Post #383: It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future

Posted on September 14, 2019

I’m going to attribute the title of this post to Yogi Berra.  And while my last post was a lament for the things I think the Town ought to ask, this one is my prediction of what they’re actually going to do.

The point of this post is to predict what the zoning will look like for Maple Avenue, once the Town Council’s deliberations are finished five months from now, in February 2020.  (Or at least, scheduled to finish.)  And, by inference, what Maple will look like in the long run.

This post is just a plain statement of what I think we’ll get.  A subsequent post will explain why I think we’re going to get that.

Anyway, let’s face the facts.  Allowing just five months to redo the zoning, within a cumbersome legal and governmental framework, strongly limits what you can do and what you can consider.  Thus, once you’ve set that at the goal, you have a good idea of where this is going to end up.  That’s based on what’s on the table now, recent history, and some understand of the players.

Just as a hint, the original title of my last post was “why I despair”.  So if you expect something chipper and upbeat here, you’ve come to the wrong place.

But first, one more for the obits

I have one more item to add to the obits of the prior post.  Of all the things I could have added to that last posting, but forgot to, I want to mention “produce a drawing of what one whole block of Maple would look like, under MAC redevelopment”.  That came up at one of the recent meetings.  Staff were going to look into doing that.  But some Town Council members didn’t want anyone to do that.  So staff didn’t bother.  And it was forgotten.

The bottom line is that they Town is not going to commission any drawing of what the MAC build-out might look like.  Which is not a surprise, as that is just one more in the list of incredibly reasonable questions the Town might try to answer before plowing ahead.  But won’t.   Most of which I listed in my just-prior “obits” post.

A few pictures of a block-level build-out would be useful, if for no other reason than to see what it will look like when two abutting MAC developments are built  just off the common lot line, as the law allows.  But it’s obvious by now that this request — “may we please have even one image of what Maple might look like” — ain’t gonna happen.

As an economist, I believe in “revealed preference”.  That is, what you do reveals what you actually prefer.   So in this case, I infer that Town Council would rather buy a pig in a poke than let anyone have any image whatsoever of what they are actually voting for.  Fully admitting that (see post title), I just shake my head about that whenever I think about it.  The full extent of our forward-looking planning is going to be, more or less, “oh, just surprise us.”

So, because we won’t hire a professional to try to give you a picture of the future, I figure, what the hey, I might as well give it a shot — let me tell you what I think we’re going to get, to be decided by our Town staff Council over the next five months.  Let me first outline what, then why.

What we’re going to get:  Zoning.

Let me cut to the chase here, and leave the “why” part of this for another post.

Take the existing MAC zoning.  Leave it more-or-less unchanged in the center of Vienna.  Maybe add a few tweaks, and then make sure that buildings the size of 444 Maple West cannot be legally challenged based on their size and mass.  On the east and west ends of Maple, lower the building height to three tall stories and make construction of high-density housing in those areas “by right”, that is, not subject to public review. And also allow by-right three-story housing in the center of Town as an alternative to MAC, but I think you won’t see that built, as four stories will be more profitable.

The upshot is that we’ll get buildings all along the length of Maple that are primarily used for high-density housing.  With some retail/commercial space on the first floor of each.  Is anyone really surprised by that?

In the three-story section (east and west ends of Maple), there will be no public review of the proposed redevelopments.  If you want to build a lot-covering three-story building that is mostly (say) apartments, with some smidge of commercial use thrown in, that will be your right under our newly-modified commercial zoning.  (And you can do that in the center of town as well, again as by-right development with no public review.)  But in the center of town, if you want that fourth (or maybe more) floor, you’ll have to ask for it via MAC zoning.  Those applications will still have to have that pesky public review process, even though it’s still not clear that the Town can, in fact, turn down any application that “ticks the boxes” of height, setbacks, and so on.

What we’re going to get:  Buildings

Economics dictates what is built.  Around here, it certainly seems like stumpies are the most profitable thing to build.  (“Stumpies” are “stick-built mid-rise podium apartment/condo buildings”. The podium is a concrete first floor, required to house the parking. Above that, these are standard 2×4 wood construction with a “skin” of non-combustible material.)

Three-story stumpies on the north and south ends of Maple, built by-right under modified commercial zoning regulations.  Those will be two floors of stick-built (2 x 4) high-density housing over a concrete parking garage.  With a little retail tacked onto the front.  (Eh, you might get a few clusters of townhouses packed into a lot, a la Marco Polo, to provide some variation.)

Four story stumpies in the center center of town, built under MAC.  Just add one floor to the three-story stumpies.  So, three floors of stick-built (2 x 4) housing over a concrete first floor.  Adding that fourth floor makes these much more profitable than the by-right three-story stumpies, so I would be surprised to see any new three-story construction in the MAC zone at the center of town.

Forget any notion of significant green space (“parks and plazas”), except possibly on the Giant Food lot.  If you haven’t figured out by now that these buildings are going to come as close as possible to covering the lot, then you haven’t been paying attention.  (E.g., see what a scam the “open space” requirement is under current MAC zoning.  Did you really think that renaming that “gathering space” was actually intended to fix anything?)

All buildings — MAC or by-right commercial — will be 28′ off the road, with no storefront parking.  But if it makes you feel better, most will have Potemkin cafés on the front sidewalk gathering space.  So that you can enjoy listening to the traffic as you sip your cappuccino.

Maybe the Town will have the sense not to put the biggest possible parking garage on top of the Patrick Henry library, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  If ample parking is good for business, then more is better.  After all, we’ll need it once (twice, three times) per year for special events.  Plus, if all the commercial buildings are eventually going to be four-story stumpies, then a beautiful library would be entirely out of place.  Until I see some reasonable needs assessment, my guess is, that’s going to be the staff recommendation on this one.  When they do that, seriously, who is going to stand up and come out against more parking?

So dodging that particular bullet — if it can be dodged — will depend on Fairfax saying no, not our Town Council.  As in, no we’re not going to pay $1000/sq ft for an ugly building crammed underneath a parking garage.

We need to throw in some cheap placebos for traffic, to make it look like something is being done.  So, add some some racks of unused rental bikes and other mostly harmless stuff, so we can turn a blind eye to the increased traffic from the new high-density housing on Maple.

Toss in a few pieces of public art …

And that’ll be the new Vienna downtown.

At no point in the next five months will anyone state this as plainly as I have stated it here.  But this is where I think it’s going to end up.  I’ll give my rationale in a subsequent post.

There are still a few things to look forward to.  I wonder how the Town is going to wave its hands to make the traffic issue go away, now that their own study projects a fairly material impact.  It will be interesting to see how many concessions to developers Planning and Zoning staff will be able to plant in the new law without anyone noticing.  But otherwise, I’m not seeing much that’s going to nudge the ship of state off-course on this one.

Finally, for anyone who has a strong notion that contradicts my view of the future, I urge you to put that in writing and post it publicly, so that we can see who came closer, once the Town has finished rewriting the zoning laws.