Post #378: Town Council work session 9/9/2019, Part 1

My wife and I attended last night’s Town Council work session, along with about (best guess) 40 other audience members.  I’m going to break my review of that into two separate posts:  This post will be a timely overview.  Other posts may go into more detail.

It’s almost not worth posting my audio file, because microphone discipline was poor.  FWIW:  Download the audio (.mp3) at this Google Drive link, and download the corresponding .xls index file (my notes at to what was said when) at this Google Drive link.

The work session covered four topics.  You can find the meeting materials at this location.  Click links below to get to a brief writeup of the four topics.

I didn’t stay for the last one, so I have little to say for that one until I listen to the Town’s audio recording.  An overview of the others follows.


380 Maple West.

If you thought this was a done deal, guess again.  As you can read in Post #375, this building that was promoted as providing much-needed single-floor condo living in Vienna, ain’t going to be.  Now its slated to be an assisted living facility.   And if you don’t like that, the developer also has a by-right option in his pocket that he might just build if he doesn’t like what he gets out of the first two iterations of this.

Turns out, the reason I couldn’t pin down which assisted living provider was the potential buyer in Post #375 is that right to build is still up for bid.  I recall the developer saying that “a couple” of assisted living providers were interested in buying the right to build there.  So he’s still in the process of  selling the right to build.  Implied — but not proven — is that there may be more than bidder.

Just as an aside, that appears to be what MAC mixed-use mostly does:  It generates valuable building rights, which are then sold.  That’s what became of the Marco Polo development, and that appears to be the fate of the 380 Maple West building.  I can’t say it’s by design, but in two-of-three mixed-used buildings, the purpose of MAC has been to cut a local developer in for a piece of the action before passing the rights on to the actual builder.  Maybe the crucial skill set to succeed at MAC isn’t design and construction, maybe it’s getting the Town Council to say yes.  That skill, in isolation — creation of the right to build — appears profitable.

The revised building presented at the meeting was the existing building, less the balconies, with a slightly larger rear setback for the fourth floor.  But the discussion disclosed that the actual building, if used as an assisted living facility, would have additional modifications, such as closing entrances, having the main pedestrian entrance on Maple, and so on.  And if you followed my discussion in Post #375, you’ll realize there will likely be additional changes.

Just for what it’s worth, I measured the drawings for the proposed Sunrise facility and 380 Maple West.  Looks like Sunrise would fit.  Recall that Sunrise was a tight fit on the Maple and Center lot (Post #279), and that they had to eliminate almost all the retail to squeeze into that space (Post #254).   Here, by my estimate, the enclosed space on the first residential floors is about 16% larger on the 380 Maple West building than for Sunrise, but Sunrise also used about half of the ground floor as part of the assisted living facility itself (as opposed to parking or retail space).  The 380 building currently is 100% retail and parking on thefirst floor.  Doing the math, it looks like Sunrise could fit in this building and still have a small amount — eh, call it a few thousand square feet — left over for retail space.

Beyond a doubt, the most interesting section of the meeting had to do with parking.  It was interesting in a signals-crossed, open-mouth-and-insert-foot kind of way.  In a way that made you want to stand up and say “Nooooo, don’t say that.”  Which Councilman Majdi came as close as he dared to saying.  He pointedly reminded the people around the table that the lawyer in charge of the Sunrise lawsuit was sitting in the audience, and that discussion of parking needed to respect that.  (See Post #342 to understand the importance of “inadequate parking” in that lawsuit.)  This went right over the heads of Town staff, who proceeded to explain, not once, but several times, in detail, how they had come to the conclusion that Sunrise proposal had  adequate parking.  Went so far as to explain that it was within the purview of the Director of Planning and Zoning to reach that conclusion. Councilman Majdi was left doing repeated rounds of damage control, pointing out several times that, per the plain reading of the zoning rules, that assisted living is classed as a general commercial enterprise, and that as such, absent some specific exception, the default parking requirement was substantially greater than the provided at the Sunrise site.

For those who bothered to read up on the basics of the Sunrise lawsuit (Post #342), that entire discussion was like fingernails on a blackboard.  Maybe the right adage here is that when you find yourself in a hole, first thing to do is to stop digging.  Here, the Director of Planning and Zoning continued to shovel vigorously, and all Councilman Majdi could do was to keep kicking the dirt back into the hole.

Anyway, that’s that.  The developer was fishing around for some indication from Town Council as to whether this would fly or not — assisted living instead of condos.  I believe that Councilwoman Colbert enthusiastically said yes.  But the rest of Town Council did not to commit to anything.  I think the general sentiment was, sure, he can sell the right to build.  We’ll see what the new owner has to go through to get a different building, for a different purpose, built.


