Post #274: The 5/13/2019 Town Council meeting — updated 5:30 PM 5/14/2019

Posted on May 14, 2019

Last night, the Town Council had (what turns out to be) just the second part of its public hearing on the proposed 380 Maple West development (39 condos plus retail, corner of Wade Hampton and Maple.   The audience more-or-less filled Town Council chambers.  Town Council took public comment, and had a bit of discussion, but that was about all.   They’ll have yet a third session of the public hearing on this on June 3.  Read below to understand why that third session of  the public hearing has nothing to do with wanting to hear from the public.

As usual, my recording and Excel “index” file are posted at this link on Google Drive.  Look for the .mp3 and .xls files “2019-05-13 Town Council …”.  Use the index to find passages you want to listen to, then go to the indicated offset in the audio file to listen to them.  The Town will eventually post the video for this, which you should be able to find via the link that says “video” on the Town’s website home page.

My overall impression:  Based on the near-silence from the pro-MAC Town Council members, I think it’s a foregone conclusion that this one is marching toward being passed.  As it turns out, the Town did not follow required legal processes, there’s going to have to be a third session of the public hearing so they can pretend to have followed the law, the written proffers were missing and/or handed to the Mayor at the last minute, the depiction of truck access was wrong for the third or fourth time,  the whole undergrounding-the-utilities-thing is still up in the air, there’s a basic misunderstanding about what counts as “pervious surface”, and so on.

To me, all of this sloppiness seems consistent with the actual decisionmaking:  The pro-MAC Town Council members are going to vote for this under any circumstances.  So it doesn’t really matter whether they’ve followed the law, or what state the application is in.  Or that two of the “yes” votes are lame ducks — something which Fairfax County explicitly bars in its deliberations.  The only thing they can’t be sloppy about is the timing of the vote.  They have to have that occur before the new Town Council members are seated.  And it certainly appears that they are doing everything to ensure that happens.

So, in terms of what matters — getting it done before the new Town Council members are seated — this process is tight as as drum.  In terms of everything else, not so much.

Detail will follow.  I will be adding to this throughout the day.

A total of 34 individuals stood up and spoke during the public comment section of this meeting.  Of those, 26 were individuals who had never spoken on this topic before.  None of the repeat speakers were individuals who favored the development.  By my count, the score was 24 against, 9 for, and one neutral.  The nine pro-MAC speakers is a new record, but I will point out that this included both the developer’s wife and several people who live in houses built by the developer.  Correspondingly, two of the anti-MAC speakers were sons of the individual whose property is directly adjacent to the proposed building.

Some items of note.

Well-intentioned but unhelpful:  Arbitration or negotiated settlement

Councilman Springsteen brought up the idea of having the developer and the affected neighborhoods sit down to some form of arbitration.  This is the first of two ideas that were well-intentioned, but probably not helpful in practice.

You can read this post for what happened the last time the builder and the neighbors sat down together.  And to figure out why, just get the audio file at the Google drive link above, and cue up the developer’s soliloquy at 2 hours 18 minutes into it, to around 2 hours 33 minutes.  Here, for your convenience, just press play:

Go ahead and listen to the whole thing.  If you were among the neighbors, would you want to try to sit down with this guy?  After being called,  more or less, a bunch of liars?   I can tell you, I wouldn’t.  But form your own opinion.

Just as an example, if you actually bother to listen to that excerpt.  If a building is 54′ above Maple, and the ground slopes down 6′ between Maple and Glen, then how far above the ground is the building at Glen — where the neighbors are?  If you can you do that much math, you can understand why nobody that I have talked to thinks arbitration will be helpful.

Well-intentioned but actively harmful:  Press the neighbors to cede property.

Councilman Noble pressed the idea of asking the neighbors to cede property/sell property to add sidewalks on Wade Hampton, as part of this deal.  Once again, that was well-intentioned.  I’m sure Councilman Noble was thinking of this like an engineer.  But he should have thought through the economics of what he was asking.

