Post #333: How did 901 Glyndon happen?

Posted on August 2, 2019

You can see the background on 901 Glyndon in this posting.  It’s a building with two floors of condos over one floor of retail space.

Put aside the fact that it is jarringly out-of-place in a neighhorhood of single-family homes.  My question is, how did this get built under standard Vienna commercial (C1) zoning?  Doesn’t that zoning require that more than half of the building be used for commercial purposes? 

First, it’s definitely zoned C1.  That’s what the current Fairfax County tax map and tax assessment say.

Second, under C1, the building must be principally used for commercial purposes, not housing.   Here’s the statute, emphasis mine:

Sec. 18-73. - Special conditional limitations.
Residential apartment use shall be permitted where:

1. The apartment is located in a building which is principally occupied and used for other uses permitted in section 18-72;

2. Such apartments are located on a floor above the street floor of said building; and

So, sure, apartments (or, I guess, condos) can be located on the second or higher floor.  But I thought that “principally occupied and used” for commercial purposes meant that 51% of the floor area of the building had to be for commercial purposes.  At least, historically.  And that this provision was why mixed-use was not viable under existing C1 regulation, because it would require a minimum of 1.5 floors of commercial space in a three-floor building, and that the second-floor commercial space generally commanded poor rents.

In short, I thought that the “principally occupied and used” clause was a significant barrier to construction of mixed-use buildings under existing C1 zoning.  I thought it required the majority of the occupied portion of the building to be for commercial use (and so, only the minority of it for housing).  And that’s, in theory, why the Town elders thought that Vienna so desperately needed MAC zoning.

Apparently, I was dead wrong on all counts.  

I went to the Town of Vienna website, where a search for 901 Glyndon turns up a 9/27/2013 BAR work session, a 10/17/2019 BAR meeting, and a citizen statement at a 12/16/2013 Town Council meeting.  The only one available on-line is the last one and in all cases, this was referred to, without question, as by-right development.

The video of the 12/16/2013 Town Council meeting is available (at this URL, although for me, this only plays in Chrome, and no other browser.)  Discussion lasts from about 17 minutes to 30 minutes into the video.  I found out quite a bit.

There was no community input on the proposed redevelopment at 901 Glyndon.  There was nothing on the Town website showing the new plans.  At the BAR meeting, this was discussed as by-right development.  Town Planner provided minimal information, but the (then) director of Planning and Zoning provided paper-copy information from Town Archives.  None of the information was on the Town website.

This site was grandfathered during the 1958 Fairfax County land annexation (when the Town of Vienna annexed land from Fairfax, apparently).  It was, at that time, a Mom and Pop grocery.  Later it was a 7-11 (which is exactly what it looked like to me), then a professional office, then a location for a series of blue-collar occupations.  Apparently, it even had a grandfathered alcohol beverage sales license from its 7-11 days.

The vast increase in the building size in this redevelopment was comparable to what we are seeing under MAC.  The 7-11 building occupied 32,400 cubic fee, but the new 901 Glyndon building occupies 524,000 cubic feet.  It went from 22% lot coverage to 90% lot coverage.   And so on.

The citizen tried to get the Town Council to discuss this earlier, but got no traction.

The bottom line is that nobody ever questioned the ability to build this as a by-right (no-review) building, under C1 commercial zoning, although the occupied space is more than two-thirds housing.  Although, I have to say that the Town kept pretty quiet about this.   But, based on that, I’d have to say that the Town considers two-floors-of-housing-over-first-floor-retail to be a building that is “principally occupied and used” as retail space.

So, as with so much of zoning here in Vienna, rules are rules except sometimes.  I have no clue what the Town thinks that “principally” means in this case.  I think it would be useful to have the Town spell that out in black and white.  But the fact is, two floors of housing, in a three story C1 commercial building, was treated as unquestionably by-right building here in the Town of Vienna.  That “principally” clause notwithstanding.

At this point, some comments by Councilman Majdi, at the last 6/1/2019Town Council meeting, now come into better focus (Post #315).  Councilman Majdi made a fairly forceful case that the Town should make the existing commercial zoning adhere to the “streetscape” portions of MAC.

My only guess is that this is part-and-parcel of the Town’s apparent willingness to ignore the “principally occupied and used” clause of C1 zoning.  If they have made it known that they will ignore that, then, best guess, given the lucrative Northern Virginia housing market, the Town has expectation for more C1 by-right mixed-use buildings along Maple.  And this is just a pre-emptive move to make those a little bit more acceptable than what could be built under the existing C1 by-right rules.

Live and learn, I guess.  In Vienna, two floors of housing, over one floor of retail, is a building that is principally occupied and used for retail.  And hence acceptable as by-right (no review required) construction, under existing Town of Vienna zoning.  So 901 Glyndon isn’t the one-off outlier, it may well be the harbinger of things to come.  Unless and until such time as the Town adopts the standard English usage of the word “principally”.

Personally, I would far rather see 35′ tall 3-story buildings than 62′ tall four/five story MAC buildings.  I just didn’t think that those could be built, by right, under existing zoning rules, with two floors of housing.  Apparently, as the Town of Vienna interprets “principally”, I was wrong about that.  Apparently, the principal use of the building is whatever the Town of Vienna says it is.