Post #1123: Town of Vienna, the one question I’d like a clear answer to, from Town Council candidates.

Posted on April 26, 2021

How tall would they allow buildings to be, in the revised Town of Vienna zoning?  That’s really the only question I’d like a clear answer on, from our various Town Council candidates.

At the end of this post, I list a number of aspects of the revised Vienna zoning that I don’t think are in doubt, or that I never want to have to hear about again.  They just don’t matter.

To me, it all boils down to building height. 

An aside:  For reasons that must make sense to developers, the building height in the regulations is not the actual height of the building.  It’s the height to the surface of the roof.  You can then have parapet walls and other architectural elements sit above that, presumably in part to hide the AC equipment on the roof.  So the “54 foot” buildings under MAC actually stood a bit over 62′ high.  And that’s also true of our existing commercial buildings.  For example, the former Rite Aid, now Dollar Tree, is very close to 45′ tall, in a zone where the building height is restricted to 35′.  That’s because the entire top of the building is just decoration, and the actual sealed roof is less than 35′ from the ground.  But, because that building sits so far off the road, you don’t even notice that it’s taller than average.

70-foot building height

If you go back to the MAC zoning era, as Vienna considered rewriting MAC, the Director of Planning and Zoning brought out her own proposal.  Near as I can tell, the proposed new zoning along Maple is more-or-less that same proposal, with three zones instead of one.  (This three-zone approach was also part of the original planning for MAC zoning).  At that time, Planning and Zoning proposed a 70-foot building height in the central part of Vienna. 

And so, if you say 70′ building height, I say, Scout on the Circle (Post #1111).  That 70′ is exactly what redevelopers want to see in order to build “stumpies” (see this post for explanation).  Those are apartment/condo buildings with (say) five floors of traditional 2×4 construction, above a concrete “podium” ground floor.  They need about 70′ to do that, in the modern world, and they don’t need much more than that, because it becomes difficult to support a taller building with traditional 2×4 wooden construction.

And hence, the genesis of my field trip to Scout on the Circle.  An allowable building height of 70′ more-or-less invites that style of redevelopment.  It’s essentially designed for that style of redevelopment.

What would that mean for the Giant Food property?  Scout on the Circle occupies about 8 acres, exclusive of the frontage road.  It has 400 apartments, and it looks like most of the parking is above-ground.

If that design were scaled up to the 10.5 acre Giant Food site, you’d have 525 apartments.  That would amount to a roughly 10% increase in all the dwelling units in Vienna.  (Town of Vienna, FY 20-21 budget, page 24).  That one redevelopment would double the total number of apartment-style (multi-family) units in town.

And, plus or minus, you’d end up with somewhere around 800 new residents.  More or less 5% of the entire population of Vienna would live in that one apartment complex.

The interesting thing to ask is what will happen when those 800 or so adults get up and drive to work in the morning.  Just for perspective, the entire Giant Food center parking lot has about 600 parking spaces.  So it would be as if that lot were parked more-than-full, and everybody decided to leave, during the morning rush hour.  For further perspective, prior to the pandemic, peak rush hour flow on Maple was about 2300 cars per hour  (Post #358).

Some might be able to cut through the surrounding residential streets (e.g., Branch, Locust).  But I suspect that most would need to drive on Maple.

It’s tough to say exactly what the result would be, but a good guess is that this one project, directly on Maple, would boost peak AM rush hour traffic, at that point on Maple, by maybe 15%.  This is on a road that routinely gets stacked entirely full of cars, between the lights, during rush hour.

Finally, I note that Scout on the Circle only about as densely occupied as the already-approved 444 Maple Avenue West (Wolf Trap Motel) in Vienna.  Both buildings have about 50 residential units per acre.  This, despite the fact that Scout on the Circle is two floors higher.  I’ll just note that if you built at the density per floor of 444 Maple West, and added two more floors, you could actually fit 66% more apartments onto the site.  You could fit more than 850 apartments onto that 10.5. acre Giant Food site.

The point of that last bit is to be aware that Scout on the Circle is just an example,  not an upper bound.  Depending in the economics of the situation, you could plausibly end up with two-thirds more apartments, residents ,and traffic then you would estimate from Scout on the Circle.

Three-story building height

At the other end of the spectrum, one candidate for Town Council has explicitly argued for a three-story building height limit.  Modernize the code, sure, but restrict buildings to the three-story limit that effectively exists now along Maple.

This would obviously prevent a six-story Scout-on-the-Circle from being built along Maple.

What would that mean for the Giant Food property?  Let me once again scale Scout on the Circle to the Gian Food acreage.  This time, however, I’ll take off the top three floors of apartments.  Under that calculation, you’d get just 40% of the density, or 210 apartments, 40% of the population, and 40% of the traffic.  Instead of an estimated 15% increase in A.M. rush hour traffic, you’d get a 6% increase in rush hour traffic at that location.

As with the prior example above, you have to keep the current 444 Maple West density in mind as a major caveat to any simple-minded estimate based on Scout on the Circle.  If I reduced the 444 Maple West density by a third (owing to just two residential floors, not three), I’d still be able to fit nearly 600 apartments on that site.  In just the two residential floors allowed under that approach.

No firm rule on building height:  Special Exception Entitlement Zoning

I’ve covered this topic in two prior posts.

