Post #322: Moving forward (Where do we go from here, part 3).

Posted on July 16, 2019

Quick recap of the facts, in so far as I know them.  Then one additional point that I believe to be a fact, but based solely on my own research.  The conclusion (jump down to that if you wish) seems to be some fairly clear guidance on a way to revise MAC to be more in keeping with what the majority of Vienna residents appear to want.


Turnout for the May 2019 Town of Vienna elections set a 21st-century record – barely.  About 24% of registered voters voted, which edged out the 23% voter participation for the 2006 election (see Post #266 for complete analysis).

Three-quarters of votes cast were for candidates who opposed the current MAC zoning. (Patel, Potter, Springsteen, Strike).  Again, see Post #266 for full results.

Few people in the Town of Vienna like MAC the way it is AND few want to see the complete elimination of MAC zoning (first two lines in the table below).  (See this link for important caveats, including small sample size for my random-sample survey.)

They simply want smaller buildings and more space, particularly, more green space.  (Yellow figures in table below, again, caveats include small sample size.)

Councilman Majdi already offered the quick solution:  Just build buildings like the ones that Town used to promote MAC zoning.  Write the law to get the type of smaller, mostly-three-story, more human-scale buildings such as the one routinely used by the Town to promote MAC.

It appears that new three-story mixed-used buildings can be built profitably in Vienna.  At least in some locations.  That includes the intrusive condos-over-retail at 901 Glyndon, and a newly-proposed large three-story building on Church Street (for which I cannot, at this moment, find a picture).

The only thing I will add to this, from my own research, is that the space directly adjacent to Maple is unpleasant, most of the time, due to the traffic.

If anyone cares to differ with this statement, my suggestion is to eat your dinner, with a partner, sitting in the bus shelter at Maple and Center and see how much you enjoy the ambience. That bench is about as far from the curb as the outdoor seating you get with the MAC setbacks.

Opinion:  Given that, if the great “public benefit” from MAC is some paved space directly adjacent to Maple, my response is, let the developers keep it.  It’s going to be of no use to Vienna residents.  Just eyeball the “plaza” in front of the Chick-fil-A-car-wash and realize that building face is actually further from the street than MAC requires.  Invite your friends over to sit there and converse over lunch some Saturday afternoon.  That’s your delightful new MAC-generated “gathering space”.

And traffic is always and everywhere a serious concern for Vienna residents.  (This is based on analysis of a non-random-sample internet-based “visual preference survey” from the Town of Vienna.  But, serious, does anybody doubt that statement?)

And while, objectively, anyone can walk or bike relatively safely down Maple now …

… 99% of traffic is, in fact, motor vehicles.

The upshot of the graph above, to me, is that focusing on that little tiny slice in the graph above (the “mutimodal” piece) is really missing the point.  For example, Capital Bikeshare has been spectacularly unsuccessful at Metro-centric far suburban locations such as Tysons and Reston.  (In round numbers, three-quarters of the bike racks are used for less than one trip per day.)  Point is, there is little we can do to make traffic better, but there are a lot of things we could do to make traffic worse.  (Opinion:  Given these facts, focusing on the potential promise of “multimodal” transport to reduce traffic– when anybody who wants to can walk and bike now — seems to be as much smokescreen as it is serious analysis.)

Maybe it’s just me, but when I put all that together, I seem to get some fairly clear sense of direction for change for Maple Avenue zoning.

  1. Three story buildings.
  2. True open space requirements.
  3. Concrete, quantifiable changes to offset increased traffic.

And I’ll say, from my own perspective, a little more respect for the impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.  Putting a 60′ building directly adjacent to a quiet residential neighborhood — sure, MAC made that legal.  But it’s still jarring.  Whether it’s Majdi’s solution (townhouse transition zones) or something else, I would hope that a revised MAC would do better in that regard.

For myself, I’d be just as happy to rescind MAC and do nothing.  I’m clearly in a tiny minority in holding that opinion.  But, as an economist, I probably have more faith than most in the ability of markets (and prices) to adapt to circumstances.

If I had to characterize the approach sketched above, I’d say that the guiding principal is “first, do no harm”.  Make the changes to Maple as conservative as possible, consistent with allowing some Maple Avenue sites to be redeveloped.  If, at some point, it turns out that special exceptions might be needed to address a particular problem or a particular opportunity, then maybe we could adopt the approach that Falls Church takes (Post #306).

Still, if structured like the existing MAC, it would bring along all the major problems that have occurred.  If all we do is sketch out the size of the “box” that developers may fill (via setbacks and height restrictions), it’s a pretty good bet that every proposed building will fill that box.  And if, as the Town Attorney has said, the Town does not have the legal right to turn down proposals that meet the legal MAC requirements, then we are once again merely creating a new type of by-right development on Maple.  It’s neither here nor there if the Town, in its wisdom, wants to do that.  But, unlike the current MAC statute, we should be fully informed and fully aware that we are doing that, and not pretend otherwise.