Rental electric scooters

I’ll keep this short, as few seem to care about bikes or scooters.  Get up to speed on the issue from (e.g.) Post #338Briefly, the Town is moving ahead with an electric scooter pilot program modeled on those in three local jurisdictions (Post #377).  More-or-less, they have little choice but to do something like that.  There has already been inquiry to the Town of Vienna from one scooter provider.  So, apparently, there is enough interest that we may end up getting rental electric scooters here.

The Town would like to do more, and in particular, Councilman Noble pushed for finishing a bicycle master plan and integrating this with that.  There was also general agreement that this should mesh with any “multimodal” master plan.  But in the end, I think the need to have something in place before 1/1/2020 trumped that, at least in the short run.

The final direction to staff was to get some public input on this, via the Transportation Safety Commission (TSC), at the next available TSC meeting.  (My own sense of that is that the public is blissfully unaware of the TSC, and it will be tough to get a good sample of public sentiment that way.  But that’s the only formal channel they have for doing that.)

I thought there were some good comments in this session.

The Town Attorney highlighted something I consider to be a key issue, which is whether or not to allow electric scooters on the sidewalks of Maple, Nutley, and Beulah.  (I had neglected Beulah in my prior writeups, but it clearly belongs in the same discussion.)  The point being that riding a scooter in the roadway, for those roads, would be unsafe and would hold up traffic.  But if you can’t ride in the roadway, and can’t ride on the sidewalk, on Maple/Nutley/Beulah, you can’t get to most of the Town, and you can’t get to Metro.

That said, the idea of allowing these on the sidewalks got a strong “No” from Councilman Majdi.  He does not want to see electric scooters on the sidewalks, full stop.  I don’t think there were any other opinions expressed.

Councilman Noble brought up an intriguing possibility, geofencing scooter speed limits.   I didn’t even realize that could be done.  These scooters are all GPS-enabled, and communicate constantly with the rental company.  “Geofencing” means defining some area based on GPS coordinates, and having the scooters behave differently when in that area.  For example, some cities use geofencing to prevent people from parking scooters in certain areas — within those areas, you can’t lock a scooter and end a ride.  Here, it would mean setting lower maximum speeds for scooters in certain areas.

As long as we all agree that electric scooters should not be used in the Maple/Nutley/Beulah roadway, Councilman Noble’s comment raises the possibility of allowing scooter sidewalk use, at greatly reduced speeds, on those streets.   This would seem like an elegant solution to what is otherwise an awkward and unique problem for scooter or ebike use in the Town of Vienna (see Post #354) .  Basically, unlike other local jurisdictions, Vienna is cut into pieces, and isolated from Metro, by roads that would be dangerous for scooter (or bicycle) use.

Any such solution would be limited by the resolution of the GPS devices on these rental electric devices.  But I’d guess that if Google Maps can correctly place you on Maple via your phone, these scooters have enough resolution to know they are (e.g.) on Maple and not on Church.  So the Town could not only set, but directly enforce, a low sidewalk speed limit for scooters on these key streets.


MAC rewrite and commercial zoning rewrite

I think I’m going to defer the bulk of this to a separate posting.  For those who have not tracked this, the goals are a) to modify the MAC zoning requirements, b) “clean up” some ambiguities in the existing commercial zoning, and then c) impose the MAC streetscape on the existing commercial zoning.

But by far, the biggest news here is that the Town is (finally) considering making major changes to MAC zoning.  Many things that were considered bedrock assumptions of the existing MAC were … at least up for discussion now.  Among those were items such as a) not applying MAC to all of Maple (see Post #302 for a comparison of the MAC zone to other shopping districts),  b) producing some viable three-floor building options, c) vastly reducing the parking “incentives” that were previously though absolutely necessary, d) introducing transitional housing zones between the redeveloped commercial lots and adjacent neighborhoods, e) or just plain restricting the large MAC structures to lots not adjacent to neighborhoods.  And so on.  Lot of things now appear to be on the table.

Another upshot is that Town staff have already “red-lined” the relevant pieces of the existing commercial zoning.  That is, they have identified what they see as the technical errors that need to be straightened out, as well as the places where the existing zoning would need to change to impose the MAC streetscape.

Just FYI, “impose the MAC streetscape” means that any new construction on Maple would have a 28′ setback, broad sidewalks, and no front-of-store parking.  While that might look nice, I don’t think Town Council has quite thought through all the economics of that.  That’s one of the things I don’t much like about this and will write up separately.

