Post #442: Open space: There has to be a better way.

Posted on November 1, 2019

Note:  I accidentally posted this before I was finished.  As of 12:20 PM 11/1/2019, the post is now done.

The picture above is what I would term a typical AM rush hour on Maple, looking down 123 toward Oakton.  The blocky gray building is the (then) unfinished Chick-fil-a-car-wash.  And this post is my plea for the Town of Vienna to contemplate this picture for one minute, and then re-think its entire approach to “open space” under MAC zoning.


Gathering space:  A new and improved Edsel.

This turns out to have been an exceptionally tough post to write.  It’s more like a collection of separate pieces.  I write too much anyway, and I repeat myself.  Did I mention that I repeat myself?  So I’m not going to try to prove anything here.  I’m just going to layout a few declarative sentences with links to prior work, and get on with the analysis of alternatives.

If you’re tired of hearing me describe MAC’s flaws, and just want to see a few alternatives, skip to here.

1  The Town spent its time focused on how MAC would look, and spent far too little time focused on how it would work.  No traffic study.  No analysis of economics.  No study of the existing retail climate.  No estimate of the cost of putting the power lines underground.  They expected to get a lot of office space (when the market for that was already dead), and are now shocked that all builders want to build is housing.  And they persistently managed to ignore that Maple is a 33,000 vehicle-per-day arterial road, and that incurable defect makes the area adjacent to Maple unpleasant.

2  What’s wrong with the existing MAC open space requirement?  Ah, read it here.

3  The same basic flaws are carried over to the new-and-improved “gathering space” requirement.  Discussed here.

4  The space directly adjacent to Maple is not pleasant.  Putting your “open space” there may look good, but it isn’t going to work well from a “fun” standpoint due to noise and pollution.   Heck, experts note this about Tysons, maybe we need to hire an expert to say the same thing here.  Given that, why is that area more-or-less the sole focus on of MAC-generated public space?  See point 1.   Which is why I’ll say it again:

I call upon Town Council to hold its next work session 15′ from Maple, during rush hour, without microphones, using folding tables and chairs.  Or quit talking about the lovely gathering space that MAC will create, directly adjacent to Maple.  Honestly, invest just one hour in trying to be heard over the traffic noise, and I think you’ll get the point.

5  Small lots can’t provide much useful space.  I think that’s self-evident.  So if you could get some effective open space requirement, on a small lot, what’s the point, exactly?

6  The proposed 28′ setback is nice looking but still useless.  Functionally, the additional width amounts to a $10,000-per-linear foot waste of space (Post #380).  It’s consistent with a Town that continues to focus on how it would look, and continues to ignore how it would work.  And I will again point out that, despite that way Town Council talks about this, the presumed “desirability” of that 28′ setback is entirely a creation of Town staff, and that, as of right now, nobody has actually just straight-up asked Vienna citizens if that’s what they want.

I’m for it, because it makes the buildings smaller (and so, fewer people and less traffic.)  I’m for it, because it will preserve slightly more open sky view when walking down Maple (but nothing like what we enjoy now.)  But in terms of actually using that space for something, in its own right?  Nah.

It gives you this:

When you could have had this:

7 Tying the “gathering space” to huge financial incentives is just a risky shot in the dark (Post #430).  The Town has not one single piece of analysis from which to judge the likely effect of these proposed economic incentives around the new gathering space requirement.  But they appear ready just to roll the dice on it anyway.

8 You can short-circuit all this blather.  Just go down to the Chick-fil-a-car-wash.  Stand next to the transformers, and take in the scene.  Imagine yourself sitting at those tables, enjoying your take-out fast food while listening to the traffic go by.  Realize that the brick patio in front of you is the truck loading zone and that, at least in my opinion, they are going to have to let at least some cars drive literally on those bricks in order to get the drive-through window to function (Post #440).

Anyway, plus or minus having people literally drive on the setback, that’s pretty much the MAC model.  Sure, some Maple-adjacent open space will be set back a bit further than that.  But not much, and it will back to solid building facades that are roughly as tall as the highest Chick-fil-A tower.  More-or-less, it should have roughly the look and feel of what you can experience right now at the Chick-fil-a-car-wash.

There must be a better way.

I don’t mean this to be the definitive set of answers.  But just off the top of my head, I can think of at least two outright alternative strategies that would replace the existing approach.  And two patches that could at least try to fix some of the worst problems with the current approach.

Alternative 1:    Smaller buildings, no open space requirement, dedicate the additional taxes generated by MAC buildings to an open space/parks fund.

This one amounts to “just give up”.  Keep the legally-required setback and permeable space requirements in MAC.  Scrap the “open” or “gathering” space.

And in return, because these properties would no longer be burdened with providing publicly-accessible “open” or “gathering” space, make the buildings smaller.  That embodies the basic quid-pro-quo that MAC was supposed to be about.  So, e.g., limit them to three floors. But require no additional “gathering space”.

