the traffic down my street from it, the Town of Vienna can put any cussed thing it wants to on Maple, as far as I’m concerned.  If the Town, in its wisdom, has now decided that something like the Chick-fil-A-car-wash sets the standard for what a small MAC building must be, and that all future fill-the-box MAC buildings must be that size or larger, so be it.  If they’ve decided that, in the long run, converting much of Maple Avenue to housing-with-vestigial-retail (aka, “mixed use”) is the plan, fine.  I don’t have to drive down Maple, I don’t have to shop on Maple.

So, first and foremost, I want enough tall evergreen shrubs to hide the back of the building entirely.  So I don’t have to see it.  Second, I want the two-level garage to be enclosed, not open.  So that I don’t have to hear it.  And, finally, I’d like the Town to close off Wade Hampton, or make it do-not-enter from the Maple Avenue direction, at the intersection with Glen.  So that I won’t have to deal with the otherwise-inevitable cut-through traffic from 444 Maple West and from this new building.

Beyond that, if the Town wants this type of development to be the future of Vienna, and the people of the Town of Vienna will put up with that, then vox populi vox dei.