But a few items just gave that old, queasy, can’t-trust-them feeling.  That gut feeling that Town staff is in the process of pulling a fast one.  That they just fail to discuss items that they don’t want exposed to sunshine, or purposefully gloss over them.

Let me highlight just a couple of those.

The first example was the presentation of a single fast-track option for the schedule.  The Director of Planning and Zoning presented a fast-track schedule to get all of this done.  Basically, get it all done before the current scheduled end of the MAC moratorium.  That was deja vue all over again for those who have been watching this for a while, as an ambitious schedule was also pushed for the prior MAC revisions (the ones in which there were essentially no major changes).

But the key point is that there was also a fully-worked-out, less ambitious schedule that had been circulated.  But that was omitted from staff presentation.  Councilman Springsteen was particularly irked by that omission, and I have to say, I’m with him 100%.  To me, this was an attempt by staff to steer the discussion and the decision, by simply failing to mention the alternative, more relaxed schedule.  It was an attempt to preempt and short-circuit the discussion.

After Councilman Springsteen made the point, several Town Council members balked at the rapid schedule, and in the end, the more relaxed schedule was adopted.  Along with Councilman Noble’s suggestion that the moratorium be extended to June 30 2020, to provide ample time for getting these changes made.

Aside:  I worked as staff to a Federal commission for close to a decade.  I was taught that staff do not make policy decisions.  The purpose of staff is to provide the decision-makers with as even-handed as set of facts and analysis as possible.  So that they can make the best decision they believe possible.  Even when it’s not the decision that you would have made.  The last sentence is the hard part.

So, as I was trained, the right way to do this is to present two schedule options and let Town Council choose.  Instead of making them force you to grudgingly present the second option so that they can see it and choose it.

The second example of this is quietly striking the “primarily” clause from the current commercial zoning, and not bothering to mention that in the presentation.  Currently, buildings developed under our existing commercial zoning have to be “primarily” occupied for commercial use.  Historically, this has been interpreted that more than half the floor area had to be retail or commercial, and that housing had to occupy less than half the building.  This was, in fact, one of the arguments used for MAC — that developers could not profitably build “mixed-use” buildings with that constraint.  They needed to be able to devote a larger portion of the building to housing.

So, that “primarily” or “principally” clause — that’s kind of important.  It’s the sort of thing you might reasonably change.  But it’s important enough that you ought to have some open debate before you change it.

Now, that long-standing restriction is already under attack, as I noted in Post #346.  The Town allowed 901 Glyndon to be built as an unquestioned by-right commercial building — even though a small minority of the occupied space is commercial (retail) space.

OK, turns out, Town staff just dropped that clause entirely, in the red lined version of the regulations.  And didn’t say a thing about that, in the entire 20-minute presentation.  It was up to a Town Council member — I think it was Councilman Majdi — to catch that and point it out.

I’ll just editorialize for one second.  It seems hard enough to make reasoned decisions in this area.  So nobody needs this hide-n-seek/ambiguate/dissemble approach to policy development.  As was done with the attempt to eliminate the four-floor limit in MAC, in the last set of revisions (see pretty crucial conjunction).

If you want to change the law to allow commercial buildings to be mostly housing, with maybe some first-floor retail, just plainly say that and alert Town Council to the importance of the decision.  That’s the only way that Town Council can have a reasoned discussion.  Don’t make that fundamental change, keep quiet, pretend it’s just a minor matter, and hope nobody notices.

The upshot of this last episode is that you still can’t trust Planning and Zoning staff not to do that.   You still have to go over things carefully, question what they do, and look for what has been omitted, disguised, made ambiguous, or hidden.  And I think that’s a shame.


Temporary police use of 440 Beulah NE

I did not stay for this portion of the meeting.  The upshot is that, as the Town builds a new police station, they’d like to move some portion of police operations here, along with some storage on the lot behind it (currently used for Town mulch operations).

For now, I’ll just point out that the Town bought this house a year ago, pretty clearly knew it was going to be for this use (I said so a year ago, but note that all the other details in that posting have changed and are now obsolete.,)  Yet they kept the citizens in the dark about it.

I don’t begrudge the Town finding some relatively cheap way to get through this transition.  I do begrudge them publicly saying that they bought this house for no particular reason, when this use almost surely had been planned from the outset.  As with my just-prior editorial, it’s that sort of stuff that makes me not trust the Town government.  It’s like having to live with a person who dissembles whenever it is expedient.  It just makes it hard to trust them about anything.