Post #382: An obituary for questions that will not be answered.

How is the Town going about rewriting its zoning laws, including MAC zoning?  Is this process likely to have a good outcome?

I’ve written four throwaway pieces on issues that I thought needed to be addressed as the Town moves forward on Maple Avenue redevelopment.  But at this point, I fully realize that I’m just talking to myself.  The Town is scheduled to rewrite its entire commercial zoning code, including MAC, finishing about five months from now, in February 2020.  So, more-or-less none of what I’m going to write below is going to be addressed.  That said, I’m going to roll up everything of value from the prior posts, listed below.  And then, at that point, I don’t think I have anything left to say.

  • Post #304, Where do we go from here, Part I.
  • Post #306, Where do we go from here, Part II, Falls Church
  • Post #322:  Moving forward (where do we go from here, Part 3).
  • Post #327:  Some basic questions to ask before modifying MAC zoning.

In effect, this posting is my obituary for all the questions that aren’t going to be answered, and all the things that aren’t going to be done.  As the Town proceeds to rewrite its entire commercial zoning code.

Now, that’s kind of a cheap shot — “Here’s what needs to be asked” — except for the fact that I’ve already given my best answer for what to do.  That answer aimed to address what I measured or perceive to be the main concerns of Vienna citizens.  As outlines in Post 322 above, my solution would be:

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

Great.  Opinions are like bellybuttons, as the clean version of that phrase goes.   Or maybe, “that and $0.50 will get you a phone call.”   It’s great to toss out some sketchy off-the-cuff answer.  But the real questions are, what is the Town government capable of doing?  And then, what is the Town actually going to do?

Process

Right now, it appears that the Town is proceeding by working from a “redline” (i.e., edited) copy of the law itself.  In essence, they have a copy of the existing law with “track changes” enabled.  And they are working from that.

Then, how does the debate proceed?  Staff give an oral presentation on the changes.  Then each Town Council member speaks, in turn, about whatever issues he or she may have in mind.  And sometimes there is a bit of back-and-forth.  But that’s about the size of it.

So we are more-or-less starting down in the weeds.  The working documents for this are the actual text of the law, grossly modified using “track changes”.  And then discussion proceeds at random, based on whatever interests Town Council members, with issues addressed in whatever order arises as they each take their turns speaking.

I rarely or never hear any type of “sense of the Council” summary.   And sort of clear conclusion on any particular item or point.  Perhaps the parliamentary rules preclude that sort of thing (i.e., anything short of a formal motion or vote).  In which case, if it’s legal issue preventing that,  I’d suggest that Town Council try a “committee of the whole” legal strategy to allow for less formal rules, and more opportunity to assess consensus without having formal votes.  Because, to me, what’s really lacking in the discussion is any sense of conclusion or closure.

Worse, with a disorganized process like this, there are opportunities for error or outright mischief.  Even in this first round, we’ve already seen one potentially major change manage to slip into the document.  (The clause that requires commercial buildings with housing to be used primarily for commercial purposes was struck out.)  Likely would have gone unnoticed if Councilman Majdi hadn’t flagged it.

So, to me, it looks like we’re just sort of diving right in without much of a framework.  The first set of working documents is our entire commercial area zoning code, red-lined.  Any item in there is up for grabs, for discussion.   And items will be discussed in more-or-less random order.

I need to touch on one final point of process, which is that Town Council, Planning Commission, Board of Architectural Review, and Board of Zoning Appeals don’t communicate much (or at all) with each other in this MAC review process.  This made the review process chaotic for the Sunrise proposal, as, at the end of the day, they got slammed by the Town (Town Council) for doing exactly what the Town (Planning Commission) asked them to do.  For that, there has to be a better way, even if it’s a simple one-page report from the Chair of each body, summarizing its actions, to be passed on to the next body in the review process.

Uncertainties

This is being done against a background of considerable uncertainty.  Just to hit the highlights:

  • There’s at least one lawsuit pending over a MAC project (the $30M Sunrise lawsuit).
  • One MAC project that was presented to the Town as an ornate “Georgetown”-style set of red brick buildings, then quietly morphed into a very plain brown-brick building, was approved by the Town, the right to build was then sold, and the new developer is constructing yet a third building, which is kind of a mash-up of the first and second concepts.
  • Another MAC project was presented to the Town as condos, was approved, but now the right to build is up for sale, likely to become an assisted living facility.