If we the citizens of Vienna wish to have more parks and plazas, do it the old-fashioned way:  Pay for it.    Take the additional tax revenues that these new, larger properties generate and dedicate those revenues to a parks/open space fund.  Maybe dedicate all the new new taxes from the first decade of each property’s existence.  Maybe dedicate half of that amount, in perpetuity.  I don’t care.

The point being mostly that nothing stops us from doing this.  (See next section for things we may or may not be able to do.)  Those are new revenues, not currently used to run the Town.  Those are not new taxes, but merely a use of existing tax money.  So that’s both feasible, and doing that is certainly within the Town Council’s purview.  Town Council could write the legislation directing the use of the funds.  Or if there’s a legal barrier there, then simply pledge to do it as part of the annual budget process.  One way or the other, this approach could not be legally stopped.  The Town has the right to spend its own money creating new open spaces and parks.

What sort of money are we talking about, per redeveloped acre?  Tough to say, exactly, but the Town came up with $72K/year net increase in tax revenues out of the proposed Sunrise development at Maple and Center (see this .pdf on the Town’s website).  That’s less than an acre, and it’s four (or was it five?) floors, and projected revenues there may or may not be typical.  But let me just run with that.

Arguably, the most expensive land in Vienna right now is the land along Maple.  If Maple Avenue land currently runs around $6M/acre, then at $72K/acre/year in additional tax revenues from redevelopment, it would take 83 acre-years of tax revenues to buy one acre of Maple.  And set it aside as a park.   So if you dedicated the first 10 years of revenues, from each redeveloped acre, Vienna could afford to purchase one acre of Maple Avenue land, to be turned into park/plaza/open space, for about every eight acres that got redeveloped under MAC. 

And then, a decade from now, those revenue streams are freed up to become part of general revenues.  You only harness the first decade to fill a dedicated parks and plazas fund.

And if we went off Maple, we could purchase more, for the same money.  If only we could identify large tracts of land that might come up for sale.  And be prepared to buy them — with this dedicated fund.

I see several benefits from this.

One, it is true public park land.  It’s not private property, which is what the MAC gathering spaces would be.  It’s not a pay-for-play space like restaurant seating.  It’s true publicly-owned parks/plaza space.

Two, it could come in big, useful chunks.  Or not, as the Town saw fit.  There’s nothing to stop the Town from buying an acre at a time.  There’s nothing to stop the town from subdividing a redeveloping MAC lot and buying a piece of that from a willing private developer.  More to the point, the Town could plan it, and it wouldn’t be whatever dribs and drabs of leftover space a developer could not profitably use.

Three, it is decoupled from the setback requirements.  So, unlike the MAC space, you wouldn’t end up with the bulk of it directly next to Maple.

Four, for two reasons, it reduces the rate of population growth from MAC housing development.  Each building is smaller, so there would be fewer new residents per redeveloped acre.  And I strongly suspect that the economic incentives for redevelopment are smaller, which would slow the rate at which Maple Avenue acreage was redeveloped.  That in turn slows the rate at which MAC-generated housing chokes off Maple Avenue with additional traffic.  I see that as an unambiguously good thing, relative to the current proposal.

In summary, instead of trying to do this by literally forcing each property owner to cough up some physical bit of land, by writing the laws this way and that way, and hoping they can’t dodge that, and browbeating  them in public sessions, and on and on and on … just give up.  Just scrap that approach.  Just use money.  It’s a lot simpler, and I’d bet it would work out better.

Alternative 2:  Fix the Town’s comprehensive plan to include parks, then tax/proffer money for parks and open space from MAC developers instead of directly requiring open space. Then use that to buy/create parks and plazas.

This one looks more-or-less like Alternative 1, but it has the lure of seemingly free money.  Let the MAC developers have their larger buildings, and then take your “open space” rake-off not in the form of physical space, but in the form of money.

I think this would be difficult, for several reasons.  Mostly, for legal reasons.  So I’m not going to talk about it much, because I don’t really grasp the nuances here.

Let me phrase this as an “impact fee”.  Let’s say you wanted to tax the developers for money to buy parks, but call it an “impact fee”. All those new residents will require new park space, and you want the developer to pay for that new park space.  In the same way that many communities have an “impact fee” for schools, because new development means new school-aged children means a demand for more school space.

The problem is that, even if Vienna could levy such a fee, there has to be a legitimate calculation behind it.  A legitimate calculation of cost-per-person, in the Town of Vienna, for parkland acquisition.  And a) we don’t routinely buy park land, b) we don’t have that in our comprehensive plan, so there’s no (legal) basis for even attempting that calculation right now, and c) I bet that a legit calculation would yield a fairly small number.  Not to mention that d) places like Sunrise would get to skip the fee, because, technically, that’s a commercial establishment, not housing.

