Post #402: It’s tough to make predictions, part 2

Time flies.

The Town of Vienna is now in the process of modifying the MAC zoning rules.  And, in addition, it has chosen to rewrite its entire commercial zoning code at the same time.  Presumably, all of that will be done by the time the MAC moratorium is lifted, which (if all goes correctly) will now occur in June 2020.  (For background, see the writeup of the Town Council’s most recent discussion of  rewriting of the zoning rules,  the third item in Post #378).

Two weeks ago I wrote down my prediction for what the revised Town of Vienna commercial zoning will look like (Post #383).  Best guess, when the dust has settled, there won’t be much change to MAC, the Town will apply MAC to most-but-not-all of Maple, and the Town will formalize a policy of allowing commercial buildings to be mostly housing.

In this post, I explain why I think it’s headed in that direction.


1:  That’s the current default.

Mainly, that’s exactly how the materials presented by Planning and Zoning staff currently read.  Most of these were presented at the 9/9/2019 Town Council work session reads. So, that’s the default, unless Town Council acts to make material changes in those drafts.

For MAC, the current draft would lock in almost all the current features that result in large, lot-covering buildings — and then some.  This includes building height and building footprint (explicitly allowing buildings about the size of 444 Maple West, before requiring a break between buildings).  In addition, the draft would implicitly allow more than four floors as long as the building appeared to have just four floors, from the outside.  They would rejigger the “open space” rule to be a “gathering space” rule, but that looks to me to be equally ineffective at creating actual open space.

They would expand the front setback to 28 feet, so new MAC buildings would have to sit no closer than 28′ from the Maple Avenue curb.  This last one is unusual in that, unlike all the other changes, this materially reduces the value of MAC buildings.  By my calculation, that additional 8 feet reduces the value of the resulting buildings by about $10,000 per linear foot along Maple.  Best guess, Town staff realized that once people take a close look at the generous, more-than-required 24 foot setback at the Chick-fil-a-car-wash, citizens are finally going to figure out just how urban (e.g.) 444 Maple West will look, with a much taller (60′) facade, sitting closer to Maple (20′) and much closer to Nutley (15′).

I don’t think the additional 8′ will make that materially better, but it sufficiently muddies the water that Town staff will be able to dismiss complaints in this area by saying “we’ve addressed that”.

The only other major change is to exclude two or three blocks of Maple, at either end of the commercial zone, from the MAC area.  (This is after approving three MAC buildings in that area already.)  Like so.  The area within the dashed line would be the revised MAC zone.

The rationale for this was based loosely on existing zoning differences (C1 versus C1A and C2).  I didn’t find that at all compelling, but this is what Planning and Zoning is pushing.

The final piece of the puzzle is what Planning and Zoning is planning for the areas outside the MAC zone.  At one point, they proposed having a three-floor MAC limit in those areas (with 41′ building height maximum, plus parapets), and four floors in the center of Town.  Now they have just placed those areas outside the proposed MAC zone.  (Other than for the three buildings in those areas already approved under MAC).

The redline (draft) commercial zoning regulations provide a clue as to what Planning and Zoning has in mind.  As Councilman Majdi pointed out at the 9/9/2019 Town Council work session, the current redline removes the existing clause requiring commercial buildings to be primarily occupied and used for commercial purposes.   If removed, that would allow two floors of housing above first-floor commercial space.  These would not have any of the other restrictions that MAC zoning entails, and would be by-right, that is, built without any public review.  From their standpoint, they have improved on their original 3-story-MAC-limit proposal.  Effectively, they get more-or-less three-story MAC buildings “by right”, with no MAC-related restrictions and no public review.


2:  Understand the primary goal of our Planning and Zoning department.

Here’s all you need to know:  Development, more is better.

If you assume that as the unofficial goal of Planning and Zoning, you can pretty much predict where they will come out on any given issue.  Near as I can tell, the goal of the professional staff is to get as much rentable/sellable space built in the Town of Vienna as they possibly can.  They’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen, and they will do nothing to hinder that.

To put it bluntly, with that as the goal, they work for the developers.  Sure, they are paid by the citizens, but their goal is to help the developers in any way possible.  Because that’s how you maximize the amount of development that occurs in Vienna.

To be clear, they could not do that if they did not have leadership from the top of the Town of Vienna government.  Sometime between 1990 and 2010, Vienna’s government went from being largely one in which the status quo was fine, to one that was strongly in favor of more development.  Our current Planning and Zoning department is just a reflection of that change.  And Town government remains firmly committed to more development here in Vienna.

By far the easiest way to confirm this is the “put your money where your mouth is” test.   So, look at the last few Town of Vienna budgets to see that clearly.  Not only did the Town add a new position — economic development manager — the combined Planning and Zoning and Economic Development offices were renamed the Community Development division.  This follows an already significant uptick in spending on the Planning and Zoning department.  Here’s the operating budget data comparing the 2015-16 fiscal year to the current fiscal year:

Town of Vienna Operating Budget, in $Millions
Actual 15-16 Adopted 19-20 Total % increase Avg. annual % increase
Dep’t of Community Development  $     0.77  $       1.30 68% 14%
Entire budget  $  23.60  $     26.73 13% 3%
Source:  Town of Vienna 2017-18 and 2019-20 budgets

(As with all budget documents, there are some nuances and caveats due to (e.g.) the treatment of borrowing and saving (use and funding of reserves).  But this table gives the gist of it.)

With this firmly in mind, then more-or-less everything that comes out of Planning and Zoning becomes predictable.  The upshot is that if you think Planning and Zoning will voluntarily push something that materially restricts development here in Vienna, you have not been paying attention.  Any changes to the law that result in lower density and less development a) will have to come directly from Town Council members, and b) will have to be done despite Planning and Zoning doing their best to dilute, negate, nullify or otherwise offset any restrictive changes to the law.

Just take Councilman Majdi’s proposition for a transitional housing zone between these large MAC buildings and the surrounding neighborhoods.  By mandating that, you put a buffer between the big MAC buildings and the existing neighborhoods.  And if you were paying attention, you would have noted that Planning and Zoning enthusiastically presented that idea … as an option that builders might choose if they desired.  Which, of course, negates the whole idea of a mandatory buffer between new development and existing neighborhoods.  That’s what you’re dealing with.  If you expect a good-faith implementation of ideas to reduce the density of development, you’re not paying attention.


Conclusion

Right now, the status quo is pretty much as I described it at the outset.  Accordingly, Town Council is going to have to take affirmative actions to change that.  But three Town Council members remain strongly committed to the original MAC.  And the remaining four will need to be constantly aware that the Town professional staff who are re-drafting the zoning laws will almost certainly try to undercut, dilute, or otherwise negate attempts to reduce the size and density of redevelopment in Vienna.

Toss in the fact that there will be only a handful of meetings on this topic between now and the time the entire rewrite will be done.   That puts the time pressure heavily on the side of the current draft, and on the side of the professional staff doing the drafting.

So my best guess is, what you see right now, as described at the start of this posting, is more-or-less what you’re going to get.