Post #282, Planning Commission final meeting on Sunrise assisted living

The Town of Vienna Planning Commission approved revised plans for a Sunrise assisted living facility at Maple and Center Streets.  The revised plans were the same as those that were introduced part-way through the last Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, and included:

  • the near-elimination of the retail space.
  • elimination of the mezzanine floor (i.e., the 5th floor)
  • reducing the 8′ fence behind the building to a standard 6′ fence.

I have placed my audio recording (.mp3) and “index file” to that recording (.xls) in this Google Drive directory.  Download both files (“2019-05-22 Planning Commission …) if you want to find and listen to specific parts of the discussion.

To see the updated plans, go to this webpage, and click for this .pdf document.  Floor plans and pictures start on page 12, the pretty pictures are on pages 19 and 20.

Those are the facts.  The rest of this is my highlighting of a few issues, and my speculation on what the Town Council ought to do (add public parking!).

Main results

Briefly, the Planning Commission helped the builder to fix the building, after it had been messed up by the Town’s initial demand for first-floor retail space.  The Planning Commission and Sunrise, together, did the heavy lifting on this one.  And they did that by removing (almost all) the retail space, one step at a time, which then allowed Sunrise to fix the problems that the Town’s demand for retail space had caused.  (N.B., there is nothing about MAC zoning that requires a commercial enterprise like Sunrise to have any retail space in the building.)

Here’s how we got to this point:  Sunrise needed to fit 100 beds (Post #205) onto a very cramped site (see Post #279).  But the Town wanted to see retail space along the entire Maple Avenue side of the building.  There was no good way to do that and still fit 100 beds into the building.  And so:

  • Sunrise first proposed a building with an illegally-large “mezzanine” (5th) floor.  The Director of Planning and Zoning tried to declare that this was legal, but nobody bought that.
  • Next, Sunrise reduced the retail space, brought some of their operations to the first floor, and proposed a smaller “mezzanine” floor that did not, in fact, meet the standard definition of a mezzanine.  (It was not “open to the floor below”.)  So Town staff pro-actively declared this new mezzanine floor to be legal, without any public debate.
  • At this point, most of the building had five floors, and looked like it, so Sunrise did their best to disguise that by adding an extra-tall back fence.
  • And, with the remaining retail space, the building appeared to most people (other than Town staff) to be under-parked.

At that point, this was a mess, all in order to accommodate the Town’s demand for retail space.  Sunrise had split some of their operations between part of the first floor and a walled-off pseudo-mezzanine second floor.  The remaining retail space was oddly-shaped and difficult to access.  The building was under-parked.  The building had five floors, so they were going to put an extra-high fence at the back to help disguise that.

That’s the point at which I wrote Post #254: Sunrise: Skip the retail, skip the 5th floor, have a better building, set a better precedent.  I was not alone in thinking that this was a better way to go, because when I got up at the prior Planning Commission meeting and said that, the Planning Commission then independently saw the logic of that approach.  They suggested that Sunrise consider redoing their building without retail.

Sunrise came back with a compromise that eliminates almost all of the retail space.  This allowed them to:  Move their main dining facilities fully to the first floor, eliminate the 5th (mezzanine) floor, remove the extra-tall fence that was there to disguise the 5th floor, and free up more parking places for the assisted living portion of the building.

Parking

At the prior Planning Commission meeting, the main concern about the building was the skimpy parking.  Additional comments focused on the large size of the building, and questioned whether an assisted living facility was the right choice for the very center of Vienna.

But in the main, the issue was parking.  There’s not enough parking in that area of town now, there’s little hope of getting a free-standing municipal parking garage in that area for years to come.  The parking for this building appeared inadequate to many observers, and was in fact well below the level that (e.g.) Fairfax County now requires for facilities of this type.  In addition, because we lack convenient public transit from the likely source of labor for this building (lower cost-of-living areas west of Vienna), there is an expectation that most of the Sunrise staff will drive to work.

Chairman Gelb deserves a huge thanks for checking out the parking situation at the nearby Hunter Mill Sunrise.  That facility has roughly the same number of assisted living parking places per assisted living unit as the new Sunrise proposal for Maple and Center.  He checked that facility at five different times in the past few weeks, times likely to represent peak parking demand.  Each time, there were some parking places open.  While acknowledging that some employees may park off-site there, he at least was able to satisfy himself that the proposed Sunrise will probably not be catastrophically under-parked at the new rate.

In addition, Sunrise proposed both some “transportation demand management” and “parking demand management” as part of their proffers.  These are programs designed to (e.g.) encourage workers to use public transit by giving them pre-paid fare cards and such.  Finally, there are an additional five parking places in the garage that can be used, but are too small to be counted under the zoning rules.  Sunrise can presumably direct employees to use the undersized spaces.

Town Council

Let’s face reality here:  The current pro-MAC Town Council was going to approve more-or-less anything that Sunrise submitted.  There are still a lot of issues that the Town is simply going to turn a blind eye to.  No matter how nice or not you think the building looks in isolation, a 62′ tall (max) building, 15′ off Center, matching nothing around it, is going to look as if it had been air-lifted out of another city and plopped onto that corner.  It is going to look ludicrously foreign in context.  There’s going to be a lot of truck maneuvering in Center street (food, medicine, supplies, waste for 100 residents).  Ambulance calls will be frequent.  Parking may or may not be adequate.  And so on.

