Post #705: Meanwhile, back in the Town of Vienna, plus ça change?

 

This post is about tonight’s Vienna Town Council meeting.  With the key question being, will there be any fundamental change in the Town’s plans for redeveloping Maple Avenue, once the new Town Council is seated?  Or, really, will there be any fundamental change in how it goes about meandering through various decisions?

In any case, tonight’s proximate issue is MAC zoning.  Meeting materials are here, and you can find instructions for watching it live here.  (For me, streaming only works with Chrome, FWIW).

The options on the table are to extend the current moratorium, or to kill MAC zoning entirely.  Best guess, based on what went on at the corresponding Planning Commission meeting, they’ll vote to kill it.  (It was almost-but-not-quite funny to look at the tape of the Planning Commission meeting, and see that the pro-MAC members there really would not pick up on the very strong hints that killing MAC is the what the Powers that Be want now.  Clear the decks, so that they can rewrite the commercial zoning to allow MAC-like buildings by right.  Even I understand the game plan, and I’m not exactly privy to their thinking.)  We can only trust and hope that they will do that in a fashion that doesn’t allow a few developers to slip in proposals after the June 30 end of the current moratorium.  (You’d think I wouldn’t have to say that but … somehow two proposals made it under the wire the last time.)

But the longer-term issue is whether or not things will change with the seating of the new Town Council in July.  As I see it — and predicted it — the pro-development Mayor-Elect won because candidates Majdi and Springsteen split the moderate-development vote.  (My January 2020 prediction was off by a bit, but not much (Post #697).  With the Mayor-Elect as the last remaining member of the original solidly pro-MAC faction that once controlled Town Council, what’s going to happen next?  Are they actually going to moderate plans for development along Maple?  Or do they figure they’re just one election away from regaining control?

(And will they please, please, please let Ed Somers run the meetings.  In case you missed it, he was the other person on the Colbert/Somers non-slate.  The one who got the exact same number of votes as Mayoral candidate Colbert.  But it wasn’t a slate.  Nuh-uh, no way, only evil carpetbaggers need to run as a slate.  Anyway, based on what I saw at the Transportation Safety Commission, he really knows how to run a meeting, and that’s a talent that Town Council ought to make use of.)

Anyway, beats me whether we’ll see change or not.  I’ve just been asked to write one more blog entry about Town of Vienna government and the path ahead.  So here it is.  Think of this as my contractual obligation posting for the week.

But if I had to guess, my guess would be, as the French put it, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  Which I translate loosely as “you can put new butts in those chairs, but chances are they’ll generate the same crap.”  I make some predictions about the Patrick Henry Parking Garage, below, to illustrate what I think I’m talking about.


Things have changed a bit recently.

To be clear, given the ongoing global pandemic …

Source:  That’s my best guess.  The only hard fact is that, as of today, just under 1% of the Fairfax County population has been diagnosed with COVID-19 (per the Virginia Department of Health website).  The actual fraction who have been infected is not known, but can be guessed at based on various studies using various biased samples-of-convenience of various populations showing antibodies to COVID-19 using various tests with different false-positive rates.  If you don’t understand what can go wrong there — particularly the bias in using samples of convenience (e.g., grocery shoppers), and in particular if you don’t understand why even a small false-positive rate for an antibody test skews the results of such a test for this purpose, then you probably shouldn’t opine on what the “true” infection rate is.  (E.g., if nobody was infected, but the false positive rate for a test is 1.7%, then the test is going to show 1.7% infected.  If you think that’s just an academic exercise, search “Literally every single one could be a false positive” in this article to see why this matters so much, when you are trying to identify a disease with a relatively low prevalence in the population.  The upshot is that  most of what you’ve read in the popular press (and a fortiori on right-wing blogs trying to convince you that some huge fraction of the population has already been infected) is wrong.  If forced to guess, I’d guess that at most 5 percent of the Fairfax County population has been infected with COVID-19, based mainly on studies of California cities, on a study of consensus of opinion among a random sample of US physicians, and on a high-quality study of Spain showing that, despite a severe epidemic, only 5% of the Spanish population has antibodies for COVID-19.  I would be surprised if our true prevalence were higher than that of Spain.  For what it’s worth, the CDC is gearing up to do a systematic study of this issue.   Maybe a year from now they’ll be able to give us a really accurate estimate of what the true prevalence was.  Finally, if you don’t know what “case fatality rate” means, as opposed to “infection mortality rate”, then you also should not opine about how the mortality rate of COVID-19 compares to the mortality rate of influenza, because the flu data are case fatality rate data,   As with COVID-19, if you got the flu, but not badly enough to see a physician and be diagnosed, you weren’t counted in the denominator of the widely-cited case fatality rate statistics for flu.  The apples-to-apples comparison of COVID-19 and (e.g.) swine flu is COVID-19 deaths divided by diagnosed individuals (either via PCR test, or based on symptoms as presented to a health care provider.)

