Post #413: The 10/9/2019 Town Council work session on rewriting MAC

Vienna Town Council spent about three hours discussing changes to MAC zoning last night.

Only a handful of people were in the audience, which is a pity, because this meeting was well worth attending.  It was quite a meeting.  And I mean that mostly in a good way.  Lots of things were discussed.   I learned a lot (even after I have been following this for more than a year.)

I’m going to give a review of the issues that came up, and then do a series of posts on individual issues separately.  But I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow analysis of the entire three hour meeting.  It’s just too long.  Instead, I summarize the major issues below.  In many cases, the same issue was discussed several times over the course of the meeting, so this is my attempt to gather the bits and pieces of discussion in one place.

This meeting is one that may be worth downloading and listening to.  You may download my audio recording (.mp3) from this Google Drive link.  (The file is fairly large, but you can listen to it on Google Drive without downloading).  Or you can wait a day or two, and the Town will post a much-higher-quality audio recording in the archives section, at the bottom of this web page


Major issues.

This is my best recollection (based on hand-written notes) of the major issues that were discussed.   This is not in any sort of chronological order.  Click the topic to go to that section of the writeup.  A

 

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Building heights.  Currently, MAC allows for buildings to be 54′ tall (plus parapets, for a total height limit of just over 62′).  Our standard (non-MAC) commercial zoning limits buildings to 35′ (plus parapets).  The issue was, how to change one or both of those limits.

On one end of the spectrum was Councilmember Patel, who thought that two-story and three-story buildings were adequate, and would have lowered the MAC height limit to (I believe) the upper-40′-foot range.  At the other end was the Director of Planning and Zoning, who advocated for a five-story 67′ (plus parapets) height limit for selected buildings, as an incentive to get developers to build certain types of desirable retail-type space.

The staff suggestion to increase the MAC building height limit to 67′ (plus parapets) was met with considerable opposition from Town Council.  Councilmember Potter said, in so many words, the voters gave us a mandate, and it wasn’t for larger buildings.  I believe Councilman Springsteen used the phrase  “mission creep”.  The Mayor stated that no one on Town Council  expected to see anything over the current 54′ (plus parapets).  Only Councilman Majdi, although skeptical, was willing to have a wait-and-see attitude, to see what the potential options and benefits might be.  For example, very large buildings could be restricted to the very center of town, well away from residential neighborhoods.

As for the height limit under the standard commercial zoning, the Director of Planning and Zoning advocated raising that to 41′.  The assertion was that quality commercial construction could not be built with less height.  Councilman Springsteen pointed to the proposed 145 Church Street building as a counterexample of new three-story construction within 35′.  Others pointed to new two-story construction on Church, within the existing 35′ limit, as evidence that redevelopment could occur profitably at lower heights.

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Public input.  Many times over the course of the meeting, Town Council members expressed the need for getting some measure of public opinion. Town staff got the ball rolling by proposing an on-line survey, and possibly more in-person “town meeting” type input.

Several Town council members wanted to do something better than an on-line survey.  Councilmembers Noble and Patel both advocated for a proper random-sample survey (rather than an on-line survey for whoever cared to answer the questions.)  Councilmember Patel was particularly concerned about having some a paper-copy option, to be sure that we were not excluding individuals who are uncomfortable with internet-based surveys.  (N.B., she is an eye surgeon and so spends considerable time with elderly individuals with vision problems.)  Mayor DiRocco wanted a survey that leaned heavily on visuals (illustrations) rather than text.

There was a general consensus that the purpose of the survey was mostly to present the public with feasible alternatives  (e.g., height limits), and see what was most preferred.  Exactly how to arrive at the set of alternatives was not fully worked out.

Some wanted to eliminate ones that they thought that citizens would respond poorly to.  Councilman Noble, in particular, said no — that finding out what people really disliked is a useful part of the survey exercise.  Councilman Majdi expressed the same sentiment as “if there’s a ‘heck no’ from the community, we want to hear that.”

Councilmember Patel suggested doing a paper-copy survey via the Vienna Voice town newsletter, rather than an on-line survey.  (Because a copy goes to every household in Vienna, this avoids some of the self-selection bias in an on-line survey.)  Staff noted that a paper copy option was available for the “visual preference” survey, but nobody requested it.  Town staff further noted that there would be some significant expense and lag time involved in doing this via the Vienna Voice, particularly if it meant printing and inserting pages of illustration.

(N.B., I got around this last objection in my random-sample survey of Vienna residents by mailing out, not the survey itself, but an invitation to take an on-line survey.  I’ll do a separate posting on how I would go about doing the survey.)

Of particular interest, several Town Council members wanted to review the survey before it was fielded.

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Input from developers.  Separately, but related to input from the public, the notion of asking developers to tell us what was and was not feasible (profitable) was raised.  Several Town Council members strongly suggested that any such information has to come from developers with no financial interest in Town of Vienna development.

