I think everyone in Vienna is familiar with Whole Foods. Whether you shop there or not, you recognize it as yet another one of our 1960s era commercial buildings. Built in 1965, it’s a single-story brick building surrounded by surface parking.
We could reasonably disagree over the aesthetics of the building. MAC advocates seem to scorn this low-rise-plus-open-parking-lot arrangement as “ugly 60’s-era shopping centers”. But to me, buildings like this are inoffensive — well away from the street, not blocking the view of the sky, and small enough to allow the trees behind them to be seen. The sky view and greenery are what mark this as a small-town scene, in my mind. Despite the tacky power lines and ubiquitous cars.
But this post isn’t about aesthetics. It’s about functionality.
We probably don’t fully appreciate how ridiculously easy it is to shop there. As long as the parking lot isn’t full, you can typically park within 150′ of the door. The parking lot has two entrances/two exits, so if you don’t want to hassle with Maple, you can use Park. And it’s probably the most bicycle-friendly establishment in Town, with ample, convenient rack space.
We don’t appreciate it because we think it’s normal. With few exceptions, the entire south side of Maple is built to that standard. It was built from scratch to be automobile friendly. Drive up. Walk in. Shop. Leave. No choke points, no hassle.
The new normal
This is why I suggest you take a field trip to the next-nearest Whole Foods, on Westpark Drive in Tyson’s Corner. This is a new, modern Whole Foods, occupying the first floor of a mixed-use building. Getting into and out of that Whole Foods is a different experience entirely. And it’s one you’re going to have to get used to, as MAC converts Maple to mixed-use buildings.
Start by lining up at the sole entrance to the underground parking garage. With the predictable result that, when the store is busy, you wait in line just to enter the parking garage.
The line moves slowly because you have to get your ticket. Because of course you need a ticket. This is a densely-built mixed-used building, so parking is tight, and precious enough to be careful about. And you’ll need to have this ticket validated in Whole Foods. But if you stay more than 90 minutes, you’ll have to pay for your parking.
After parking in the underground garage, you need to locate and walk to the entrance. Obviously you can’t see the entrance from where you parked, because your view is obstructed by the typical concrete pillars. So you follow the signage.
Once you find the entrance, you take the escalator up to the store. And commence shopping. The interior of the store is everything you’d expect from Whole Foods. Then schlep your groceries to your car, find the exit to the underground parking, and leave.
Parking garages are a central feature of the proposed mixed-use redevelopment of Maple Avenue under the current MAC statute. You can’t cover the lot with a building unless you put the parking under the building. (But “parking garage” is apparently too tacky, so you have to refer to it as “structured parking”.) And MAC provides numerous “incentives” allowing developers to skimp on parking, relative to our existing standard for what constitutes adequate parking for retail businesses. The plausible result will be that barely-adequate garage parking will be the new normal for Vienna.
If you want to see what the new normal is going to look and feel like, I suggest you take a field trip to that new Tyson’s Corner whole foods. On some sunny Saturday afternoon, say. If you’re agoraphobic, I suppose it’s a plus, because you can do your entire shopping trip without ever being exposed to the open air.
To be honest, I hate parking garages. I particularly hate closed-sided underground garages. I find them claustrophobic, ugly, noisy, and inconvenient. To me, it’s just another unpleasant bit if urban life that you have to put up with.
When MAC advocates talk about how ugly our parking lots are, all I can think of is, yeah, sure, but they aren’t half as ugly as the parking garages that will replace them. But the parking garage interiors are tucked away out-of-sight. So as long as you don’t actually use the building, the ugliness and inconvenience of “structured parking” is somebody else’s problem. It’s only if I actually shop in a place with garage parking that I end up muttering “if I’d wanted to live like this, I’d have moved to DC”.
Parking garages are certainly efficient, in terms of using scarce land area. If you want to cram a lot of additional development onto the same amount of land, that’s what you have to do. And if you judge them purely on how they look, from the outside, they are just dandy.
But if you actually have to use them, I’d say that parking garages reduce your quality-of-life, relative to the open surface parking that is currently the norm in Vienna. Particularly underground and enclosed structures. They take more time, and they definitely inject an extra bit of urban ugliness into your shopping experience. But you’d better get used to it. Skimpy enclosed parking garages are the future of Vienna under the current MAC statute.