The real question is, other than patting themselves on the back, is there anything useful that the pro-MAC Town Council members can do at this point?  Anything that the Planning Commission or the developer could or would not do on their own?  Or will the forthcoming Town Council hearings just be a victory lap?

I have two answers to that.

First, if nothing else, I hope that the Town Council will have the good sense to leave well enough alone, and not try to force more retail space back into the building.  Sure, the “lack of retail” is a concern, and that concern was raised at the Planning Commission meeting.  But I think Chairman Gelb summed it up well:  Every building involves compromises, and it is the role of the Planning Commission and others to judge which compromises work best for the Town.

In this case, they gave it a good try with retail, and it just didn’t work.  Even after making this about as big as it could be, there’s not enough space on the lot for a well-functioning 100-bed facility, significant retail space, and adequate parking.  You have to pick which ones you want, and of the three, the least valuable aspect was the retail space.

Second, I’ll take this one step further and ask this question:  Suppose you eliminated all the retail space, freeing up both the 2200 square feet of retail space in the current design, and the 12 associated retail parking places.  Is there any way to parlay that into 25-or-so public parking places, paid for by the Town, as part of this building?  And so help out the surrounding businesses that struggle with inadequate parking already?

After all the Town’s emphasis on retail and “vibrancy” and all that, I don’t think Sunrise would take the step of eliminating all retail from the building.  That might anger the pro-MAC Town Council members.  So my claim is that, whatever the logic of it, as a practical matter, Sunrise cannot suggest getting rid of that last vestige of retail.  That suggestion has to come from Town Council.

If this were feasible, Sunrise would expand the convenient ground-floor parking area for use by residents and guests.  And the Town would purchase (say) the least-convenient 25 spaces in the underground garage, for use as municipal parking.  And then they’d put in parking meters and charge a modest fee to park there, and let that serve as parking of last resort for that area.  (I.e., If there’s nothing available on the street, go park in the Sunrise garage.)

Perhaps this is not feasible, and perhaps this is just buying trouble.  For example, once you invite the public to park there, how do you keep them from parking in the free Sunrise-only spaces?  (But how would you keep them out, in any case, in this parking-short area?)

But look at the alternatives.  As is, you can have a single oddly-shaped retail space that cannot be used as a restaurant, that is physically part of the assisted living facility, and that is not adjacent to any other shops.  It’s hard to imagine what can make a go of it there.  Or you could get rid of that and have (maybe) 25 spaces of underground metered public parking.  And a larger share of the Sunrise-dedicated parking would be convenient ground-level parking for Sunrise guests.  This also “hedges your bet” on Sunrise being adequately parked.  If it is under-parked, the solution could be for Sunrise employees to use the metered spots, to be reimbursed by Sunrise.

Process issues

I just want to point out that on the heels of the “mixup” over the Marco Polo site (Post #245 and others), we once again have the building plans changing materially mid-stream.  In this case, the builder literally brought out the new design in the middle of the last Board of Zoning Appeals meeting.  Planning Commission then saw the new design after close of public comment.  The public never commented on the new design so we don’t know (e.g.) if the surrounding business who objected on the basis of skimpy parking would now be OK with the building.

And this now goes to Town Council.  So as with 380 Maple West, the schedule is tight as a drum.  Everything else, not so much.

My point here is not that I think the changes resulted in a materially better building.  My point is that we’ve established that a free-wheeling “anything-goes” approach is how we do things in Vienna.  Once we do that, we have no room for complaint if we get another Marco Polo-type mixup, one that results in a worse building being substituted into the process on the fly.

Summary

I would rather not see this building in Vienna, but it’s obvious that the current Town Council is going to pass it.  So I did my bit to try to get people to see the light about the harm that the retail space was causing.

As it stands now, this building:

  • Is a true four-floor building, and sets no precedents for what I term “pseudo-mezzanine” floors.
  • Has more parking available to support the assisted living portion of the building, though the parking is still less than what (e.g.) Fairfax County currently requires.
  • Is more functional for Sunrise, with the main dining area moved fully to the first floor.

But in addition:

  • It’s 62′ to the highest corner, 15′ off Center street, in a style totally foreign to anything currently on Maple Avenue.  It will loom over the abutting lots.
  • Will likely be, at best, a quiet spot dead-center in what the Town hopes will become a “vibrant” downtown area.
  • May or may not be adequately parked as is, in a generally under-parked part of Vienna.
  • Has one remaining, oddly-shaped retail space that seems, to me, to be likely to struggle.

Given that this will pass, my only suggestion for something positive Town Council could do would be to consider what could be done if the retail space were eliminated entirely.  My suggestion is to see if eliminating the retail space would allow some form of public parking.  At that point, depending on costs, you could ask yourself which you would rather see:  One more bit of retail that looks like it might have a hard time succeeding, or easier parking in that part of Vienna.  It’s almost a sure bet that the adjacent business owners would go for the latter.

The only people who can relieve Sunrise of their retail burden are the people who insisted on it in the first place.  If this is a viable final change, it’s up to the Mayor and the pro-MAC Town Council members to make this happen.  Sunrise is not in a position to be able to suggest this change on their own.