Post #1111: Town of Vienna, any lessons from Scout on the Circle?

Posted on April 19, 2021

Edit:  I’m going to have to modify this.  Yes, the retail space is empty.  No, there are no indications that any of it has been let — no coming-soon signs, no nothing.  And yet, the company that is leasing the space says that half of that retail space is already leased.  Given that, I’m going to have to cut this in half.  All the space is empty, but per the realty company leasing the space, only half of the space, not all of the space, remains unleased at this time.

If you want to see what Maple Avenue will look like, some time after the Vienna Town Council passes the new zoning this December, arguably the best place to look is Scout on the Circle.  This is the new mixed-use development that replaced a shopping center on the corner of Route 50 and Blake Lane.  Five stories of apartments over some retail.

Source:  Google Maps, copyright Google.

I walked around there yesterday.  If you have an interest in the Town’s new zoning, you might want to do the same.

What caught my eye?  All of the retail space is still empty.  There’s a Giant Food, in operation.  Giant partnered with the developer from the beginning.  But beyond that, there’s literally nothing else.  They’ve got roughly 30,000 square feet of top-notch, high-quality, completely empty ground-floor retail space.

I wonder if the Town of Vienna government might take a minute to ponder this.  True, that building has only been open since June of last year.  True, we’re in a pandemic.  True, it’s a stand-alone location, so that unless you live there, you have to want to make that a destination in order to shop there.

But even with that, zero is an interesting number.  Exceptional, as it were.  If I were in the process of converting my retail district into buildings just like that, I’d want to know why all that expensive new retail space is still empty, just down the road.

Possibly, merchants are clamoring for the space, but their rental applications are still in the pipeline.  Possibly, those spaces have been rented, but nobody bothered to post any “coming soon” announcements.  Possibly, not enough apartments are rented for merchants to take a gamble on renting the space in anticipating of serving mainly those apartment dwellers.

But the plain reading of it is that none of that space has been rented.  And since it looks like we’re going to commit the Town of Vienna to that same path, come the end of the year, wouldn’t it be nice to know why?

And I guess I have one more thing to say.  If you’re not all that keen on opening up Maple for medium-density housing, talk to your Town Council members sooner, rather than later.  The way I see it, as they are changing all the zoning in Vienna (during a pandemic), they are almost exclusively hearing from those with a professional interest in the result.  Those are the folks for whom it pays to be engaged in this process.  They aren’t hearing from the average citizen.  Nor will they do any sort of straight-up random-sample survey to ask citizens what they want out of this new zoning.  (Although the answer I got, a few years ago, for redevelopment of Maple, was small buildings and more green space.)

Once this comes up to to a vote in December or so, it’ll be too late to make any material changes in the new zoning.  From where I sit, this is being set up so that there will be no choice but to have a 7-0 vote in favor of whatever is presented.  (What I have termed the “cram-down” strategy.)  So if you have an opinion on this topic, now is the time to let Town Council know about it.

Don’t start complaining after the buildings go up.  Or after all the new residences on Maple result in even denser traffic.  That will be far too late.  Unlike MAC zoning, this new MAC-plus-more zoning will be irrevocable.  Once they up-zone to a new, higher density as the property owners’ right, they will never again be able to down-zone it.

The story, with pictures.

Coming back from the hardware store this morning, I took a little side trip to check it out Scout on the Circle.  This is a new apartment complex that’s just a bit closer to Vienna Metro than the Town of Vienna is.

This building is five stories of apartments over some retail space.  (It’s actually two separate look-alike buildings, split by a short roadway.)  The sidewalks vary, but seem to average just over 20′.  And so, if you were to take it and plop it down on Maple, you could use it as the prototype of the typical new medium-density housing that the Town is trying to attract via revised zoning.

Part 1:  Why this building, and all its look-alike kin?

If you think this looks like more-or-less every other new apartment building you’ve seen lately, you’re correct.  The reason for that is explained in this Bloomberg Business Week article, “Why America’s New Apartment Buildings All Look the Same,” by Justin Fox.  That article also introduced me to the term “stumpies”, the four-to-six floor apartment/condo/dorm buildings that are popping up everywhere.  See this February 2019 post for details.

The proliferation of look-alike buildings in this configuration is due to a change in technology.  Mostly, this is happening because twenty years ago or so, California determined that treated wood is fireproof enough to use in apartments.  That change in the California building code, adopted nationwide, meant that new apartment buildings could be made from standard (house-type) 2×4 construction.  This is substantially cheaper than the prior code-compliant alternatives, and makes those a lot cheaper to build.

That wooden construction can only go up a few floors before you start to need special reinforcements and such.  And the wooden construction has to be built atop a solid concrete “podium”, because you must have a solid concrete floor between the vehicle parking (under the building) and the residences.

The result is a stumpy.  A one-story concrete “podium” houses the surface and underground parking.  And then N floors of apartments or condos are set atop that, using standard 2×4 construction.  But you can’t build them very tall, because there’s a limit to standard 2×4 construction.

If you use some of the concrete first-floor space for retail, then this classifies as a “mixed use” building.  Which is how the Town of Vienna will refer to it in its new zoning.

And that little bit of retail is important because in built-up urban areas, more-or-less the only place left to build new stumpies is in an existing commercial district.  The shops get tacked onto the bottom and it’s supposed to be part of the commercial district.

