Post #302: Taking the measure of Mosaic

Posted on June 19, 2019

At this point, we have a little breather from MAC.  Assuming that the moratorium on new MAC applications is not extended, we have a little less than five months to think about where we now stand, and where this is all heading.   If that moratorium is extended — something I will argue for at length — then we have longer.

Now is the time to look back, separate fact from fantasy, and try to evaluate the proposed redevelopment of Vienna’s Maple Avenue commercial district in a more realistic light.

First, though, I think it’s worth studying (what most would agree is) a local success story — the Merrifield Mosaic District.  Maybe try to learn a few lessons from that.   For now, the only lesson I’m going to look at is a geometry lesson.

I’ve already contrasted the situation in Vienna with that in Mosaic in this posting from nearly a year ago.  That post was written at a time when more-or-less nobody in the Town of Vienna would acknowledge what a huge dis-amenity Route 123 is, used by 33,000 vehicles per day on average.  That, despite providing objective evidence (per this post) and subjective evidence (per the sound recording in this post) about the noise level from traffic.

But the other thing that got lost in the discussion is the basic geometry of Maple Avenue.  The MAC zone is a straight line slightly more than 1.5 miles long, split by an arterial highway.  Like so:

Just for fun, contrast to these famous strolling/shopping districts (taken at random from this list of the best shopping districts in the world).

  • Via Montanapoleone, Milan:  0.2 miles (reference).
  • Bond Street, London:  0.5 miles (reference)
  • Fifth Avenue, NY (49th to 60th streets):  0.6 miles (calculated from reference).
  • Strøget, Copenhagen: 0.7 miles  (reference).
  • The Magnificent Mile, Chicago:  ~1 mile (reference).
  • Champs-Elysees, Paris:  1.2 miles (reference).
  • Ginza, Japan:  1.5 miles (reference).
  • Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills:  2 miles (reference).

I hope you get the drift.  If the goal here is to convert Maple Avenue into a pleasant, walkable/strollable “destination shopping” district, we may have bit off more than we can chew.  The MAC zone is longer than almost all of the world’s great shopping districts.

How does it compare to some local but maybe not-so-great shopping districts?  Surely the largest mall in this area has to be Potomac Mills.  End-to-end, Potomac Mills is a bit less than 0.7 miles, less than half the length of the MAC zone. 

Tyson’s Corner Mall?  That’s less than 0.4 miles end-to-end — more or less one-quarter the length of the MAC zone.

Returning to the Mosaic District, how does that compare to the MAC zone.  More specifically, if you start at the heart of Moscaic — Strawberry Lane Park — how far must you walk to get to the outermost shops?  About 0.2 miles to get to MOMs organic market (one end of the district), about 0.25 miles to get to the other end of the district.

In other words, Mosaic is set up so that everything of interest is no more than a quarter-mile from the center of the shopping district.  There is no hard-and-fast rule for the distance or time that a typical person is willing to walk to get to a shopping destination.  But in the US, for urban planning purposes, one-quarter mile (or roughly five minutes) is the most common value used.  Though by no means is that the only value used  (This reference provides a readable discussion.)

Let me now draw a quarter-mile radius in the MAC zone, centered around Patrick Henry Library.  I choose that point because the Town is planning to put a large parking garage there (sometime in the early 2020’s, presumably).   So here’s what an area with Mosaic-district-like dimensions would look like, overlain on the MAC zone, centered at the Patrick Henry Library (courtesy of

In fact, I can directly compare the MAC zone to the Mosaic district by overlaying maps (at the same scale).  That’s the picture below.  The entire picture is the MAC zone, from the Town of Vienna boundary at the left to East Street at the right.  The highly colored rectangle is the entire Mosaic District (plus the adjacent shopping center) drawn to the same scale.

I am doing this because I think people will have a hard time believing this.  The Mosaic district seems like such a large area.  But it’s not.  Mostly, it’s a very dense area.  Yes, there are lots of shops and restaurants.  But they are in a geographically compact space.  And they are not in an area bisected by a busy arterial highway.  Those two factors are what makes Mosaic well-suited to be a walkable destination shopping area.  And the lack of those two factors makes the (entirety of the) MAC zone ill-suited to the same purpose.

My only point here is that merely stating that you want to convert the MAC zone to pedestrian-friendly destination shopping is … not realistic.  Unrealistic to the point of being crazy.  Or, at the least, not-very-well-thought-through.

In its entirety, the MAC zone is longer than the Champs-Elysees.  It’s longer than Potomac Mills Mall, or Tyson’s Corner Mall.  It’s vastly larger than the Mosaic District.

Pick your point of reference, it doesn’t really matter.  The MAC zone is too large, too spread out, and contains too much ordinary retail (such as grocery stores and drug stores) to become one big walkable destination shopping district.  To assert the contrary, you either have to be crazy, or have faith that Maple Avenue will outshine the great shopping destinations of the world and exceed the most notable shopping destinations in our area.  Which itself is crazy.

Looking ahead, we have to start from a realistic assessment of what Maple Avenue is.  And then see what, if anything, we would or could change.  Just throwing some buzzwords at it (“walkable”, “destination retail”) is no substitute for a detailed analysis of what is and is not feasible.