The potential for a global economic recession or depression …

Reduction in demand that hits the mix of small business on Maple Avenue particularly hard, with its heavy reliance on restaurants and personal services  …

Source:  See Post #201 for details on methods and underlying data.

With a retail vacancy rate that was average, but may or may not stay that way.

Source:  See this post for details.


But will Town Council change how it does business?  My litmus test.

I don’t  mean the current Town Council.  They’ve been set on full-speed-ahead, almost without exception.  Nothing would deter them from continuing as they have started.

And, near as I can tell, their answer to any question regarding buildings is “the biggest one that will fit on the lot”.  Example:  What is the optimal size for the new police station?  What is the best choice for a Maple Avenue parking garage.  And repeat.

No, to me the question is whether the new Town Council, seated in July, will do business any differently.  In particular, if there’s going to be any rethinking of schedule and purpose given this backdrop of some fairly large uncertainties.

E.g., if this has permanently damaged the local restaurant industry, then the face of Maple Avenue retail moving foward might look quite different from the past.  You’d then think that your planning would change accordingly.  And you might think that, maybe, you’d slow down your decisionmaking until you could get more of a sense of how this will all shake out.

But put the issue of the commercial zoning rewrite aside for now.  There’s a simpler, more straightforward test that doesn’t depend on what the Town’s consult tells the Town it needs, for new commercial zoning.

There’s a much simpler way to take the measure of the new Town Council.  Let’s see what (if anything) they do with the Patrick Henry Parking Garage (and library). 

That’s the illustration at the top of this post.  And the question is, will the new Town Council rethink any of what had gotten us that design, at this point?

Let me start off by listing a few of the many things I hate about the proposed design for the Patrick Henry Parking Garage (and library).

First, we’re trying to con somebody else into paying for it, based on the outright lie that this new garage will be a commuter garage.  (We’re not dumb enough to say that in the Town’s own documents.  There, we refer to it for what it is — shopper/diner parking to serve the nearby Maple Avenue merchants.  It’s only in trying to sell it to the local traffic-relief authority that we make up a story about commuters driving into the heart of Vienna, in rush hour, so that they can park in this garage and take the once-per-half-hour bus to Vienna Metro.)

We should call that — obtaining money under false pretenses — exactly what it is — fraud.  (See Post #515, with a better explanation in Post #446).

Everybody on the current Town Council understands just how ludicrous this story is.  Commuters, in large numbers, are not going to drive into Vienna, park, and take the occasional bus to the Vienna metro.  Yet every one of them was willing to support the use of that story in order to con the funding out of a local transportation congestion-relief funding authority.

Will the new Town Council be any different?  Will even one new Town Council member object to obtaining tax funding based on the lie that our shopper/diner parking is actually a commuter parking garage?  Will anyone object to our describing it for what it is, in Town of Vienna documents (shopper/diner parking), then trying to sell it to funders based on a completely different and totally fictional description?  That will be interesting to see, but my guess is, no. 

