Post #304: Where do we go from here, part 1

Posted on June 26, 2019

At this point,  we have four MAC buildings approved and a moratorium on new MAC rezoning applications until (I believe) November 15.

So, what do we do next?  First, let’s recap recent events. 

Recent events

First things first:  MAC zoning is just the tip of the iceberg:   The Town is planning to overhaul all of the zoning in Vienna, to encourage redevelopment.   You can read about that in this posting.   So the people who have been such cheerleaders for MAC zoning will be in charge of rewriting all the zoning laws here.  While we have to address MAC, we have to be mindful that Town staff are opening up a second and much larger front in their drive for more redevelopment in Vienna.

Second, the Town government’s public conversation about where to go with MAC is stalled.  The Town government had two lengthy work sessions about how best to change MAC, but there were no conclusions.  (See Post #261, Post #207, Post #203.  And that’s probably all to the good, because, with the exception of some work by Councilman Majdi, the proposed changes to MAC mostly doubled down on the most objectionable aspects of the existing MAC statute.

(Think I’m kidding?  Read Post #227 for the Town government’s history of doubling down on MAC.  And here are some examples from the draft changes to the MAC statute:  The totally-ineffective 15% open space requirement would have changed to an equally useless 10% “gathering space” requirement.  The language limiting buildings to four floors would have been removed/modified/ambiguated so that five (or more?) floors would be OK, adding further density to MAC developments.  Buildings with a footprint larger in area than a football field — like the one that drew 1100 signatures in an on-line protest petition — would be made explicitly legal.)

Planning and Zoning had a much-heralded set of citizen “workshops” that were supposed to provide crucial guidance, but nothing came of that.  There are some scans of individuals’ comments available on the Town website.  (And it was set up to be biased in the first place, so even if there had been results, it’s not as if they would have been representative of Vienna opinion.)

There was supposed to be a traffic study to assess the capacity of Maple Avenue to absorb more traffic.  But that’s now the “Multimodal such and such and such” study, and there will be no analysis of how much traffic Maple can bear without degrading the “level of service” at the traffic lights.   Because, apparently, now the word is that such as study cannot be done.  Instead the focus is on — well, let me say, the focus is on the itty-bitty slice at the top of this diagram.

And let’s not forget the “visual preference survey”.  It’s hard to be too critical of that, but I think the results say it all.  After intensive and rigorous analysis (aka, eyeballing the results), Town staff announced that the what Vienna citizens had spoken for, via that survey, was an additional 8′ of sidewalk width along Maple.  Woot.

All of this predates the Town election, where three-quarters of votes cast were for anti-MAC candidates.  Two newcomers won seats based on a platform of opposing MAC buildings.

Summary:  While this review has been fun, it’s not really getting us anywhere.  My only real point is that you’d be crazy to expect any real help from the Town’s Department of Planning and Zoning in scaling back MAC.   Our DPZ is wedded to MAC-as-it-exists, they promote it vigorously, they have shown every indication of doing whatever it takes on developer’s behalf to ensure that redevelopment occurs (e.g., Marco Pologate, e.g. any-rationale-for-a-fifth-floor), the only changes they propose to MAC would codify buildings the size of 444 Maple west and allow more than four floors.  And they’ve started the process of revising the entire Vienna zoning code to encourage more redevelopment, before anyone has a clue how these MAC buildings will turn out.  Nothing suggests they would be helpful in an exercise aimed at reducing the size and scope of MAC redevelopment.

And, to be clear, I’m not trying to be mean, I’m just trying to be realistic.  Any efforts to scale back MAC zoning will likely get no professional assistance from Town employees in DPZ. 

What do Vienna citizens want?  Smaller buildings, more green space.

This one turns out to be remarkably easy to answer.  And the answer makes sense.  Really, all you have to do is ask them in some unbiased manner.  Which I did.  And you can read the answer here, in detail.  (See this post for detail and important caveats on the survey that generated this table.)

It ain’t rocket science: Smaller buildings, more green space.  Not exactly a surprise, is it?  Just take what’s been proposed for the typical MAC building (tall building filling the lot, with no public green space) … and do the opposite.

Can we achieve that?

Of course we could write a law that (e.g.) only allowed three-story buildings, required deeper setbacks from the lot lines, and required some substantial green space.  We could do that by taking the existing MAC statute and substituting new values for the building height and setbacks, and by revising the “open space” rule to exclude any double-counting of space and to exclude space not directly accessible by the public.

So that’s not really the question.  If there were the political will, of course we could rewrite the law.

The real questions are a bit deeper than that.   At this stage, I’m just going to skim the surface.  So this is to be continued.

First, would anyone build new buildings with those restrictions?  I think we have some evidence from the proposed new building on Church Street that, at least in some instances, three floors is enough to attract investment.

