Post #517: Last night’s Town Council meeting

Posted on January 28, 2020

The main topic of discussion at last night’s (1/27/2020) Town Council meeting was the proposed Sunrise assisted living facility.  Spoiler:  it passed.  The only other item of interest to me was the Town’s application for funding for a Maple Avenue parking garage.  That also passed.  The meeting materials are on this Town of Vienna web page.

There were a handful of surprises at that meeting.  The first surprise is that the Town has already posted its video at the link above.  That’s extremely helpful for citizens who want to see what went on while these topics are still hot.  I won’t bother to post my audio file, but I will post my Excel “index” file at this Google Drive link.  That Excel file is a running summary of what was said when, during the meeting.  My times will only approximately match the times in the Town video.

Sunrise at 380 Maple West

The main event last night was the Town Council’s final approval of the Sunrise Assisted Living facility at 380 Maple West (Maple and Wade Hampton).  I think approval was a foregone conclusion, but it took 2 hours and 25 minutes to get there.  The only “nay” vote was Councilmember Patel, and I believe that’s because she wanted to see an agreed-upon change in the proffers, in writing, before voting.

First, I’d like to point out one overarching theme in the discussion of the proposed assisted living facility: Nobody hated it.  Not even the immediate neighbors.  Neighbors almost uniformly praised Sunrise for being responsive to their concerns.

I bring this up because it gives lie to an assertion commonly made on pro-development social media, that those oppose some MAC buildings simply hate all new development.  The next time you hear or read some pro-development flack taking that position, point them to the discussion of Sunrise in this meeting.  Or to the similar, very positive discussion at the prior Planning Commission meeting (Post #493).  I realize that merely being totally wrong won’t change their minds.  (Because, let’s face it, you can’t fix stupid.)  But at least you can ground the discussion in reality, to some degree, instead of remaining in the usual free-floating fact-free prejudice of typical social media interaction.

Certainly, some citizens characterized this as too big, too lot-filling, and too dense for Vienna.  And I agree.  But given what the Town Council has made legal, we’ve certainly seen worse.  Of the things that could go there, this likely has the least traffic impact (and much of that will be off-peak, due to the timing of shift changes).  And Sunrise really did appear to hear the citizens and respond to concerns so as to minimize, to the extent possible, impact on the neighborhood.

Ten citizens got up to speak, all but one from the neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed project.  If I had to summarize the most frequently repeated themes, they were:

  • Traffic
  • Pedestrian safety
  • Light trespass
  • Disruptions during building construction

In reverse order:

Disruptions during building construction were dealt with by having Sunrise set up a liaison process between citizens and their on-site construction manager.  This pledge will become part of the “proffers” for the project.  This will include (e.g.) a hotline where citizens may lodge complaints.  This will also include Sunrise letting citizens know (e.g.) when groundbreaking will occur and when other significant (e.g., noisy) steps will take place.

When Sunrise made the offer to amend the proffers this way, Councilmember Majdi (backed up by Councilmembers Patel and Noble) said, OK, let’s postpone the vote until we see that in writing.  “What’s the rush”, or words to that effect.  According to Majdi’s statement, the previous “100 day rule” is no longer in force (see Post #247), so there would be time to bring this back for a vote next month.  This was voted down, 4-3.

For my part, given that construction noise is the single most pervasive problem from commercial construction adjacent to housing, I’d have liked to have seen the Town ask for noise reduction technology (Post #452).  But just having the Town Council be even this proactive was a big step forward compared to prior and current projects.  (E.g., I think the first time anyone even brought up the issue of keeping the sidewalks open (Post #235) was well after sidewalks had been closed for construction of the Chick-fil-A-car-wash). I guess we should be willing to take what we can get.

