Post 310: Why no plan?

Posted on July 1, 2019

This brief note is a return to comparing Maple Avenue to the Mosaic District.  This post is one of those rare ones where I had a genuine “aha” moment.  I finally got a little bit of clarity as to why MAC zoning seems so clueless to me.  It’s a short post, read on to see if you agree, or click to get down to the “aha moment” to get the gist.

People talk about transforming Maple Avenue into a “vibrant, pedestrian-oriented” shopping district.  But I have yet to see even the most basic analysis of whether or not that’s feasible.  It sounds good, but has that idea ever been subjected to any rigorous criticism?  How, exactly, is this supposed to happen?

In Post #302 I did the simplest bit of analysis possible:  I compared Maple to Mosaic in terms of size .  The highly-colored rectangle is a map of the Mosaic District, to scale, overlain on a map of Maple Avenue.

Just with that simple comparison, I think I can say that the simplistic notion of converting Maple Avenue into “a” — i.e., one — “vibrant, pedestrian-oriented” shopping district is probably a non-starter.  It’s too big for that.

Taking this step by step, then, logically any “vibrant, pedestrian-oriented” shopping district arising from MAC is going to have to be some subset of Maple Avenue.  Not the whole thing.  (Or some subsets, if there are multiple such districts).

So, what’s the plan for doing that?  The most basic question might be “Where, on Maple, is that “vibrant, pedestrian oriented” shopping district supposed to go?”  Or, more to the point, there is no plan for that.  No actual, feasible, detailed plan for generating one or more smaller, human-scale shopping districts under MAC zoning. A plan for (say) a Mosaic-scale shopping district at the center of Town?  Or several smaller districts?

Can we agree that a handful of mixed-use buildings randomly scattered up and down Maple, based on (e.g.) where a business had failed, a) does not constitute a plan and b) is unlikely spontaneously to generate that “vibrant, pedestrian-oriented” shopping district.  If so then …

Now we come to the aha moment:  Why is there no plan?  I mean, the analysis above must have been evident to the consultants who helped the Town develop MAC.  And I think I know the answer.  Such a plan would require (e.g.) dividing Maple Avenue into different zones, then treating those zones differently.  Or, perhaps, incentivizing some types of development in some areas, but not others.  That approach was, in fact, part of what the Town’s consultants proposed for MAC.  But by the end of the process, that concept had been eliminated.  How did that happen?

The Maple Avenue land owners who were on the MAC steering committee (see this post or this post) would not allow any differentiation within the MAC zone.  In effect, the Maple Avenue property owners imposed a requirement that all Maple Avenue property be treated identically.  It would have been “unfair” to do otherwise.  (This was stated as a fact at the last joint work session (BAR/PC/TC), although I cannot at this moment find my reference to that.)

And with that restriction, the utter, total, goofy plan-less-ness of MAC now makes perfect sense.  The lack of detailed planning wasn’t by design. It wasn’t done to benefit the Town, or with an eye toward transforming Maple into a showpiece.  The lack of any detailed plan is purely a side-effect of the Maple Avenue property owners all wanting to get an equal slice of the pie.  They insisted that every piece of property in the MAC zone get the exact same treatment.

And so, between the time when it was first conceived, and the time it was made into law, MAC devolved from some idea of a thought-through plan, with different zones along Maple, to a first-come, first-served free-for-all.  What one of our Planning Commission members characterized in the 5/1/2019 joint work session as now devolving into an “Oklahoma land rush“.

The upshot is that we have no actual plan for developing a portion of Maple into a “vibrant, pedestrian-oriented” shopping district because we have no plan, period.  Any sort of planning was stopped by the Maple Avenue property owners’ insistence that all properties be treated identically.

And with that, two additional totally insane aspects of MAC zoning now fall neatly into place:  no plan for sidewalks, no plan for power lines.  If you had a compact, continuous, planned shopping district, you wouldn’t need plans for those.  MAC would generate uniform sidewalks within that zone, and put all the power lines underground within that zone.  But with scattershot development?  Randomly placed buildings?  You’ll get little chunks of broad sidewalk and underground power lines scattered here and there.  But the Town has no plan — as far as I can tell, has never even considered developing a plan — for what it is going to do patch Maple Avenue back together again.

I have already written up my take on the broad sidewalks, in this postIf you think through what the Town would have to do to create one continuous stretch of 20′ “MAC” sidewalk, it’s a nightmare.  Seize property, destroy parking, and so on — in those places where it would be feasible at all.  Read the link just above.  And so, the Town turns a blind eye to the lack of a plan, and ignores the fact that isolated chunks of broad sidewalk are essentially useless.  If you need these new broad sidewalks to get people to walk to stores, then … having just isolated patches of them prevents development of Maple into a “vibrant, pedestrian oriented” district.

