Post #379: Vox Populi?

Posted on September 11, 2019

The Town Council is in the process of imposing the “new MAC streetscape” on all new construction along Maple.  In this posting, I want to make three simple points.

  1. What will this new streetscape actually be like?
  2. Why does Town Council thinks this will be popular?
  3. Why Town Council may not be right about that.

1:  The Chick-fil-A-car-wash is a good proxy for the dimensions of the proposed MAC Maple Avenue streetscape

The proposed new standard for MAC will be a 28′ setback from the Maple Avenue curb.  That is, the face of the building will sit 28′ from the curb.  To illustrate this, Town staff provide drawings of a spacious and pleasant pedestrian-friendly area with street-side dining.  And no traffic.

But to understand the reality of it, take a good hard look at the Chick-fil-A-car-wash.   That’s more-or-less the dimensions of what you’re going to get with the new MAC streetscape.

In some ways, it’s more generous than the proposed  MAC standard.  The front face of that building varies from 24′ to 30′ from the Maple Avenue curb.   So the “outdoor seating” will actually be slightly further from Maple there, than it will be under the revised MAC streetscape standard.

Ask yourself, and ask your friends:  Do you consider the space in front of the Chick-fil-A-car-wash to be a significant public amenity?  Is this a pleasant “gathering space” that you would enjoy using on some sunny Saturday afternoon?   If they put a few planters on it, would you call it a “green space”?

2:  Town Council believes people want the new MAC streetscape because that’s what Planning and Zoning staff told them.  Nobody actually bothered to ask the people of Vienna.

Nobody ever actually asked a random sample of Vienna residents whether they wanted a 28′ wide sidewalk next to Maple Avenue.  Nobody asked if that would made MAC zoning attractive.  Nobody asked how they would value that, and whether they would themselves enjoy outdoor dining 20′ from Maple Avenue.

To the contrary, the idea that the People Had Spoken and this is what they asked for is entirely a creation of Planning and Zoning staff.  This 28′ streetscape is based on their “Visual Preference Survey”.  After carefully choosing a set of pictures, and getting a self-selected set of Town residents to rate those pictures, they looked at those numerical ratings, for a subset of those pictures, and declared that residents of Vienna wanted the MAC setback changed from 20′ to 28′.  Because … pictures with higher ratings tended to have broader sidewalks.

I discussed the many drawbacks of the Town’s visual preference survey in a series of posts, including this one and this one.

All I want to point out is that the notion that another 8′ of sidewalk (beyond the current 20′ setback) would make MAC attractive is entirely a creation of Planning and Zoning staff.  Nobody ever directly asked that question to any sample of Vienna residents, let alone a random cross-section of Vienna residents.

3:  If you actually ask people, what they want from MAC is more green and open space, and smaller buildings.  None of which is going to happen with the MAC streetscape.

Almost a year ago, I fielded a brief survey about MAC zoning to Town of Vienna residents.  I sent out 400 letters to randomly-selected residents asking them to take a brief  on-line survey.  You can see the full writeup in this post.   Although I only got a 10 percent response rate, I think the results provide … well, the clearest picture currently available of what Vienna residents actually want to see out of Maple Avenue redevelopment.  Not by reading some tea leaves picture ratings, but by directly asking the question.

What they appear to agree on, more than anything else, is that they’d like MAC zoning to result in green space and open space.  Secondarily, they would like generally smaller buildings than MAC is currently producing:  shorter, farther from Maple, covering less of the lot.

Near as I can tell, the MAC streetscape standard isn’t going to give you that.  All it will guarantee is that the store fronts are 28′ from the curb.  There will be some planter boxes and street trees.  But in terms of visual open space, let alone green space — not much.

So, sure, the Town can do this.  They can require that all new building on Maple sit 28′ from the curb and have planters and such on the sidewalk.  But the idea that people will want to eat their dinner sitting next to Maple is, in my opinion, pretty much absurd.  And I would say the same for taking a leisurely sidewalk stroll down Maple, due to the traffic and traffic noise.

They can do this.  But they really shouldn’t do it thinking that this is a matter of vox populi.  It’s not.  Nobody but me has bothered to ask the people of Vienna what they want, in a straightforward manner.  And near as I can tell, what they want is more green space and smaller buildings than MAC has provided so far.

So, I guess these new broad sidewalks will look nice.  But I don’t think it’s what the people of Vienna expected as the “parks and plazas” that MAC was supposed to generate.  My guess is, they were looking for something more along the lines of what I call the “Library Park” proposal.

And that’s all the more reason to create that sheltered one-third-acre park at the Patrick Henry Library site.  It looks like we aren’t going to get anything even remotely like that out of MAC or commercial zoning on Maple.