Unanswered questions

There are a whole host of what I see as fairly major questions that still have not been answered.  These include:

  • What does the average Vienna citizen want from a revised MAC?  I have my answer — more green space, smaller buildings.  But that comes from a small random-sample survey with low response rate.  Does anyone other than me think that maybe the Town should put some effort into finding this out in a more systematic way, first, before rewriting the law?
  • Does MAC have an off switch, or not?  Does the “Statement of Purpose and Intent” of the MAC statute have any legal status, so that the Town can simply turn down projects that don’t appear to meet that statement?  Or, can the Town legally turn down MAC projects that meet the letter of the law, or not?  If not, then isn’t MAC just another form of by-right development?  Are we OK with that?
  • Does the Town really have just 100 days for each decision?  Is there a 100-day rule or not? And if there is, can’t the Town easily change that?
  • What is the state of Maple Avenue retail, and what is feasible?  Is retail on Maple Avenue dying, so that we risk becoming a ghost town, as some have asserted?  Or is it in pretty good shape, as I have suggested by directly estimating vacancy rates?  In either case, how much more retail space can Maple Avenue reasonably absorb?  Isn’t office space the real issue, due to generally low occupancy rates in this area?  Won’t this conversion to “upscale” retail space drive out locally-owned businesses, which tend to be small and marginal businesses?  If Maple-as-a-whole is far too large to be treated as one “destination shopping” zone, then is there any plan for breaking it up into smaller pieces?
  • What will it cost the Town to finish the job of putting the utility lines underground?  I have the impression that Vienna started down this path totally unaware of the high ($10M/mile) cost of putting those lines underground.  The cost of finishing that could easily offset decades of the additional tax revenue the Town may hope to get from redeveloped Maple Avenue properties.  I believe the Town is committed now to doing some sort of feasibility study on this issue.  (The alternative, which is just to leave the power lines above ground/underground piecemeal, strikes me as a colossal waste of money, because you’ve spent tremendous sums without getting the uncluttered view that is the whole reason for putting the lines underground in the first place.)
  • What is the impact on schools.  At what point does the addition of high-density housing along Maple force a shift in the existing school boundaries?  Can’t the Town use its position as a “cash cow” for Fairfax County to try to get more permanent classroom space built in Vienna schools?
  • Is special exception zoning out of the question?  Could Vienna approach this as Falls Church and other local jurisdictions have done, via special exception zoning?  (I am pretty sure that was simply dismissed at the 9/9/2019 Town Council work session.)
  • Can there be any sort of overall plan to this?  More specifically, could there be some type of small-area or neighborhood-level planning as part of this?  This appear to be how most other jurisdictions in this area go about redevelopment.
  • Does projected traffic congestion place any overall cap on the amount of high-density housing that can (or maybe should) be added to Maple?  Looking around ten years ahead, using (what I would believe are) conservative (i.e., lowball) projections, the Town’s contractor projected more-or-less a one-third increase in rush hour vehicles.  Does that give anyone (but me) pause?  Is the Town just going to shrug that off and keep on going?
  • Is Maple Avenue truly the disamenity that I think it is?  I took the time to measure Saturday-afternoon noise levels at Nutley and Maple.  I surely would not want to sit there to eat my lunch.  I’m betting more-or-less nobody would.  In that case, shouldn’t that be factored into the plans for these buildings?  Or do we have to continue to pretend that street-side dining is a tremendous benefit from MAC?
  • What could be accomplished merely by modifying the existing commercial (by-right) zoning laws?  And if we are going to go that route, shouldn’t we be explicit about it (i.e., instead of just dropping clauses out of the law and seeing what happens next.)
  • Proactive neighborhood protection.  This is really on-order-of a pet peeve of mine.  But, as it stands, if MAC is going to (e.g.) generate a lot of cut-through traffic, your sole option with the Town of Vienna is to wait until that happens, and then get in line with everybody else who has a problem.  Given that MAC may radically alter some neighborhoods, I have to wonder if something could be done that is a little more proactive.