Light trespass (see Post #513) was mainly a concern due to the Town’s four acorn-style street lights to be installed along Wade Hampton.  Secondarily, there was concern about spillover from interior lights onto the neighborhood (also discussed in Post #513).  Sunrise already had plans in place for the interior light spillover issue, in that (e.g.) all outdoor (patio) areas close at dark, and they would enforce a policy of closing window shades after dark in the memory care area that would occupy the lower floors of the rear of the building.

On the light trespass from exterior lights, both Fairfax Count and Vienna have fairly strict rules about what the private developers may install for exterior lighting.  But those rules do not apply to lights that the Town itself owns.  Town staff said that the four acorn lights planned for Wade Hampton were necessary to maintain adequate lighting.  I’m unclear how they could know that, because as far as I can tell, light output from the Town’s lights does not appear to be included in the foot-candle levels shown on the existing illumination plan (Post #494)  (That observation was subsequently validated in discussion with a Planning Commission member).  So if Town Staff knew those lights were required for adequate light, they knew that from something not in evidence.

Surprisingly (to me at least), Town Council gave fairly strong direction to Town Staff to consider alternatives to those acorn lights, and to remove the most objectionable one (the one closest to residences).  Councilman Noble brought up a “prismatic” version of those lights that provide somewhat more focus and less upward light spill (though not full-cut-off (“dark sky compliant” fixtures).  If it were up to me, I’d take efficiency over looks and go with (e.g.) an LED “shoe box” full cutoff fixture.  But I think there was agreement from several Town Council members that there had to be better options than these acorn lights in residential areas.

On traffic and pedestrian safety, I heard a lot of strong words, but I’ll be waiting to see if there is any follow-through.  My concern is what I have seen so many times before:  If Town Council wants to do something but Town staff do not, staff members simply take no action and wait for Town Council to forget about it.  Or they will casually raise procedural objections, and, getting no clear answer, do nothing.  The collective dragging-of-feet by staff is often enough to prevent action.

The reason I emphasize this is that, in the end, Staff response to all of the discussion below was, we’re going a study now, we’re doing traffic counts, and in a few months, we’ll bring you our recommendations.  I’ve already taken the measure of that, and really don’t expect much out of that study (Post #436).  The gist of the discussion is that Town staff will take no action to preserve a quiet, low-traffic neighborhood.  Instead, if staff have their way, we’ll get no action until after traffic has made the neighborhood at least as miserable as other neighborhoods in Vienna.

Needless to say, that’s not what the residents of the neighborhood adjacent to this building are pressing for.  So if we are going to get anything other than that outcome, it’s going to have to come from Town Council members taking extraordinary action.  Left to their own devices, Town staff are not going to step up with a plan to keep traffic levels on our streets around the level that we now experience.  They will only intervene when we reach what I characterize as the appropriate level of traffic misery.

To their credit, at least one Town Council member expressed the sentiment of “your break it, you bought it”.  Meaning, if the increased traffic is the result of Town Council rezoning actions, then Town Council is burdened to fix the situation that their actions caused.  We also heard that, at the minimum, the Town itself ought to step forward with some mitigation plan, rather than (as now) burdening the citizens with the need to (e.g.) draw up and circulate a petition if they want something done.

Options that citizens asked for included at least the following, which are not mutually exclusive:

1:  Close Wade Hampton at Glen, except for emergency vehicles.  This is a solution that many of those living along Glen and Roland have asked for before.  This has been uniformly dismissed by staff, but this time, for the first time, several Town Council members came out strongly in favor of this.  That included at least Potter, Springsteen, and Majdi.

In fact, after doing his homework, Councilmember Potter characterized this as the least-cost solution to many of the problems that concern the residents of that area.  It would more-or-less stop the flow of cut-through traffic between Maple and other parts of town, and would thereby make it safer to walk in the roadway (because that’s the only place you can walk, owing to the lack of sidewalks).