Second, how big a garage does Vienna need there?  BRRRT.  Wrong question.  The answer is “”the biggest one that will fit on the lot”.  So, as I understand it, the Town will do some sort of parking demand study — long after they’ve made the commitment to go for the garage as planned.  So, the extent of “thoughtful” planning is to go for the biggest garage that will fit on the lot.  Full stop.  Then justify that after-the-fact.

At some point, I’d have argued for getting the order of operations reversed there.  Figure out what you need, then build, instead of vice-versa.  But after seeing the Town’s last traffic study, I’m not convinced that any consultant study overseen by Town staff can produce an unbiased estimate of anything.  It’s more akin to commercial research (support the product line) than it is to academic research (determine what’s true).  So now my feeling is, given that any such study is just a fig leaf for whatever decision has already been made, let’s just skip it and save the money.  The idea of making the commitment to the building, then funding the analysis of how much parking is needed, is just stupid and wasteful.  If they are going to do it in that order, at least have the good sense to kill the after-the-fact parking study.

Even absent a formal parking study, won’t anybody question the “small town” feel of making a big parking garage literally the centerpiece of the town? Because I sure haven’t heard that from anyone in power so far.  I guess, with all the open parking lots, this will fit right in?

Does anybody even care that this locks Maple in to the current (circa 1961) configuration, pretty much for eternity?  We’ve seen what it would take to get traffic flowing on Maple, and per Fairfax County, it would take more lanes.  Will that ever even get on the table as a topic of discussion, or has it Already Been Decided, and no discussion is allowed?

Won’t anybody even question the legitimacy of having taxpayer pay for the parking, so that Town Staff can reduce the amount of zoning-required parking in any new construction in that area?  Is this really little more than taxpayer subsidy to local businesses?

So, will the next Town Council be able to step back and ask, how big does it really need to be?  That would be nice to see, but my guess is, no.  It’s going to be the biggest building they can squeeze onto the lot.

Third, can we at least change the design so that the library isn’t underneath the parking garage?  I think that’s a really horrendous mistake, if you are looking for a library that is a pleasant center for community-based activity.  And, for sure, I looked, and you cannot find a single suburban library in the DC area that’s built into the first floor of a parking garage.  The fact that nobody else builds a library like this really ought to be a red flag, if anyone is paying attention.

Weirdly, will anybody on Town Council even realize that the design looks the way it looks because it had to fit in with MAC zoning?  Yeah, the same MAC zoning that they are about to get rid of.  That’s why it looks like a 15′ glass-fronted shopping mall on the bottom floor.  Because that’s what MAC zoning mandated.  So the look of the proposed library is a remnant of the zoning that they are in the process of killing.

My own suggestion to all of this (Post #371 and earlier) was to put the parking underground, pay extra for doing that, and use the free space at ground level for a one-third acre park, adjacent to the new, airy, spacious library.  In effect, you get to buy park land, along Maple, for at or below the current market-clearing rate of about $6M/acre.

More generally, is there any chance that the new Town Council will, I don’t know, maybe ask current library users what they think of the basement-of-the-parking-garage design?  Maybe crowd-source a design by having a contest for local citizens?  Or reconsider the current library-as-afterthought design in any significant way?

Otherwise, I think the current course for the Patrick Henry Parking Garage pretty much sums up what I disliked about decision-making by current and prior Town Councils.  The funding is based on a lie.  And everybody just winks at that.  The design was done that way for a reason that no longer matters (i.e., to match MAC zoning).  Yet the design appears locked in.  The true public purpose here, a library to serve as a center for the community, is subservient what the local commercial interests want to see that land used for (more parking to feed their businesses, and then to allow relaxed on-site parking requirements moving forward).  To the point where the proposed design — library-under-parking-garage — is something that nobody else in the DC area has chosen to build.  For good reason.

Oh, and we’ll do the study to see how much parking we need, after we’ve decided how much we’ll build.  I don’t know about you, but something tells  me that study is going to tell Town Council that they made the exact right decision.  And that’s exactly the wrong way to go about getting good decisions made.