Post #301: The 6/17/2019 Town Council meeting

Posted on June 18, 2019


The Town Council approved the 380 Maple West project (37 condos plus retail, Maple and Wade Hampton) by a vote of 5-2 (Majdi and Springsteen voting against).

The same Town Council turned down the Sunrise assisted living facility at Maple and Center by a vote of 3-4 (Majdi, Springsteen, Noble, DiRocco voting against).

I’ll have my usual audio file and index up at this Google Drive location.  Download both files (.mp3 and .xlsx) marked “2019-06-17 …” to get both the audio file and the Excel index showing what was said, when.

For the 380 presentation, Town Staff continued to work hard for the developer.  The question arose as to what the developer gained when the Department of Public Works agreed to narrow the road by four feet, from 36 feet to 32 feet.  Town staff blithely presented what I can only characterize as a piece of propaganda produced by the developer, showing a tiny amount of land.

The correct answer, by contrast, is the following:   If the developer is going to build a building of a given shape, where no part of that building may be closer than 15′ from the curb, then moving the curb by 4 feet allows the developer to move the face of the building by 4 feet.  In other words, the correct (and completely obvious) answer is that Town staff’s decision to narrow Wade Hampton by 4 feet allowed the developer to make that building 4 feet wider. All other things being equal.

Since “our” Town staff just accepted the builder’s propaganda rather than do their homework, let me rough in the rest of the math.  What was that little favor worth to the developer?   Moving the curb allowed the building to be four feet wider.  So that’s 4 feet x ~275 feet long x three sellable floors (ignoring the retail space), or about an extra 3300 square feet of sellable floor area.  Just to price that out, the condos on Center street appear to be selling for about $425 per square foot, based on this ad.  Ah, round that down to $400.

The decision to move the Wade Hampton curb 4 feet added maybe $1.3 million to the value of the building.  Such are the economics of urban land use.  For a building of a given shape, that decision to narrow Wade Hampton added 4 feet to the width of the building.  Assuming that these condos will sell for roughly what the Center Street condos are selling for, per square foot, then the rest is just math:  square footage times sales price gives you an additional $1.3 million worth of space tacked onto the value of the building.

A clear lesson in the value of having friends in Town government.

Oh, and what was the justification for narrowing Wade Hampton?  Apparently, it was to reduce vehicle speeds … on the one block of Wade Hampton that is 36 feet wide.  Which is a complete and total joke, but was a joke which “our” Town staff told with a completely straight face.  I believe that one recent traffic study showed that cars routinely travel at less than 10 MPH down that one short block between Maple and the “traditional” (old) part of Wade Hampton.

An interesting little tidbit is that the Town seemed to assert that it doesn’t have to abide by VDOT regulations regarding the streets that connect to Route 123.   Because we have our own road inventory, or something.  This came up in the context of VDOT regulations requiring minimum 12′ lane widths, which would require a road striped for three lanes to be 36′ wide.  Town staff then quoted VDOT regulations for two-lane roads being allowed to be as narrow as 29′.  Nobody, on the fly, picked up that our staff had switched up two- versus three-land roads … and that ended discussion.

So VDOT either does or does not have any say in the width of roads connecting to Route 123, and in any case, VDOT either does or does not require roads striped for three lanes to be 36′ wide.  I hope that’s completely clear.

Honest-to-goodness, it’s like nobody on the Town staff even bothered to look at the truck turn diagrams and such.  Between the narrower road, the building face just 20′ from maple, the brick wall even closer to the road separating the outdoor seating from the sidewalk, the proposed trees at the Maple Avenue curb , and the road striping for two outbound lanes on Wade Hampton — ain’t no way you’re going to have adequate sight lines down Maple for making a left turn out of there.  My guess is, the trees will be the first thing to go. And that anybody wanting to turn left will just cut through my neighborhood instead.

I’m not even going to bother to go on.  The truck turn and parking diagrams again appeared flawed to me, and did not match the proffer limiting truck traffic to 35′ trucks.  We have yet to see any diagram showing a truck making a right turn off Maple onto the revised Wade Hampton.  (And you won’t see that, because they can’t do that and stay within the striped lane.)  And so on and so forth.

As I said earlier, Town staff appear to let more-or-less anything pass as long as they kept to the schedule.  And that worked.  Our lame duck Town Council indeed passed this proposal.  So we’ll just have to live with it.

As a footnote, Councilman Noble called for a July 1 meeting item to ask the Transportation Safety Commission to study the neighborhood bounded by Nutley, Maple, and Courthouse.   This is the neighborhood that will bear the impact of both the 444 (Tequila Grande) and 380 Maple West developments.  FWIW, I can tell you where to start, in Post #291 (search “TRIM YOUR BRUSH“).