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Parking.  This was raised briefly, in the context of changing the commercial parking standards.  The only change I recall is that town staff would eliminate the existing parking standard for restaurants (1 space per four seats) in favor of placing restaurants on the same footing as other commercial enterprise (one space per 200 square feet of retail space).  They would also exempt the area occupied by stairwells and elevators from the retail space calculation.

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Goals of MAC development.  The Director of Planning and Zoning listed out the goals for MAC development.  I could not tell whether these had changed from prior presentations or not.  She added what I believe is a new goal, “highly desired commercial use”, which became the justification for raising high limits to 67′.

Several council members expressed the sentiment that an overriding goal should be to strengthen our commercial base.  (I believe this was not on the Director of Planning and Zoning’s list.)  Councilmember Springsteen noted that the goal should be to build our central business district, and that loading Maple with housing runs contrary to that goal. The issue of too much housing, and not enough commercial, was then raised several times during the meeting.  Councilman Majdi later added that some of the goals need to express what we do NOT want MAC to do, such as overburden schools, parks, and roads.

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No small town, “statement of purpose and intent” not legally enforceable, and so should be eliminated.  Town staff would remove the phrase “small town” from MAC regulations, to be replaced with “home town”.  As far as I can recall, the only Town Council member who called for that was Coucilmember Colbert.  In addition, it was flatly stated that the “purpose of statement and intent” in MAC was not legally enforceable.  This was echoed by at least one Town Council member.  This was the rationale for removing it as such, and replacing it with a much reduced “vision statement” regarding MAC.

Later in the meeting, Councilmember Noble reframed the idea of what our vision for Maple ought to be.  Should it be an auto-centric set of strip developments and gas stations, or can it be something better than that.  He called for making it a distinctive place in Northern Virginia.  He called for showing what the Town would look like with a mix of these new buildings and our existing buildings, as part of the survey of the public.

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Reduced area to which MAC would apply.   Currently, MAC applies to all of Maple from the town boundary to East street.  Town staff now presented two alternatives, and talked about a third.  The first would eliminate about two blocks on either end of Maple.  The second was described as eliminating areas that abutted single-family homes.  At the request of Councilmember Colbert, Town staff sketched out a third option, restricting MAC to areas that do not abut residential lots of any sort.  That latter option — not formally shown, only sketched by hand on the screen — would have more-or-less restricted MAC to the two or three blocks of Maple at the very center of the city.

In addition, Councilman Noble specifically asked about the extended portion of Church Street, that is, the part between Lawyers and Pleasant (east of the US post office).  At least some of Maple, in that area, would have been classified as not abutting residential property.

At the end of the day, Councilmember Patel asked that a well-labeled map be put out showing all the adjacent residential areas.  To which Councilmember Noble also asked that the original MAC map be included in (e.g.) any survey of the public.  Finally, Councilmember Noble brought up the idea that the original MAC did not differentiate across lots because they did not want to create “winners and losers” among Maple Avenue property owners.

I believe the final direction from the Mayor was to produce maps showing all these options.

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Allowable commercial/housing configurations under MAC, to limit dwelling unit count in four floor buildings with only one commercial floor.  About half-an-hour into the meeting, the Director of Planning and Zoning began discussing allowable building configurations under MAC — i.e., what could go on which floors.  I have to admit I was completely confused by this, and it appears that at least some of the Town Council members were as well.   Councilmember Springsteen asked if these various configures are what MAC required, or what it allowed.  He also pointed out that the diagrams showed office space, but that so far there had been zero interest in building new office space under MAC.

Near as I can tell, the gist of the Director of Planning and Zoning’s reply was that this set of “allowable” configurations was to limit the number of dwelling units in a four-floor building, if the developer did not use the second floor for commercial use.  If the second floor was not commercial use, the developer would have to build fewer, larger residential units in the building.  I think.

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Three-floor option must be presented to the public.  It was at this point in the meeting that Councilmembers Potter and Patel begin questions about lower buildings.  Potter flatly stated that people wanted to see less building height.  Patel asked where the diagrams of a three-story option where, and whether a three-story option would be presented to the public as part of any survey.

This was followed by a mixed discussion of what a three-story option would be, and whether it would be a viable (profitable) option.  Director of Planning and Zoning contended that if MAC were limited to three floors, there was no reason to have MAC zoning at all.  I believe it was Councilman Majdi who suggested that the distinction between three floors under standard commercial zoning, versus MAC, is that MAC would remove the “primarily commercial” requirement.  That is, three floors by right under commercial zoning would have to be no more than 49% housing.  The same building under MAC could have two full floors of housing.  And that would be the incentive to build under MAC.

