Post #418: Further followups to the 10/9/2019 Town Council work session

Post #413 is the overview of what went on.  Post #415 is my rant about how not to do a survey.   Both of those were pretty well-documented.

This post, by contrast, is just a set of opinions.  These are mostly observations that I made, or that others who attended that meeting made, and passed along to me.

1:  These meetings are needlessly disorganized.

And the corollary is, somebody needs to step up and keep this process organized.  Hint:  It’s not going to be done by Town staff.

Town Council meetings, in general, strike me as lacking in organization.  It may or may not be obvious when you attend or watch a meeting.  But when you (effectively) transcribe the meetings, as I do when I generate an “index” to match my audio files, it really stands out.  For any significant issue, the discussion just wanders.  Any one issue will be discussed half-a-dozen different times in a meeting — typically with no clear summary or wrap-up or conclusion.  Time isn’t budgeted in any meaningful way, and a disproportionate share of time is spent on the minutia of an item.

I’ve said that before, most recently in a writeup on time management (Post #388). And I acknowledge that this must be a long-standing problem, given that Town Council was struggling with long meeting times back in 1969.

Source:  Town of Vienna newsletter, February 1969, available from this archive of old town newsletters on this Town of Vienna webpage.  

Weirdly, one thing that other local governments routinely do to streamline their meetings appears to be infeasible for Vienna.  That’s Councilman Majdi’s suggestion to use a consent agenda (Post #404) to get minor, non-controversial items out of the way.  I literally couldn’t find a local government that doesn’t use that approach (other than Vienna).  Based on that, I would guess that something as radical as putting estimated times for agenda item would be beyond the pale.  (Fairfax County does that, but none of the smaller local jurisdictions (Herndon, Falls Church, Fairfax City) does.)

But this last work session really brought the lack of organization to the forefront.  Months back, when the Town Council et al.  first started discussions of re-doing MAC, I despaired of the Town ever being able to get through it (Post #325).  With every additional meeting, I continue to despair.  These meetings just end up all over the place.

Here’s my summary of the structure of the 10/9/2019 Town Council work session on revising commercial zoning (including MAC) in Vienna.

  1.  It started down in the weeds.  Town staff provided about 100 pages of “redline” documents.  That is, a marked-up (edited) copy of the Town’s entire commercial zoning ordinance, plus supporting materials.  Apparently, each Town Council member was supposed to provide comments on that 100 pages, and at least one of them (Councilman Potter) did exactly that.
  2. Town staff surprised Town Council with brand-new and highly controversial material.  Then Town staff started to provide an overview of key aspects of MAC, but this included issues that Town Council had never even seen before, such as raising the height limit to 67′ (plus parapets), and two (or three?) plans for reducing the applicable MAC zone to a subset of Maple.
  3. A bit of a free-for-all ensued.  So the presentation and discussion more or less broke down into an unplanned discussion of individual items.  On which there was, may I mildly say, a lack of consensus among Town Council.
  4. It eventually became apparent to some members that they needed to hash out the big-picture items first before they edited the 100 page document.  Only at the end of the meeting did they decide that they needed to discuss the big picture first, and then get down into the weeds.  The last 15 or so minutes of the meeting consisted of Town Council deciding that each individual would write out their “big ticket” items, and that Town staff would compile that list.
  5. And they realized they needed to get feedback from the public, on these big issues, before proceeding to rewrite the law.   Credit for Councilman Noble for insisting that the Town do a proper, random-sample survey, to see what citizens think about these changes to the zoning rules.  (Town staff had planned to do another non-random internet survey, and it’s far from clear to me that Town staff are the right people to do a proper survey (Post #415).

The upshot is that they just sort of stumbled through it.  And only at the end of the day did they realize they had not one, but two major steps to take before they got down into the details of editing the 100 pages of Town statute.  But I will say that they at least, at the end, came away with two action items:  Create a list of things to discussion, and do a proper (random-sample) survey of Vienna residents about those items.

I mean, by the end of it, I think they got the process right.  They really do have to reach agreement on (e.g.) how big the buildings will be, and so on, before they can get into the details of rewriting the statute.  And they probably ought to get some clean feedback from Vienna citizens.  And (not mentioned above), the idea of getting some handle on the economics of redevelopment was a good one.

By the end, it was evident to many observers — not just me — that nobody was running the show.  I’ve now had two people, at two different times, give me their own versions of this same observation.  The meeting was not quite a random walk.  It did eventually get to some sort of conclusion.  But my gosh, if this is the pace of progress, it’s going to be years, if ever, before this gets done.

This meeting was the easy part.  They didn’t have to try to reach consensus about anything other than what the next steps should be.  When they start in on the actual details of the law, I can’t imagine how this laissez-faire approach can possibly work.