And thus the story of razing shopping areas and building apartment blocks is being repeated all across America.  You can now build mid-rise apartment/condo buildings substantially more cheaply than in the recent past.  If you can find a place to put them, as long as there is demand for housing, you can make money building them.

And, for whatever reason, the people who run the Town of Vienna government don’t want us to miss out on that trend.  Hence, we’re in the process of changing the zoning to encourage replacing our open shopping centers with stumpies.  Apartment/condo blocks with some retail on the first floor.  Give it a few years, and this is what Maple Avenue will look like once Town Council approves the new zoning.

Why the shoe-leather research this time?

I wasn’t looking it over with the thought of moving there.  Far from it.  The apartments there start at around $21,000 per year, for a one-bedroom.  That’s with none of the tax advantages of home ownership gives you*.

* Doing a quick calculation, including both real estate taxes (not deductible) and mortgage interest (deductible), and using corrent 30-year fixed mortgage rates, that payment would buy just under $500K worth of house.  Call it $450K.   To put that into perspective, you can have a 1 BR condo directly across from Metro, just outside of the Town of Vienna, on Virginia Center Boulevard, for $300K.  Or have your choice of 2BR 2Bath condos, same location, for $425K or less.

I’m not sure that qualifies as affordable housing, even in this area.  But, to be fair, the complex has a lot of amenities, including gym and pool.

Instead, I started this by trying to figure out what sort of retail shops this new development was attracting.  Part of the Town of Vienna’s push for new zoning is that it will attract beautiful upscale retail.  (There is no evidence basis for that, of course.)  The term of art used with our prior attempt at this was “destination retail”.  I’m not sure what euphemism the Town will use with this new zoning, but the notion is that this will create more shops for the well-to-do.

I know they had a Giant Food at Scout on the Circle, because it was widely advertised that Giant had partnered with the developer.  But darned if I could find out a single thing about the rest of the retail, such as it is.  And that’s when I decided to visit in person and check out the new retail shops there.

But the joke was on me.  The reason I couldn’t find out what additional retail had moved in is that there isn’t any.  None.  Literally zero.  The entire retail floor of the development, outside of Giant food, remains unoccupied.

FWIW, here are a few pictures … of pristine but empty storefronts.  This is the streetscape at 9:30 this past Saturday morning:

The area wasn’t completely empty.  I saw a customer leave the Giant Food as I walked past.  And there is one sign, in one window, advertising a gym, but I couldn’t figure out if that was a new gym, to compete with the gym that’s already available as an amenity, or advertisement for classes to he held in that existing gym.

Weirdly enough, my wife stumbled across the website of a real estate agent trying to let that space.  If you look at the website, a map there makes it look as if most of those spaces are occupied.  I can only assume that’s aspirational, instead of a (mis)statement of fact.

I had heard of this sort of thing before — new retail that satisfies (say) legal or zoning requirements, but was not ever meant to be occupied.  But I’d never actually seen anything that might plausibly be that.  In any case, in all the time that this building was in planning and construction, and now almost a year since the building opened, none of the retail space appears leased.  Everything but Giant Food remains dark.

Is that a lesson for the Town of Vienna, or not?  And will anybody who can actually vote on the zoning pay attention to it, if it is?

Proximity to Metro.

Interesting to me, Scout on the Circle is substantially closer to Metro than the Town of Vienna is.  The door-to-door distance to Metro is about 1.25 miles.  A piece of that is along Route 29, which is unpleasant.  But the bulk of it is along one pleasant low-traffic street with broad sidewalks and medians.

The eventually-to-be-built 444 Maple West (~ 250 apartments plus retail) in Vienna, under now-defunct MAC zoning, is just a bit further.  But the entire walk to Metro is down Nutley, which is OK during rush hour, but nothing that anyone would classify as pleasant.  I walked or biked most of that, five days a week, for about a decade.  It didn’t do me any harm, but I can’t say that I’m nostalgic about it.

Versus, finally, the center of Vienna, where the Giant Food complex is presumed to be up for redevelopment, given the sale to a purpose-organized LLC a couple of years ago.  That’s more than two-and-a-quarter miles from Metro.

If you take the most direct route, much of that is along Maple, which is never very pleasant, but is downright ugly during the morning rush hour.  Or, at least, used to be.  The scene below is a typical rush hour coming up on 9 AM, Maple at Nutley, looking toward the Vienna downtown.

* I need to asterisk this one, because the Silver Line has only been operational to Tysons, what, seven years now?  And yet, I keep forgetting that on the east end of Vienna, it’s actually closer to get to the Silver Line than it is to get the Vienna Metro station on the Orange Line.  Looks like it’s about 2 miles to Metro (Silver Line) from the Giant Food location.  Still further than Scout on the Circle.



The only point is that in terms of non-car access to Metro, Scout on the Circle beats the Town of Vienna hands down.  I noted that there was a bus stop built into the Scout on the Circle complex, which, given their Route 50 location, is almost certainly better served than the one Maple Avenue bus route.  So if Metro access plays any role in this, Maple Avenue has no advantage over this new development.

There is a point to this.  It’s a fair guess that if the Town manages to attract a lot of medium-density housing to Maple, most of those new residents will have little choice but to add to the car traffic on Maple.  It’s quite a hike to, e.g., walk to Metro from the middle of town.