For the Sunrise assisted living proposal, the overt issue was parking.  Some businesses in the area complained that Sunrise would make a bad parking situation worse.  Sunrise appeared to be willing to do whatever it took to get the parking judged adequate, and at one point had managed to get a total of 81 parking spaces available for the assisted living by a combination of valet parking and off-site parking.

Their lawyer, in fact, spent a couple of minutes describing all the things they had proposed to do to make sure the parking situation would be adequate.  But all the buzz-phrases that the Town lauded when spoken by other developers (e.g., “Transportation Demand Management”) fell on deaf ears in this case.

So, all to no avail.  Thumbs down.

All the Sunrise discussion did was to convince me of the irrationality of this process.  This was, indeed, a tight fit for Sunrise in this location, as I documented in Post #279.  On this site, there is not room for both a minimum-efficient-scale assisted living facility (100 beds) and a lot of retail space.  Nor does the law actually require any retail space.  So the Planning Commission — not Sunrise, but the Town of Vienna Planning Commission — urged Sunrise to get rid of the retail space, freeing up parking for the assisted living facility.  Which they did.  And then Town Council did what?  They slammed Sunrise for the lack of retail space, and asked if they would to back and reconfigure the first floor to add that retail space back in.  Which they could not, without re-screwing-up the building, as outlined in Post #254.

In effect, Sunrise was put in the position of negotiating with an irrational and psychotic Town government.  Whether or not this was a bad site for an assisted living facility is debatable.  It was, as I noted above, quite a tight fit.  The green space available for the “memory care” section was quite limited. Sunrise had to work around two significant utility easements on the property.

The upshot of all that is that you could not have it all.  You could not have a functional assisted living facility and abundant ground-floor retail and adequate parking.  Rationally, you had to pick which two you wanted.   Except that the Town didn’t.  The Town Council didn’t have any rational discussion of the tradeoffs.  In effect, the Town picked all three.  And because Sunrise could not deliver the impossible on this site, the Town turned them down.

Town Council did not have the benefit of having listened to all of the Planning Commission hearings on this project.  So I’ll just pull out one thing that I heard — and in fact believed — from that prior discussion.

In the course of the Planning Commission analysis, the Sunrise representative made some key points about parking.  Mainly, that a) due to the limitations of the lot (two large utility easements), Sunrise was putting in about as much parking as would fit, on that lot, and b) assisted living in fact has lower parking demands than almost any alternative use of the land.

In other words, Sunrise made a pretty good case that, in terms of uses for this lot under MAC, and the parking issue, they were about as good as it gets.  If parking was deemed inadequate for this assisted living facility, it’s likely to be even more inadequate for any MAC-sized building that would be put on this lot.

The truly wild thing about this one is that not only did Town Council act irrationally, they didn’t even bother to review what the Planning Commission did before making this decision.    To his credit, Planning Commission chairman Gelb directly addressed the parking issue by looking first-hand at the parking situation in nearby facilities (Post #282, search “Chairman Gelb deserves a huge thanks”).  He did enough homework to suggest that a large chronic parking deficit was unlikely at this facility.  Nor did the Town Council pay attention to industry standard data, the “ITE handbook”.  Instead,  Town Council relied on anecdote. And if anecdote is the heart of the decisionmaking process, then no amount of fact or reason is going to get in the way of making an irrational decision.

The fact that “the Town” forgets or is unaware of the details of prior Town proceedings is a serious flaw in the decision-making process.   This strongly suggests to me that each relevant Commission or Board Chair should produce a written report of discovery, logic, and findings from their own analyses.  And that these written summaries of all the reasoning that has gone on, before the Town Council takes up a project, should be mandatory reading for Town Council before they make their decision.

Otherwise, dealing with the Town of Vienna is like dealing with a person with severe short-term memory loss.  Here, the Planning Commission urged Sunrise to address the parking issue (and the controversial mezzanine fifth floor) by reducing the retail space.   They did that and produced a much more functional building.  And then they got slammed by Town Council for the lack of retail space.  Town Council asked them to redesign the first floor — which would have resulted in going back to the building that, for sound reasons, the Planning Commission found so objectionable.

The bottom line for this whole process is that each developer has to satisfy the idiosyncracies of seven individuals — the Town Council members.  Each developer must kowtow to the contradictory and sometimes irrational set of demands that these seven individuals collectively impose.  These individuals may or may not be aware of the logic and analysis that went into all the prior changes in the proposal, such as the retail reduction suggested here by the Planning Commission.  And as a result, if you have no friends in Town government, and the seven individuals on Town Council collectively ask for something that’s literally impossible — well, you lose, plain and simple.

So, remember, kids, it’s critically important that elders in Town have a single-floor living option available.  When it comes to evaluating 380 Maple West.  It’s key to pretend that housing will be available at a different “price point” than what’s available in Vienna, even when the builder steadfastly refused to provide any estimate of likely sales price.  For 380 Maple West.  And it’s key to ignore what you just said, an hour ago, when evaluating the Sunrise proposal for assisted living in Vienna.