Councilmember Potter asked what was needed to bring this to a vote.  He got the clear answer that a) Town Council could, at its discretion, close a street, and that b) this has to be done in an orderly fashion.  But, as I heard it, the path that needs to be taken, to close that street, requires at least two properly-announced and properly-conducted public hearings, and likely involves action by the Planning Commission in addition to Town Council.

Here is my strong suggestion:  The first step is to get that in writing.  Please have the Town Attorney write out the exact set of steps required for the Town Council to close a street. What we heard at that meeting was a brief oral summary, but Town Council needs to work from is a written plan.  I think I heard that road closure requires amending the Town’s Comprehensive Plan, the Town’s transportation master plan (if one), and some other steps.  Both of those require, I believe, at least one if not two public hearings (one for PC, one for TC).

To be clear, the Town Attorney’s response shows that this is not something that can just be added to an agenda and voted on.  Doing this legally will be an involved process.  And there is scant published guidance, in that a Google search gave me no useful guide to the steps needed to close a public road in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

I’ll add one more caveat.  Town is hearing from people who live on the directly affected roads, mostly Wade Hampton, Glen, and Roland.  We who live on those roads would directly benefit from the reduced traffic that road closure would bring.  We would be inconvenienced by closure, but we would directly benefit from reduced traffic.  That said, an even larger body of people lives on the cul-de-sacs that feed into those roads.  As I understand the law, those people have a say in this, and they will suffer the inconvenience of closure but not reap the direct benefit of less traffic passing in front of their houses.  If put to a vote, it is far from clear to me that “the neighborhood” (meaning, all houses on roads on or feeding into Wade Hampton, Roland, or Glen) would vote in favor of road closure.

2:  Signage to bar cut-through traffic.  This option was mentioned at least twice, but not discussed much, except to say that Town Staff flatly refuse to consider it.  This would be a request for something like the no-entry (one-way) sign on Church just up from the Post Office, which keeps commercial traffic from using Church to cut around the Church/Courthouse light.  Or, something similar to the no-through-traffic signs found in the far northeast part of Vienna, near the golf course.

This one has a lot of appeal to me because, if enforced, it would provide an extremely low-cost solution to the problem that 444 Maple West is going to create.  That building will be advertised as being “near Metro”, but individuals who want to drive to Metro and points south have the option of trying to cross Maple Avenue during AM rush hour, or cutting through my neighborhood to get to the Nutley/Courthouse light.  An enforced no-right-turn-at-rush-hour, at Maple and Wade Hampton, would prevent that, for modest cost.  (It would, however, push that traffic down to Pleasant.  And while Pleasant is straight and has sidewalks (as opposed to Glen), Pleasant is every bit as much a residential street as Glen is.)

3. Sidewalks. A third option was to get sidewalks in place along Glen and Wade Hampton.  Having taken two fairly bad falls, in the last three months, while walking at night, in the roadway, along Glen,  with a flashlight, I’d say that I’d support sidewalks there.  (The road surface at the blind curve (the north end of the street, away from Courthouse) is so torn up that if you walk at the edge, facing traffic, you risk stepping into potholes or stepping off the crumbling edge of the pavement.  Hence, two falls in three months.)

Councilman Potter correctly assessed the main issue with sidewalks:  Money.  Sidewalk projects in Vienna vary enormously in cost per linear foot, due mainly to issues with drainage.  In some cases, putting in a sidewalk essentially requires building brand-new storm sewers to handle the water that formerly just flowed into the roadway.  And in this case, Glen was built with grassy swales instead of gutters, and converting those to sidewalk-curb-and-gutter is going to involve more-or-less replacing the swales with a system of storm sewers.  By contrast, along Wade Hampton, the issue is just plain lack of space.  The Town would have to condemn land to build standard sidewalks there.

The Town attorney pretty firmly killed the idea of getting developers to pay for these sidewalks.  Lack of sidewalks here is a pre-existing problem.  (I can tell you that Glen has been on the Town’s list to receive sidewalks since the late 1990s.)  By law, you can’t require developers to pay for a problem that they didn’t create.