After having the builder denigrate the neighbors over this issue (see audio above), and having one of the vehemently pro-MAC Town Council members echo that, Noble stepped up to ask the question.  More or less, this:

Noble:  “Would you, the neighbors, give up/sell part of your land for sidewalks”?

Perfectly reasonable as an engineering issue.  Now, let me translate that question, as an economist sees it:

Translation:  “Would you, the neighbors who hate this building, at no net cost to the builder, give up your land to make this building more palatable to the community, and so make it more likely that this building will be approved.  Oh, and help make the builder look like a good guy in the process.  And, by the way, I should mention that if you don’t agree, the builder will hold that up in public, at the next meeting, as example of how unreasonable the neighbors are.  Just as he has in the past.”

Let me be completely clear.

I realize the Councilman Noble is an engineer, and I realize he was just trying to make some progress, but he was not able to connect up all those dots, on the fly.

And so, contrast these two situations.

If, ten years ago, the Town had asked the (then) land owners to sell land so that sidewalks could be completed, that would be one thing.  Maybe they’d say yes,  maybe they’d say no, but the sole issue would be public safety.

But now?  Now they’ve linked that to jamming this building through.  They’ve made it so that they would be giving up their land for public safety and to help the builder get his way. And, as icing on the cake, at no net cost to the builder — all he was going to do was take the money for the sidewalk to nowhere, and spend it on this instead.

And if you say no, you’ve handed him the right to wrap himself in the flag.  Look at those hypocrites, they complain about public safety issues but won’t lift a finger to help.

So, to be clear, the only answer the neighbors can rationally give, at this time, is not merely no, it’s it’s hell no.  As in, hell no, I’m not going to help make it easier for this guy to build this building here.  For at least the reasons I stated above.  If they wanted to be polite, they would say “not at this time, ask me once a decision has been made on the building.”

Putting the power lines underground.

I have made my opinion about this whole strategy known, several places, on this website.  Probably my most coherent analysis is in Post #210.

I believe the estimate mentioned here was over $0.5M, for what looks like maybe a few hundred feet of undergrounding.  I don’t think that even included the materials.  Plus extras for the phone and cable.

The actual extent of undergrounding is not clear, but that sounded a little more expensive than the other estimates in Post #210 cited above.  But only modestly more expensive.

It more or less lines up with the other estimates, and just reinforces my only real point here:  It costs a flaming crapload of money to put the utilities underground, and … maybe there are better uses for all that money. 

Hilarously enough — and I only have this as hearsay, because I did not attend the meeting — while the Town is more than happy to have the developer spend HIS money on this, when the Town is spending its OWN money for creating a new police station … then undergrounding the utilities did not appear justified.  So if I have that right — and that’s a big if — this is a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do situation.

So as much as it pains me to say it, I’m with the developer on this issue.  If the Town wants to put the utilities underground, the a) the Town should pay for that and b) they should do Maple all at once.  In my opinion, it’s not worth it, period.  But doubly so when you do it piecemeal, a few hundred feet at a time.

Failure to file notification with Fairfax County

John Pott, a member of Vienna Citizens for Responsible Development, pointed out that Vienna did not follow the law with this rezoning.  Commonwealth law requires that any proposed rezoning within half a mile of the county border be reported to Fairfax County at least 10 days prior to the first public hearing by the Planning Commission.  That was some months ago.

The Town’s response was that yes, they had failed to do that.  But, via the Town Attorney, the remedy was apparently that they’d keep the current public hearing open until they can get that filed.  How that corrects the defect with the Planning Commission hearings, I cannot fathom.  But as with most of what comes out of the Town regarding MAC, a rule is a rule when they want it to be, but not otherwise.

So, despite the fact that the Planning Commission hearings apparently were not done legally, that’s just going to be swept under the rug.  To do otherwise would disrupt the schedule.  And so … I think that’s the logic behind that.