So I will not pretend this is one possible simple three-line solution.  Or that any solution to moving forward would be simple.  I’m saying this sketch above seems to represent what the median Vienna resident would like to see, in MAC.

Also, in all fairness, point #3 above amounts to ” … and then a miracle occurs”.  I really should not be allowed to include that without specifying exactly, in a quantitative way, how that might occur.  But I am saying that, outside of the strongly-affected neighborhoods adjacent to Maple, if you could make that deal — new construction with no change in traffic — by eye, a lot of the grass-roots opposition to MAC would disappear.

And this sketch of a way forward still does not address the impact on schools.  Given the current overcrowding of Vienna schools, and the trauma involved in school redistricting, any responsible development proposal has to address how to do no harm along that dimension.  Or, at least, how to minimize the harm that will occur.

Clean up the process

Finally, in terms of process, let me describe what doesn’t work:  Hiding stuff, disguising stuff, downplaying stuff, not providing numerical estimates, not projecting the long-run impact, ignoring important impacts, ignoring how unpleasant Maple Avenue is, and so on.  Which has really been a large part of the Town’s playbook so far.

Let me just give you an example.  Instead of the Marco Polo bait-and-switch (Post #245) and its aftermath, Town staff should have clearly flagged that important and material change and brought it to the attention of all relevant Town committees.  It should have been discussed in public.  That way, there could have been a fair and open discussion, at that time, of whether that was appropriate, whether that was even legal, and whether that was what the Town wanted to see.

But instead, that change was quietly and slowly slipped into the stream of documents, alongside the original set of building drawings.  And that worked quite well, as a way to fail to attract attention to that change.

But ask yourself why that worked.  The first step of the process is for the BAR to approve the architecture.  Nobody after that even considered that the building approved by the BAR was not the building they were approving.  Because, frankly, once the BAR approves it, the look of the building is nobody else’s business.

So, in my view, Town staff exploited the existing and long-standing trust among the pieces of Town government, in order to introduce a change favorable to the project’s developer.  And now that we know they’ll do that, every time a building moves through the process, each relevant board (TC, PC, BAR or BZA) is going to have to check with the others to see whether they can trust that they are all looking at the same building.

Offhand, let me just raise another one that is embedded in the MAC zoning itself, the open space requirement.  The Town promoted that as a great advantage of MAC zoning.  Look at all the new open space MAC will provide — it guarantees that 15% of the lot will be devoted to open space.  But the proponents of MAC failed to mention the fine print, which is that virtually all of the existing legally-required setbacks would count as open space, as would (e.g.) courtyards internal to a building that were not even visible (much less accessible) to the public.

I pointed out that the open space requirement did virtually nothing — e.g., it produced no net additional open space at 444 Maple West beyond what would have been legally required anyway (see this post for details.)  Where, obviously, the key aspect that needs to be changed, if you actually want some publicly-usable open space, is to change the law to specify that it be additional open space, not otherwise required by law.

But the proposed change to the MAC statute does nothing to fix that flaw.  Instead, it renames it (“gathering space”), redefines it (so that it includes things like building atriums and courts), and reduces it to 10%.  But keeps the duplication in place, so that (e.g.) the legally required setbacks (outside of the literal public right-of-way) are counted as “gathering space”.

So when a fairly obvious problem got pointed out, the Town’s response was to shuffle things around to disguise that problem.  But do absolutely nothing to fix it, and, far worse, do nothing to have an open public discussion about that problem.

I have a couple of decades’ experience consulting for Fortune 500 health care companies.  In my (admittedly limited) experience, successful businesses don’t work that way.  Decisions internal to the operation of a successful business are not treated like a winner/loser situation, but are more like a cooperative search for the best possible solution.  You don’t disguise things to hide potential issues.  You actively seek to find any issues and make sure they are exposed as part of the decision-making process.  And that requires full information all around, and accurate descriptions of the facts instead of a sales pitch.

The best description I ever heard of the ideal is something like “Type 1 versus Type 2” arguments.   A Type 1 argument is, more or less, two people saying to each other “You’re wrong”, “No, you’re wrong”.  But in a Type 2 argument, you explain my position to me in a way I agree is correct, I explain your position to you in a way you agree is correct, but we disagree about which position is better.  Type 2 is what you strive for if you want to see good decisions made.  But if you disguise the facts to forestall any argument, then you can’t even get to Type 1, let alone Type 2.

So, taking that as my description of a business-like approach, what I would like to see in the future from the Town of Vienna is a more business-like approach to MAC rezonings.   Nothing but Type 2 arguments, with full information.  Get your ego out of it, because it’s not a question of who wins.  It’s a question of what the citizens feel is best for their town.  And you can’t get there in a climate of misinformation.