Post #257: Brief report on the 4/29/2019 Town Council meeting

An overflow crowd attended the Town Council’s first public hearing on 380 Maple West (39 condos plus retail, corner of Maple and Wade Hampton).  A total of 41 people spoke during the public comment period, with (by my count) 8 in favor of the development and 33 against.  All told, public comments lasted for nearly two and a half hours.

At the prompting of Councilman Springsteen, the Town “kept the public hearing open”, meaning, they will take public comments again, on this topic, at their next meeting.  The rules for that were not made clear.  For Planning Commission, you may speak twice as long as you don’t repeat yourself.  I don’t know what the rules are for the this next portion of the public hearing.

The Town has already posted its video file.  I am having even more trouble than in the past trying to get the Granicus website to play the video.  And the option to download the file appears to have been removed.   Here is the link to the video of the meeting.  Perhaps you will have more luck with it than I have.   http://vienna-va.granicus.com/player/clip/345?view_id=1

I went ahead and posted my audio file with Excel index to this Google Drive directory.  Look for the .mp3 and .xls files named 2019-04-29 …   The times in my index file will match my audio, but the Town video started at a different time.

Here are my takeaways.

First, I was surprised by the level of attendance at this meeting, and by the number of speakers.   I had assumed that a handful of the neighbors would show up for this, but I saw a large number of people that I did not recognize from any prior MAC-related meetings.   There weren’t quite as many people as showed up for the hearings on 444 Maple West.  But there were enough that the overflow space was needed.

The reason I was surprised is that this isn’t of the same scale as 444 Maple West.  It’s more dense (more persons per acre) but it’s not the football-field-sized building that 444 Maple West was.  I’m not sure whether the interest here means that the Town more generally is becoming aware of MAC, or merely that via various channels, enough people were alerted to this meeting.

Eight people spoke in favor of this, which was a new record for pro-MAC speakers by a wide margin.  I joked afterwards that any time a guy got up wearing a suit jacket, that was going to be a “pro” speaker.  Of the “pro” speakers, three were from the same block of Spring Street.  The geographic clustering struck several of my acquaintances as odd, but neighbors tend to stick together.

One “pro” speaker owns the stone house on Maple, 320 Maple Avenue East, and operates long-standing Vienna business Vienna Vintner.  He talked about the difficulties of finding space in Vienna to run a small business, other than in strip malls.  Several factors make that an interesting property on Maple, and it did not appear that he was speaking out of self-interest (in the value of Maple Avenue land).

The “anti” speakers were largely but not entirely concentrated in the neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed building.

If you’ve been following this, I don’t think a lot of new information came out.  Maybe I’ll summarize that in a separate posting.  In a nutshell, anti: Too big, not enough open space, looms over the neighborhood, cut-through traffic.  In a nutshell, Pro:  tax revenues, new business, revitalization, “walkability”, looks nice, asset to the Town.

Realizing that I’m very much against this, in general, I’d say that the “pro” speakers were long on opinion but not on fact and logic.  For example, there was an extended riff on the abandoned gas station at Maple and Park.  Apparently the speaker was unaware that the Town had already taken care of that, and that the new owner will not only put the property back in order, and build a mini-mart, but will also put the utilities underground and build the mandatory broad sidewalks.  More generally, there were numerous references to high retail vacancy rates and and empty storefronts, which, empirically, is simply false (see also Post #201.)  And as an economist, I could not figure out the logic of most of what was said about MAC, business, and rents.  I think I heard that small business can’t make it with $65/sq ft/year rents, and that’s why we need MAC.  But that ignores the $60/sq ft/year that is currently being asked for 444 Maple West. I think it also ignores the fact that what has gone into the mixed-use retail space on Broad Street in Falls Church seems to me to be  mostly national chains,  not unique local businesses.  But I have not done my homework there, so I can’t be sure of that.

Second, I was surprised that the Town left the public hearing open. They didn’t do that for 444 Maple West.  Really, it’s just a courtesy, but … maybe they didn’t feel they had the time with 444 Maple West?  Maybe they are feeling a little more pressured for open government now?  Hard to say.

Which brings me to my third point, the 100-day rule (Post 247). This is finally being questioned in public, and it’s about time that happened.  That said, even though no-one has ever given an explicit definition of what the 100-day rule actually is, I think I heard it morph in this meeting.  For 444 Maple Avenue West, when I did the arithmetic at the time, the clock for the 100 days appeared to start with the first Planning Commission public meeting.  Leaving scant time to (e.g.) keep a public hearing open.  But in this meeting, I think I heard a date, for Town Council, that was 100 days from the day on which the Planning Commission approved 380 Maple West.  That’s a very different hundred-day rule.  Either I messed up my arithmetic before, I messed it up now, or … they just kind of make it up as they go along.  Or something.  I will try to gather the accurate facts on this for another post.

A special shout-out has to go to John Pott and Vienna Citizens for Responsible Development for floating a trial balloon. And I mean, literally, a balloon.  At a recent Planning Commission (PC) meeting, there was some controversy over how big the building would look, from the neighbor’s back yard.  Commissioner Kenny brought up the idea of floating a balloon — apparently a standard trick of the trade.  If the building is 54′ tall, you put a helium balloon on a 54′ string, stand where the corner of the building will be, touch the string to the ground, and the balloon gives you an accurate physical representation of where the top corner of the building will stand.  Pott and crew did just that, and I don’t think enough people paid attention to that picture.  If I can get a copy of that, I’ll post it here.