Councilmember Patel asked that the Town consider some cheaper alternative, such as a paved asphalt path instead of full curb-and-gutter sidewalks.  For whatever reason, I don’t think her idea got any traction, although I could not quite figure out why.  By eye,  a simple asphalt path would get you some walking surface, on one side of the road, for most of the area in question.

In any case, Councilman Potter took the time to point out what awful condition the road surface is on Glen.  For which I thank him.  It’s not so bad to drive on — we probably have worse somewhere in the Town of Vienna.  But the torn-up road surface makes it a chore and a hazard for walkers, those pushing strollers, and similar to get from one end of Glen to the other.

Summary:  All of that was a good start.  It’s just going to be a question of whether or not there is any follow-through, particularly given that the Town passed the Sunrise proposal.

Maple Avenue parking garage.

You can see my most recent screed on this in Post #515, along with earlier, similar posts (e.g., Post #446).  The issue is that we’re simply lying about how this garage will be used — e.g., to enable commuters to use Metro.  We are telling that lie to try to get this funded by local authorities tasked with relieving traffic congestion (and in particular, with reducing traffic on I-66).  But the story that this garage will serve Metro commuters is clearly nonsense, and we ourselves refer to it in Town documents a shopper/diner parking garage to serve downtown Vienna business establishments.  Which is what it actually is.

The Town can dodge around this issue all they want, but a) it’s still fraud to bill this as a commuter garage, and b) neither NVTA nor NVTA has any business whatsoever spending their funds to pay for it.  (See posts above for definitions of NVTA and NVTC).  But, at this point, if we don’t get somebody else to pay for it, we’ll have to scramble for money because we’ve spent the capital budget and then some (again, see cited posts).

So, Town staff and Town council have to play this with a straight face.  I only got three new pieces of information.

First, Councilmember Patel apparently took this at face value, and was concerned about commuter parking at this garage creating additional traffic along Maple.  I don’t even recall what the staff answer was on this, because it just doesn’t matter.  Nobody’s going to drive to the middle of Vienna during AM rush hour to park at this garage, for the privilege of catching a bus down to Metro.

Second, Town staff added yet another new rationale, which is that this might somehow serve van pools.  That was new, and I’ll give them credit for being fast on their feet.  But if required, I can point out why that’s not plausible either, starting with the multiple individuals fighting the AM Vienna rush hour to meet up at this congested downtown Vienna location — when, presumably, they could agree to meet at any one van pool member’s residence instead.

Third, either the Mayor really doesn’t understand this, or she was just chipping in with more straws to grasp as means of justifying this.  Her contribution was to ask whether individuals who work in Town could park there.  (Because, get it — they’d be commuting into Vienna, so that would be commuters, parking there.)  That is, could this garage be used to provide an additional incentive for solo drivers to commute by car.  The answer is, yeah, it could, and it does, but trust me on this, that’s going to cut no ice with the entities (NVTA, NVTC) charged with attempting to reduce traffic congestion in this area.  The fact that this would encourage more people to drive, solo, into Vienna would be a negative as far as NVTA and NVTC are concerned, and if we really think that’s going to happen, the best thing we can do is not to mention it.

FWIW, the only thing that I thought was remotely plausible as a “commuter” use was as a slug line (see this post).  That use actually requires some centralized location where a large number of individuals may gather.  The high I-66 tolls provide some (potentially significant) economic incentive for slugging, and the coming of even more toll lanes on I-66 adds to that.  Further, locating it in a genteel location like Vienna allays potential safety concerns with slugging.  That said, even that is a stretch, because unlike I-95 (which gave birth to the slug line concept), Metro runs down the I-66 corridor.   And unlike the I-95 slug lines, we’re pretty close-in, and you’d have to fight rush hour just to get to the slug line location.  All said and done, I don’t think there’s a plausible commuter use for any central-Vienna garage.