But this gets to the basic question of why we have MAC in the first place what is MAC supposed to do, what problem is MAC supposedly solving?  Do we really want or need new buildings along Maple?

Some point to “decay” along Maple as a rationale for MAC.  To me, looking at this as an economist, much of that talk seems to stem from the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the recession that followed, and the flat real estate prices and tax receipts that Vienna faced in the ensuing decade.  As I have documented elsewhere, the state of Maple Avenue retail is pretty good.  To me, the “decay” issue does not hold water.  I think it’s a stalking horse for people who simply don’t like the way Maple Avenue looks now.

Others view “mixed use” buildings as a benefit in their own right, with the idea being that Vienna needs more dwellings that are not single-family homes.  I have yet to see empirical evidence to support this, such as trends in apartment rental rates versus single-family home prices here in Vienna.  (Presumably, if there were excess demand for apartments, rental rates would be rising faster than home prices?)

Still others simply want newer structures on Maple.  They would opt for new buildings with the idea that they’ll look better than the existing buildings.  Me, I would not have moved here if I found the downtown to be unattractive, but apparently there are people who simply object to (e.g.) shopping centers in our commercial district.

Second, would a down-sized MAC reduce developers’ profits enough that we could not extort builders into (e.g.) paying to put power lines underground?  (And, why should they pay for it, and what is it worth, really, to have those lines underground, and what’s the Town’s plan for finishing that once all the MAC-developable properties have been redeveloped?).

And more generally, does that reduce the scope for (e.g.) asking for green space on the lot or other amenities for the Town.   In other words, if we ever got to a point where the Town really was asking for “parks and plazas” as part of MAC zoning, would more restrictions on building size reduce the Town’s ability to obtain such amenities?  There’s no free lunch.  Lower overall profit means less profit to be apportioned to the amenities that the Town might want.

Third, do we want to allow larger buildings in the core downtown area (i.e., on those lots that do not abut residential areas, possibly on those lots not adjacent to residential areas.  (I mean, larger MAC buildings there, and and smaller ones elsewhere).

Fourth, does the Town have any plan at all for what happens on Maple?  And should it have a plan?  Right now, what we have is four more-or-less random building sites, with four more-or-less random buildings, based on where businesses had failed or could be bought cheaply.  I guess, by default, that’s the plan.   Otherwise, all we have is one redevelopment zone,  far larger than any other successfully commercial shopping area in this region … and that’s it.  That’s the entire plan.

That seems inadequate to me.  Is this what Falls Church did?  I’m pretty sure the answer to that is no.  Maybe we should start by studying what Falls Church did.

Beyond that, does the Town have a plan for what to do with the sidewalks and the power lines once the dust has settled on MAC?  So far, no.  Dealing with the power lines, in particular, will be costly.

Fifth, can we please admit that Maple Avenue is a huge dis-amenity:  It is a 33,000-vehicle-per-day arterial highway with all the noise and pollution that implies.  If I ran the Town of Vienna government, the first thing I would do is have the Town Council conduct a work session on MAC, seated at a table placed 15′ from Maple Avenue, during rush hour.   Without electronic amplification.  Just let them enjoy, first hand, the zone that they have promoted as being such a public amenity for the Town of Vienna.  If it’s such a wonderful “gathering space”, then let them gather there for a couple of their meetings.

Finally, for now, there are basic legal and process questions that remain unanswered.  If we are going to proceed, we need clear, documented answers to these questions.

  1.  Is there a 100 day rule or not?  If so, can somebody in Town Government please state exactly what it is, i.e., when does the Town Council’s supposed 100 days start.  Then, can the Town Council please pass one line of legislation to align itself with more-or-less every other entity in Virginia, and allow up to one year for consideration of rezonings?
  2. Does the “Statement of Purpose and Intent” of the MAC statute have any legal status or not?  (This was discussed in Post #262 and Post #263).  For some reason, Town staff want to rename that section to be merely the “preamble” (why?).  The Town’s lawyer seems to have a said that nothing in that “Statement of  Purpose and Intent” is legally enforceable.
  3. Can the Town legally turn down MAC projects that meet the letter of the law?  I think that the Sunrise assisted living facility project proved that the answer here is “yes”, but it would be nice to have a formal opinion that explicitly says that.
  4. How soon does the Town have to start taking action if it is to extend the moratorium on MAC zoning?  As I recall, there is a lengthy process requiring public hearings.  At this point, I doubt that the Town is going to have a revised version of MAC ready to go by November.  Somebody needs to be paying attention to the calendar and, if necessary, start the process for a further extension of the MAC moratorium.

This will be continued in a series of posts, starting tomorrow.