Post #254: Sunrise: Skip the retail, skip the 5th floor, have a better building, set a better precedent

The Sunrise Assisted Living proposed for Maple and Center is an oddity in a lot of ways.  Step-by-step, the Town and the developer have arrived a compromise of a building.  It’s a building designed by a committee, in effect.  And if you work through how we got here, to this particular design, maybe you’d come to the conclusion that there might be a smarter way to do this.  Maybe a true four-floor building, with no ground floor retail, might make more sense than what we ended up with.  But the Town would have to give up its fixation on ground-floor retail space to make that happen.

How did we get here?

First, Sunrise, as a corporation, never has first-floor retail in its buildings.  That’s a special requirement of the Town of Vienna.  And that’s not even what MAC stipulates.  MAC requires “commercial use”, not specifically retail, on the ground floor along Maple Avenue.  The requirement that this be retail space is just the preference of some members of the Town government, notably the Mayor.   Per Fairfax County, assisted living is a commercial use.  So there’s no legal requirement to have retail space there — that’s solely being done to respect a preference for retail on the part of certain members of Town government.

Second, in order to meet what appears to be a 100-bed standard operating model, Sunrise added a large fifth (mezzanine) floor. They need that space for public areas and additional rooms.  But the initial proposed floor was too large to be legal.  The Director of Planning and Zoning first tried to declare that the mezzanine size rules only apply to residential mezzanines, but nobody bought that. So Sunrise came back with a new design that had a smaller mezzanine, walled off from the space below.  But, because that doesn’t meet the plain language of the definition of a mezzanine (“open to the space below”), Town staff pre-emptively declared that to be a legal mezzanine, before there could be any pubic discussion of it.  So, it qualifies, not because it’s open to the space below, but because the mezzanine floor interior wall has windows.  So we have not merely a 5th floor, but a non-standard walled-off-mezzanine 5th floor.

Third, as part of that change, the retail space shrank from 8500 square to the current 5700 (or so) square feet.  Due to other limits on the building, that space cannot be used as restaurant space.  And, as was pointed out by Commissioner McCullough at the last planning commission meeting, there are just 11 full-sized non-handicapped ground level parking places to serve that retail space.  (The remainder of the required retail parking is underground.)   That seems skimpy even by the tight standards of the other retail establishments in the area.  So it seems to be retail space with a lot of strikes against it.

Fourth, the rent from this retail space is negligible in the context of the overall facility.  Sunrise is going to have about 100 beds (best guess, based on 83 or so rooms).  A reasonable guess for an average rental rate would be about $8000/month/bed.  (You can see data on base rates of about $5000/bed/month — for individuals with little need for assistance — in Post #205.)  In other words, the assisted living portion of the building will have gross rent on-order-of $10M/year.  Even if Sunrise could get $60/sq ft/year that is currently being asked for 444 Maple West , the gross rent from the retail portion of the building would amount to maybe 3 percent of the gross revenue from the building.

Finally, if you look at the retail space of the equivalent Kensington Assisted Living in Falls Church, you find it occupied by a public art gallery (i.e., they more-or-less gave it away) and what appears to be a sleepy little coffee shop.  “Vibrant” is not the first word that comes to mind.

In summary, what we end up with is a unique building that does not fit Sunrise’s standard model, that requires a special exception for the mezzanine floor (and thus sets a precedent).  It has first-floor retail that a) is of no particular economic consequence to the building’s owner, b) can’t be used for restaurant space, and c) has inconvenient parking.  It seems …. well, let’s just say it …. doomed to struggle.

And, to be clear, we got here mainly due to the insistence on first-floor retail space.  But if I’ve assessed this right, at the end of the day, that first-floor retail isn’t much of an asset to anyone.  All these contortions, for some hard-to-use retail space on Maple.  Where, right now, we have a couple of medical buildings that, while technically retail, were hardly “vibrant” to start with.

What could we do instead?

By measuring the drawings, it appears that the current mezzanine floor has an area of just over 10,000 square feet. And, while the current retail space is just 5,700 square feet, the required parking for that retail takes about as much square footage as the retail itself.  (One space for every 200 retail square feet, a standard space is 9′ x 18′ = 162 square feet, plus the space needed for the aisles in the parking area.  Just eyeball any of our modern one-story shopping centers — the parking lot is about the size of the stores.)

Arguably, then, if you got rid of the first-floor retail, you’d free up maybe 11,000 square feet of space.  Although much of that newly-freed space is undesirable underground parking space.

That said, this is in the ballpark, in terms of a trade-off of no retail for no fifth floor.  Plausibly, Sunrise could get their 100 beds in a true four-floor building with no ground-floor retail space.

For example, removing one row of ground-floor parking, and moving the laundry room to the basement, together (by my measurement) would free up another 3300 square feet or so.  At that point, the resulting 9,000 square feet of space is within shooting distance of fully offsetting the loss of the mezzanine floor.  (And there’s still some free space left in the basement.)

I don’t know Sunrise’s care model.  For the assisted living facility where my mother lived out the last decade of her life (Tall Oaks in Reston), dining was on one floor only, and everyone had to use elevator or stairs to get to and from the dining area.  In that setup, a large first-floor dining area would be a sensible use of the (former) retail space.  But for Sunrise, it’s not clear that having full use of the first floor, but no mezzanine floor, would meet their needs.

So this may or may not be just so much hot air.  It depends on whether Sunrise could get the required beds into the building in that alternative (no retail, no 5th floor) configuration.

The only point I want to make here is that once you realize how we got here, to this convoluted configuration, maybe it’s worth taking a minute to step back and say, how about no retail and just four floors?  If that’s unworkable, then so be it.  But if it gives Sunrise a more functional building, and sets no new precedents for five-floors-counted-as-four-floors, I’d say that would be a win.

Regardless if what you think of this idea, given how much this design has morphed in so little time, maybe it’s still worth stepping back and re-assessing the end results.  Assuming, that is, that the Town’s planning process allows you enough time to do that.