I’ll point out that this was discovered by citizens, not by our Department of Planning and Zoning.

Cut-through traffic

The citizens are concerned about increased cut-through traffic.  If you’ve followed this issue, you know that.  The only thing I want to add is a response to the builder’s belittling of the neighbors on this issue.

See, according to the builder, he told us what-for on this issue three years ago, but we’ve just been too lazy to go to the Town and get anything done.

The correct story is that we’ve gone to the Town, and, per the Mayor, the Town will not act proactively to prevent traffic issues.  The response we got is that there is a well-defined process for asking for traffic calming measures, and that’s that.  Our sole option is to wait for this to be come a problem, and then, get in line with the rest of the Town.  If and only if it meets the (soon-to-be-revised) criteria for traffic calming — only at that point will the Town take any interest in traffic calming (never abatement!) measures for the surrounding neighborhood.

In other words, the fact that MAC mixed-used buildings are unprecedented on Maple, and that the Town is planning to double the number of dwelling units in our neighborhood with 444 Maple West and 380 Maple West — none of that matters to the Town.  When it comes to this, Rules are Rules and cannot be adjusted.

Trucks, truck turns, elimination of public parking.

Once again, these next items are things that were discovered and pointed out by citizens,  not by our Department of Planning and Zoning.

Developers have to show how trucks get onto and off of the property.  The “autoturn” diagram filed with the application shows that.  The autoturn for the last iteration of this was clearly wrong, and some citizens pointed that out.  This time, it still appears to be wrong, or at least ambiguous, and again with some prompting by citizens, Councilman Noble pointed that out.  Noble went further to ask them to show how the garbage trucks (larger than the standard 30-foot straight truck that should have been modeled) will maneuver on Wade Hampton.

Separately, as I have pointed out in Post #238 and an earlier post, it certainly looks like the plan for three outgoing lanes on a narrowed Wade Hampton will eliminate almost all of the currently-used PUBLIC parking spots on Wade Hampton.   My best guess is that somewhere around 10 heavily-used valid, legal PUBLIC parking spots will be eliminated.  And that those individuals will then park in the side streets.

Just look at Park Street northbound where it hits Maple (Post #238).  That’s the exact same dimensions and situation as will occur on the revised Wade Hampton.  It’s 32′ wide, striped for three lanes — and there are no parking places in sight.

The reason I highlighted PUBLIC above is that this seems to get lost in the discussion.  The developer repeatedly confounds this loss of PUBLIC parking with the PRIVATE parking in the proposed building.  And manages to be publicly aggrieved on account of it.  But PRIVATE parking is no substitute for the loss of the free PUBLIC parking, unless the builder proposes to allow the public to park for free in his building, which I would judge to be unlikely.

I didn’t even bother to bring up the fact that the Town is going to have to rebuild the west (toward Oakton) corner of Wade Hampton at Maple.  Trucks will be unable to negotiate the sharp corner when cars are waiting in middle of the street, in the new proposed turn lane.  You cannot, of course, tell that from the autoturn diagram supplied with the proposal.  In any case, I made that point in detail to the Planning Commission, and I think one Commissioner heard me.  But if the Town doesn’t care enough to check that out and have the builder pay for that, so be it.  They’ll figure it out after-the-fact, then we can all pay for it.

The point is that Wade Hampton is going to be a busy little one-block industrial area after this change.  Right now, you’ve got a small office building with direct access to Maple, and trucks can do their maneuvering in the parking lot.  And you can swing wide, into the middle of the street, when making the sharp right from eastbound Maple to southbound Wade Hampton.  But if this building goes up, everything in and out of this much larger building will go via a narrower Wade Hampton and all truck maneuvering will be in the street.  And that corner will be an issue whenever a truck trying to turn right from Maple to Wade Hampton conflicts with a car trying to turn left from Wade Hampton to Maple.