Maybe the Town needs to have a paid, disinterested consultant come in and run this process for them.  Literally hire someone to run these work sessions.  Not an expert in zoning, but an expert in running meetings with an eye toward reaching consensus on controversial topics.  These meetings aren’t going to run themselves.  But right now, that seems to be the plan.

Finally, I can tell you what I don’t want to see.  I don’t want to see this go “underground”, and have the details worked out with another steering committee, ad-hoc committee, or other small, selected group of individuals.  I just perceive too much potential for mischief.  As I now understand it, the original MAC was presented to Town Council for a yes/no vote.  Town Council, as a whole, did not have the option to modify the law as it was presented to them.  However difficult it may be for Town Council to proceed in the current fashion, I don’t think they want to go back to the methods used for the original MAC development.

2:  Additionality and compactness:  Town Council still doesn’t “get it” regarding open/gathering/green space.

There are two basic, simple, and purely technical points that Town Council keeps walking around, rather than addressing.

The first is “additionality”. 

The existing open-space requirement and the proposed “gathering space” requirement double-count spaces that already have to be kept open, by law.  And, as a result, you can end up with no additional open space, beyond that which was already required.

For example, as currently written, MAC buildings must be set back at least 20′ from the Maple Avenue curb.  All of that setback that is not literally in the Town’s right-of-way counts in the open/gathering space calculation.  Even though the builder has absolutely no choice but to provide that 20′, by statute.  In addition, any sort of walkway that is needed merely to service the building, counts as open space.  But the builders would have to provide a way for people to get in and out of the building, in any case.

This is what led me to point out how ineffective the existing “open space” requirement was.  In the case of 444 Maple West, it did virtually nothing.  The “open space” requirement didn’t result in any additional open space — it merely counted a bunch of spaces that would have had to be open, either by law, or simply to allow the building to be used.  Like this, from the post cited just above, on the then-current version of 444 Maple West.

Currently, our wily Department of Planning and Zoning has taken to evaluating existing MAC buildings and proposals against a new version of this, deemed “gathering space”.  These new evaluations seem to show that this new “gathering space” rule would be effective.  But that’s a trick, and nobody who has worked with legislation should be fooled by it.  You are looking at buildings that had been built to satisfy the existing (“open space”) law.  If the alternative (“gathering space”) law had been in effect, those buildings would have been built to satisfy the new law.  Evaluating buildings structured to satisfy one law, by looking at them through the lens of a different law, shows nothing.  My point is that these comparisons explicitly do not show that the “gathering space” rule would create additional open space.  All they show is that building structured to satisfy one open-space rule would have had to have been restructured if they were to satisfy a different open-space rule.

Upshot #1:  If you want a rule that creates additional open space, beyond that already required by law, then you need to write a rule that explicitly calls for additional open space.  You have to eliminate the double-counting.

The second technical point is what Town Council keeps mis-labeling as “contiguous”.

Contiguous just means that all the parts of the area touch one another.  So, for example, the existing sidewalk around the Tequila Grande site is contiguous.  The sidewalk and mowing strip together are quite narrow at this intersection (only about 8′ wide), but those account for about 5500 square feet of contiguous open space.

“CONTIGUOUS”

You couldn’t hold a meeting on that sidewalk — it’s worthless as a gathering space.  But it’s 5500 square feet of contiguous open space.

I think what the Town would actually like to see is what I term “compact” space.  (But I made that up.  There is no simple English word for “not stretched thin”.)  I think that’s what the Town was after, in the “parks and plazas” phrase in the MAC statement of purpose and intent.  Here’s the same 5500 square feet, but as “compact” space, in the sense of not stretched thin.

“COMPACT”

That space is about 75′ on a side (to within my drawing error).  It is exactly as if you took all of that sidewalk/utility strip space, folded it up, and made something useful out of it.  At that point, you do have some sort of “gathering space”.  (Although, as I continue to state, it would not be very pleasant due to the noise.)

Upshot #2:  If you want something like the picture above, to be “parks and plazas”, you’re going to have to write it into the law.  Something like, x% of the open space will consist of a single area where the longest dimension is no more than N times the shortest dimension.  You’re going to have to rule out “open space” that consists of nothing but (contiguous) long, skinny space, like a sidewalk.

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3:  Someone needs to draw the map that was outlined, live, during the meeting.

At this meeting, Town staff put up several options for restricting additional MAC buildings to the core of the Town.  They presented two maps, but the Town Council asked them to sketch out a third map, on the fly.  That third map was all the existing MAC lots that do not adjoin residential property.   As it turns out, that looked to be just two blocks or so, of the oldest section of the Vienna downtown.

Please don’t let that third map be forgotten.  If necessary, I can re-play that portion of the meeting, and sketch it in.  But I think that the idea of a central business district is fairly classic, and I would hate to lose sight of the idea that some small part of the Vienna downtown could be rebuilt without directly abutting the surrounding neighborhoods.

I could keep going, but I’ve probably hit the TLDR point for most readers.  Let me stop with just these three points.