Councilmember Patel further pressed the three-floor MAC option by suggesting a limit of 48’/three floors under MAC.  While keeping the standard commercial height limit at 35′.  This would further differential MAC from standard commercial, as MAC would allow for much higher ceiling heights.  There was again the back-and-forth over whether commercial buildings could be built with three floors under a 35′ height requirement, and Councilmember Springsteen again pointed to the proposed 145 Church Street building as an example of that.  Further, per Councilmember Patel, there was apparently interest in building a three-floor by-right building at Maple and Center (the site that had been slated to be the Sunrise Assisted Living facility.)

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Gathering space.  I have to admit to being frankly baffled by much of the “gathering space” discussion.   And my guess is, that’s because there’s a lot of confusion, in general, on this topic.

The new “gathering space” rules would replace the prior “open space” rule.  Town staff presented diagrams showing how existing MAC proposals would have fared under the new “gathering space” rules.  (N.B.:  In my opinion, that’s misleading, as developers built to meet the old rules, and would have built differently had the proposed rules been in place.)  There was discussion of having different gathering space rules for larger versus small lots.  Discussion of allowing rooftop spaces to count as gathering spaces.  Discussion of requiring gathering spaces to be contiguous.  Discussion of whether indoor space could count as gathering space.  Whether such space had to be public, or merely potentially accessible directly from some public right-of-way.

Separately, Councilmember Patel pushed for reducing the amount of impervious space allowed on these lots, from the current 80% (or more, with incentives) to something more like 65%.  This was (indirectly) related to the gathering space/open space/green space issue, and so was swept up into the overall gathering space discussion.

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Village housing and similar.  Village housing would be small houses sharing some common green space.  (The Railroad Cottages in Falls Church is a local example.)  Town staff assert that village housing can be located no closer than 268′ from Maple.  (That was not questioned, but the logical basis for that rule was never made clear.)  Town staff showed how village housing might look on the Giant Food lot.  These were presented as small single-family homes on individual plots.  Any notion of (e.g.) duplex (triplex, n-plex) houses had apparently been eliminated from the draft regulations.

Councilman Majdi had called for some variation of “transitional” housing to separate the large MAC buildings from adjacent residential lots, and this is what Town staff put into the draft regulation.  But Majdi’s comment was that he had hoped to see that as an alternative to large mixed-use buildings on the lot, rather than as an addition to such buildings, as in the Giant Food lot example.

It is not clear that village housing in Falls Church has led to affordable smaller homes.  The asking price for the Railroad Cottages houses is about $750,000.  Later, Councilmember Noble expressed the sentiment that using the upper floors of commercial buildings for housing that costs under $700,000 is an appropriate use of Maple Avenue.

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Process moving forward/what happens next.  Initially, the Director of Planning and Zoning presented a fairly ambitious schedule of two work sessions, some public input, and then a rewrite of the MAC statute.  That schedule was later scrapped when it became evident that there was far too much to be discussed for that amount of time.  Councilman Springsteen, in particular, was critical of both the amount of material (on order of a hundred pages) and time this exercise involved, with the idea being that they still have to run the Town government while dealing with MAC.

There was some tension between a desire to go through the the regulations page-by-page, versus a desire to have a more top-level discussion of the most critical areas first (e.g., building height).

Among others, Majdi brought up the fact that some ideas for MAC were not in the existing statute.  For example, he wanted a “soft cap” of three floors, with a fourth floor only being offered in exchange for something.  The Director of Planning and Zoning objected fairly strongly to that approach, calling it an infeasible type of special exceptions zoning.

In the end, I believe they reached the following decision.  Each Town Council member will list out what they considered to be the key issues for discussion.  Those will be compiled, and the next work session on this topic (October 22) will focus on those issues.  Mayor DiRocco pointed out that this should then go to the public, for their input, before trying to do the line-by-line rewrite of the zoning laws.  But fielding that survey, during December, would be a mistake.  So, likely, discussion of this will continue well into the next year.

Finally, Councilmember Noble made sure that the process for extending the MAC moratorium is well underway.  The answer is that they will have just exactly enough time for everything to be done legally, so that the MAC moratorium can be extended to June 30 2020.  There was than some further discussion about the process.

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Other issues.  There was discussion of sustainable design, and the fact that LEED (energy efficient design) certification was commonplace now.  There was some sentiment for rewarding developers for cutting edge or outstanding energy efficiency.   Traffic and schools and parks came up, but only in passing, as Councilmember Majdi suggested that in addition to the things we want MAC to do, we have to be clear about the things we want MAC NOT to do (i.e., overburden schools and parks, increase traffic congestion).  Commercial vacancy rate and Maple Avenue business climate.  The question of the vacancy rate on Maple came up, and the answer appeared to be that it was roughly the same as the rest of Fairfax County.  Councilman Majdi later stated why the “death of Maple” was unlikely, boiling it down to 30,000 cars per day passing by those shops, and a population with mean household income above $150,000.

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