“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

To my ear, not much of what the pro-MAC speakers said was very fact-based.  Lot of threats.  There was a threat of lawsuit.  There was the threat that Vienna would become a ghost town. There was the statement that Vienna retail was losing out to Tysons and Mosaic retail.  There was the statement that no redevelopment was occurring without MAC.

All of these reminded me of what I hate about social media:  Everybody has a firmly expressed opinion, nobody feels the least compunction to do a bit of homework.

But mostly, I thought of the quote above, from Yogi Berra.  These people seem to live in a different town from the one I live in.  Go shopping at the Giant Food shopping center around noon on any Saturday and then tell me we’re becoming a “ghost town”.  Ditto for the shopping center formerly known as Magruders, at lunch time M-F.

Or do any type of objective estimate of the retail vacancy rate, as I did in this post.  With followups in Post #201 and Post #208.  But the Town is dynamic, and things have already changed materially since I did that estimate.  The other half of the FedEx building is now let (to Mathnasium), several of the smaller unlet storefronts are full, but Windover Square shopping center (Lawyers and Maple) now seems to be in a death spiral.

Hand-in-hand with this is the other non-sequitur that keeps coming up in the pro-MAC testimony:  Maple is devastated by empty shops, and yet, how high the rents are.  In general, high rents for retail spaces signal that opportunities for making money are good.  Unless the point is to say, let’s flood the market with more retail space to bring down rents.  But the already-advertised $60/sq ft/year rents at 444 Maple West should give people pause before making that argument.

The interesting thing is that at least some of these assertions could be tested with data, if anybody cared to know the facts. Particularly the one about business being siphoned off by Mosaic and Tysons.  I can think of any number of ways to get some crude estimate of the extent to which that matters, or is even true.

But I want to return to the issue of high rents and vacant retail space, because there is one scenario in which that makes sense from an economic point of view.  That may make sense if you are trying to empty your building out for eventual redevelopment.  Rather than simply terminate leases at turnover, it may be more profitable to raise rents to get tenants to leave.

I think the rents are high and vacancy rates are normal because, in general, Maple Avenue presents good opportunities for making money in retail.    That would be the normal state of affairs.  But if we begin to see a combination of high rents and high vacancies, maybe that signals that the “Oklahoma land rush” phase of MAC development is in full swing.

That said, I can see that the Town’s tax revenues from other-than-real estate grew sluggishly the past few years.  But absent more data, it’s hard to say what’s going on.  For one thing, there is no sales tax on services, so the conversion of Maple from goods-oriented retail to services-oriented retail would, by itself, reduce tax revenues.  (Here I should note that I know the Town doesn’t collect the sales tax, but it does share the local portion with the County via an arcane formula that I have yet to understand.)  At some later point, I will see if the Town releases the detailed data that would let someone look objectively at this issue of “ghost town Vienna”.

Finally, the other repeated pro-MAC argument was that people need a place to downsize, in Vienna, as they age.  They need single-floor living.  That’s a fair point, but it’s not relevant to the older generation living in the remaining modest houses in Town.  Which I would judge to be most of the oldest-old population in Vienna, and the majority of individuals post retirement age.  For them, best guess, these new condos will cost more than their single-family home does, and will require a condo fee in addition.  For example, I believe they are (or were) asking more than $900K for the one remaining condo at 901 Glyndon SE.  Whereas the little brick ramblers built around 1960 or so might sell for $600K in today’s market, for their tear-down value.  So building single-floor condos in the expensive Maple Avenue commercial corridor is a solution for some, but should not be construed as providing a solution to the problem of downsizing the housing stock of the typical elderly resident of Vienna.

Separately, you really don’t want your elderly relatives living next to an arterial highway, due to the air quality issues.  I went through the basics of that in this post. Search “ high levels of air pollution directly adjacent to a busy road” to see the relevant material.