Post #316: MAC versus Mosaic, retail density is an issue

Posted on July 3, 2019

In Post #313, I came to the surprising conclusion that Maple Avenue, at Glyndon, is more “retail dense” than the Mosaic district.  You have more retail square footage, and more establishments, within a quarter-mile walk of that intersection, than are in the Mosaic district.  Although, obviously, the mix of establishments in Vienna is radically different from that in Mosaic..

This raises another question:  How’s the “retail density” of the new MAC mixed-use projects working out?  These are all at the west end of Maple.  If you took the entire western half-mile of Maple (so, a quarter-mile walk in each direction) and built both sides of the road up at the observed MAC density (so, one mile of Maple Avenue frontage), would it equal equal the 350,000 square feet of retail found in the Mosaic District?  Or even the nearly 440,000 square feet of retail at the “Glyndon Shopping District” on Maple?

Short answer:  Nope, not even close.  You get about half the retail density that you currently have around Glyndon on Maple.  Ignoring the walking distances need to cross Maple (i.e., if you were away from an intersection), and just calculating a best-case-scenario of one mile of contiguous Maple Avenue frontage, at the current retail density observed in the three MAC mixed-use projects, you end up with under 200,000 square feet of retail space.  (I drew the retail square footages from memory, so there may be some modest errors below, but not enough to change the conclusion materially).  Like so:

I’m just putting this out there, because I don’t see where anyone else has done these simple calculations.

The bottom line is that if you could convert a half-mile stretch of Maple to nothing but MAC mixed-used buildings, based on what we’ve gotten so far, you’d have much lower retail density than either the Mosaic District or what I have termed the “Glyndon Shopping District”.  In fact, you’d end up with less than half the density of the Glyndon area.

At this point, I think we need to start asking whether this whole “vibrant, pedestrian oriented” retail thing, via mixed-use MAC buildings, might need some fine-tuning.  I have a tongue-in-cheek analysis pointing out the impact of a 33,000-vehicle-per-day arterial highway splitting our shopping district, in this post comparing Mosaic to Maple.  To which I now have to add, that, plus a much lower retail density — at best, about half as much retail space within walking distance, compared to Mosaic.

And, as I’ve said on this website in several place, if you are counting on a radically different mix of retail in these new shops, that’s a wish, not a given.  First, the Town has absolutely zero control over that, as the retail tenants are unknown at the time the MAC buildings are approved.  Second, to a large degree, the markets seem to be saying otherwise.  A big part of the reality of our most recent Maple Avenue retail is on the order of Wawa, a Dollar Store, and a tire store.  At the bottom of this post, I kind of mock people for believing that upscale retail and dining will be the obvious future for this new MAC retail space.  If it is, that will be a 180 from most of what’s there, and what’s been added in the past year.

At some point, if you take a good, hard look at it, maybe this whole “vibrancy” thing just starts slipping out of sight.  Vibrant despite being adjacent to an arterial highway.  Vibrant despite lower retail density.  Vibrant despite a some down-scale mix of existing and new retail.  At some point, it gets hard to see where that all turns around and up pops Vienna’s own answer to Mosaic.

And if I’m right about that, then there’s a further implication.  If all we’re likely to get is primarily mundane community-serving retail, then at what point do we have too much of that?  If you don’t get “vibrant” and upscale in these new MAC buildings, at what point are you going to get nothing at all?  Or nothing useful.

There’s a fundamental economic difference between our current retail and MAC mixed-use retail.  Stand-alone retail — what we have now on Maple — is expected to be profitable, or it wouldn’t be used as retail.  Nobody builds a stand-alone retail building with the expectation that it will remain unrented, or rent at a rate that does not cover total average cost.  You expect market forces to check any excesses there, and to build only the retail that is likely to be used.

But mixed-use retail is cross-subsidized by the associated housing.  MAC buildings can be built based on the profitability of the housing component alone.  The retail component is there not necessarily because markets demand it, but because the Town government does — you don’t have the right to build the profitable housing unless you include the retail.  Under that situation, there’s scant guarantee that the retail that gets built will have any use, let alone a profitable use.

At any rate, I think a lot of the claims of how MAC is supposed to work out have never really been given a good, hard look.  The point of these last few postings was to start taking a hard look at the “vibrant, pedestrian-oriented” shopping area.  And once you realize that MAC, even in the best-case scenario, is not yielding the type of walking-distance retail density observed at Mosaic or at the “Glyndon Shopping District”, maybe it’s time to step back, wait, and see how these first few MAC buildings turn out before we approve any more of them.