Ditto for the power lines.  MAC won’t put the power lines on Maple underground.  It will put bits and pieces underground.  I criticized the Town repeatedly for the lack of any plan for putting the rest of the power lines on Maple underground, mainly because that’s going to be expensive (see Post #210).  Only after I called this out did the Town finally commission a feasibility study on this issue.  (I probably should have claimed that one in Post #312)

So, what do they think will happen?  Five guesses.

And so, what is the thinking here, vis-a-vis this goal of having some  “vibrant, pedestrian-oriented” shopping district on Maple.  Is there any thinking?  I can only speculate.

Guess #1:  They expect randomly-placed isolated MAC buildings to be able to generate “vibrancy” in isolation.  So that you won’t need continuous, planned areas of redevelopment, each building will generate its own little bit of pedestrian-oriented “vibrancy”.  I think that’s unlikely because the scale is too small, but I could be wrong.

Interestingly, in the draft rewrite of the MAC statute, the Town was making explicit plans for more buildings the size of 444 Maple West (Tequila Grande).  Perhaps they expect more development at that scale and larger.

Even so, I would not expect 444 Maple West, in isolation, to be big enough to generate its own little shopping district.  As a thought experiment, suppose Caffe Amouri moved into the 444 Maple West (Tequila Grande) building.   Caffe Amouri is a “vibrant” kind of business at most hours of the day.  How many people do you think would walk down Maple to get there?

Guess #2:  They expect long continuous stretches of Maple to be redeveloped without any further guidance of any sort.  This is more or less a domino theory of redevelopment. Under that belief, they abdicate any responsibility for planning.  It’s a belief that districts large enough to generate “vibrant, pedestrian-oriented” shopping will, in effect, plan themselves. All I can say to that is, if so, I believe that’s a unique approach to urban renewal.

Guess #3:  They expect such a large fraction of Maple to be redeveloped that it will generate a “critical mass” for “vibrant, pedestrian-oriented” shopping despite some residual non-MAC properties.  When MAC was first passed, Town staff and Town council members suggested that 70% of the land on Maple would plausibly be candidates for MAC redevelopment.  More recently, the Town has suggested numbers closer to 30%.  I have no idea what they are actually going to model in their most recent “Multimodal” study, but my guess is it will be closer to 10%.

I have no clue as to the basis for making those assessments, but in the 5/1/2019 joint work session, one knowledgeable Planning Commission member said that any assessment based on individual lot size is wrong.  Developers were already planning consolidation of lots to arrive a properties that would yield buildings large enough to be profitable.  So, plausibly, they expect so much of Maple to be redeveloped that, again, they see no need for planning any individual shopping district.

Guess #4:  MAC was really developed to get rid of selected “blighted” buildings more rapidly than would occur under existing zoning, and all the rest of it is just so much window-dressing and wishful thinking.  Unfortunately, this isn’t how this has worked out, and this ignores the fact that redevelopment is controlled by profitability.  Some blighted buildings may be profitable to redevelop, some might not, and some non-blighted areas (e.g., Giant Food) might be extremely profitable to redevelop.  As a tool for dealing with presumed “blight”, MAC is a blunt instrument.

Guess #5:  There’s just no plan, period.  Maybe nobody actually thought this through beyond the rules for rezoning a single plot at a time.  And because they set this up to be one-plot-at-a-time rezoning — maybe that’s as far as the thinking went?

Certainly, they barred their consultants from considering traffic or economics during the initial phase of MAC statute development.  Those would be “system level” issues that would force looking at Maple Avenue as a whole.

Even now, certain Town Council members vigorously resist any attempt to show what even a single block of Maple might look like if fully built-out to MAC buildings.  So we know that, even now, there is huge resistance, by pro-MAC Town Council members, to looking at something even the scale of an entire block of Maple.  They actively resist looking at anything beyond a single building in isolation.  And they actively resist doing any sort of full-build-out “long run” analysis of what MAC might do to Vienna’s population and Maple Avenue traffic.

And so, maybe there just is no plan, beyond rezoning one lot at a time.  Maybe enough people offered enough different reasons why MAC should proceed that nobody bothered to work out the details on any one of them.  So that, once this was included in the Comprehensive Plan, MAC was going forward no matter what.  And whatever came out of that process was going to become part of the zoning statute in Vienna.

Finally, I think I can rule out the possibility that we just can’t do anything of the sort, legally.  At the last joint work session, Planning and Zoning brought up the idea of splitting MAC into three zones and setting two separate height limits.  If that’s legal, then surely something more elaborate would be legal as well.

I’ll conclude with the following.  What I find particularly ironic about MAC is that many proponents of it disparage Maple Avenue for its unplanned, higgledy-piggledy nature.  And MAC, as it currently stands, is absolutely going to replicate that, just with bigger buildings.