So, there is a case for continuing to allow large buildings, scrapping the “open space” requirement, and shoving the costs of park/plaza acquisition onto developers via some sort of tax, fee, or proffer.  But I’m pretty sure you’d have lawyers breathing down your neck the whole way, and I’m not sure you could justify a tax that would generate a lot of revenues.

Modification 1:  Continue to do what you are doing with this goofy “gathering space” thing, but at least call in a consultant who understands road noise abatement.

For example, did you know that choice of pavement strongly affects road noise, and that there are, in fact, “quiet” pavements?  (I only know because this came up years ago in a controversy over use of quiet pavement in DC.)  Maybe we already use quiet pavement on Maple, maybe we don’t.  But if the Town is plowing ahead on this, they could at least check to be sure they are using the quietest pavement they can buy.

Second, there are numerous streetscape design aspects that can reduce urban street noise.  Of the science, I know nothing.  But I stumbled across low-height  noise-absorbing barriers that can be included in a streetscape.  And these people are into it (.pdf), so I know there’s some science behind it somewhere.

I think the noise from Maple traffic is the single biggest defect in all of this streetside “gathering space”.  The Town has turned a deaf ear to that because they just plain don’t want to admit it.  And as a result, the Town is doing exactly nothing to remedy its mistake.

If you agree, then moving forward, if the Town is going to continue with a strategy of public “gathering spaces” adjacent to Maple, it needs to acknowledge the noise issue and do something about it.  And the first something is hiring some sort of expert in urban street noise reduction, and then incorporating state-of-the-art noise reduction techniques in the overall MAC streetscape plan.

Modification 2:  Let setback depth vary with building height. 

This seems like such a no-brainer to me, but my understanding is that Planning and Zoning absolutely requires a uniform street setback.  I have no clue what that is supposed to accomplish.  But I can tell you all the harmful stuff that does, from the standpoint of how the economics of that work.

In a nutshell, uniform setback for all buildings, regardless of height, produces a clear incentive to build the biggest building you can.  You don’t have to give anything up in order to go from three stories to four stories.

If having nothing but fill-every-allowable-cubic-foot box four-story buildings is your goal, then by all means proceed in this direction.  Continue to give developers strong incentives for nothing but four-floor buildings.

By contrast, if you actually want variation in building height — which the MAC advocates always claim to be for, but never actually propose anything to accomplish — then provide some incentives for producing some lower buildings.  In this case, allow builders to waste less space on setbacks, if they produce a smaller building.  And maybe, if you work it right, you’d actually have builders choosing to produce three-story (or lower) buildings.  Which you almost certainly are not going to get under MAC-as-written.

How might you accomplish this?  That is, decide on a height-setback tradeoff?

One way is to focus on how it looks.  You’d take the block plane concept — how much of the sky is visible from the sidewalk — and settle on building heights and setbacks that result in the same open angle of sky.

My take on it, though, is that the Town has spent far too much time on the visuals, and far too little time on the economics.  Instead of making it look the same, they ought to shoot for equal rates of profitability of three-story and four-story buildings.

Under that’s approach, we would call in an expert to tell us roughly what the tradeoff would be, to make three- and four-story buildings under MAC roughly equally profitable, on the typical Town of Vienna buildable lot on Maple.  And then try to set it up so that builders were roughly indifferent between three- and four-story buildings.

Depending on how that works out, that might or might not be feasible.  (It might not be feasible because with “stumpies“, most of the profit is in the upper floors, so the fourth floor might just be worth too much.)  But if profit per cubic foot of building were uniform, we could make some rough guesses as to what the profit-neutral tradeoff would be.

Or, in English, we could guess the setback for four-story buildings that would result in three- and four-story buildings having equal internal volume.  (Just as a staring point).  Taking a “typical lot” to be about 175′ x 275′, with frontage on Maple and a side street, it turns out that you’d need to double the existing MAC setbacks for a four story building, to force it to have no more volume than a three-story building with the current (20′ and 15′) MAC setbacks.

So, putting aside the actual profitability for a moment, to result in the same building size (internal volume) for three- and four-story buildings, on a “typical” Maple lot, you’d need to double the setback for the four story building, to 40′ off Maple, and 30′ off the side streets.

I judge that to be an inefficient use of the space.  But you may judge it to be just the ticket for given Maple a more spacious look.  From my perspective, though, I’d default on doing it based on looks (amount of open sky visible).  And then search for some other mechanism — other than just raw land — to balance the financial incentives for building three-versus-four-story buildings.

Finally, I don’t mean this to be anything like an exhaustive list.  I just want people to loosen up a little bit, when it comes to thinking about “open” or “gathering” space.  There are many paths to the sea.  The one approach that has been used far in MAC is far from the only way to do this.