My first post on this topic examined how Falls Church went about rezoning (Post #306).  It seemed like they had a lot more rational process than Vienna did.  They didn’t prescribe how the buildings had to look, and so on.  They listed out goals that City of Falls Church was trying to achieve in an area, and, in effect, asked redevelopers to make them an offer.  How much would they give the City of Falls Church in exchange for the right to build taller, higher-density buildings?

The second post on this topic showed that almost all the jurisdictions in the area use this “Special Exception Entitlement Zoning” approach, or some variation of it (Post #348).

There are some advantages and disadvantages of this approach to zoning.

On the one hand, in theory, you could extract something nice, out of the developers’ profits, for the Town, as part of this process.  On the other hand, you would be at the mercy of the Town of Vienna government to achieve those material benefits.

In theory, every MAC building was supposed to generate some tangible benefit.  Go look at the plaza in front of the Chick-Fil-A.  If you go back and play the recordings of old Town Council meetings regarding this building, you will find that our elected officials were literally fooled into thinking that was a great, spacious area.  That was due to the developers’ use of highly distorted perspective to portray it, and led one Town Council member to call for, in effect, banning that practice in the future.  Only after the building was up did they realize that what had been depicted as a vast plaza was in fact little more than a broad sidewalk.

Compare the size of the Chick-Fil-A to the McDonald’s next door.  That little unused-and-unusable plaza is the benefit the Town got, for allowing that much larger construction.  (Well, that, and exchanging the overhead power lines for the power transformers that block the pedestrian sight lines along that stretch of the sidewalk adjacent to the drive-through lane).

In a nutshell, my main objection to this is that the entire commercial district would still be at risk for large, high-density buildings.  There would be no effective limit, other than whatever limits are set by the economics of medium-density housing in this area.  And we’d be entirely dependent on the whims of whatever the then-current Town of Vienna government decided to do.

Let me put it this way.  If that’s the new zoning, and you were newly moving to Vienna, you’d be crazy to move in anywhere near Maple Avenue.  You’d never know when the sleepy little low-rise shopping center at the end of the block was going to turn into a tall apartment complex.

Background and things that I don’t think are issues still in play

As you probably know, the Town is revising all the zoning in Vienna.  During the pandemic.  This started out as a mere technical clean-up of the zoning code, which, per the former Mayor, would result in absolutely no changes whatsoever in the zoning (last summarized in Post #1093).  In classic Town of Vienna wandering-decision style, we’ve gone from that, to a project that gives staff the right to change almost every aspect of zoning, to be voted on by Town Council.  The timeline for that is outline briefly in the post cited above.

But that’s history.  We are where we are, and where we are is in the middle of changing the zoning.

I’m not a Town insider, so I don’t know how this is going to end up. But I can take a guess.  However the zoning turns out, whatever it contains, I’d say the likelihood that Town Council will pass it is 100%.  It was set up from the beginning so that they’d have no practical choice but to pass it.  I’ll go further.  I’m betting that the vote will be 7-0.  Which, if true, will show just how carefully orchestrated this is, given that the Town repealed the prior MAC zoning less than a year ago.  We’ll have gone from Maple Avenue zoning as “the most divisive issue in Vienna in the past two decades”, per Councilman Springsteen, to what I expect to be unanimous agreement on the replacement for that.

Things that I think are a done deal.

Again, I have no special knowledge here.  This is my guesswork.  But I think we’re already getting hints on how some items are shaping up.  And so these two items are off my list, because I think the outcome is essentially certain.

It looks like they are setting this up to allow larger houses on the lots in Vienna.  That’s described in Post #1087. It’s plausible that they could write the new code to avoid that, simply by treating the driveway differently from other “outdoor living spaces”.  But I wouldn’t bet on that.  The fact that driveways were specifically mentioned as “outdoor living spaces” in news reporting of this issue means that this is probably baked in.

I assume they’re going to reduce the amount of required parking for new buildings, relative to the current standards.  That materially improves profitability of redevelopment, particularly for restaurants and similar retail establishments.

But skimping on the parking requires a certain amount of double-think, because, due to the current perceived shortage of parking  …

The taxpayers are going to provide two parking garages to serve the commercial area (one on Church Street, one at the Patrick Henry Library).  Hilariously enough, the Town got the money for the first one (and is seeking money for the second one) under the fiction that these garages will be heavily used by commuters trying to get to Vienna Metro.  (See Post #520, Post #446, Post #515).  Anyone who lives in Vienna will tell you that’s nonsense.

The upshot is that our shopper-diner parking will be paid for largely by funds intended to relieve traffic congestion.  While we use the garages to try to attract more traffic into downtown Vienna.  I don’t have a vivid enough imagination to make up a story like that.

And while that’s clearly an abuse, what I would call outright fraud, it’s not the most wasteful use of those funds that’s in the pipeline. That prize goes for the taxpayer-funded bike share stations that the Town is seeking money for.  So that ours can take up space and remain idle, at significant annual expense, just as the ones in Tysons do.   Last time I did the calculation, Capital Bikeshare trips in the Tysons area had an average distance of about a mile, and an aver taxpayer-subsidized cost of $25 per bike trip (full details shown in this post.).

Things I’m hoping not to have to hear again.

There were many aspects of MAC zoning that were touted as great advantages, but turned out to be window dressing.  I’m hoping the Town Council can go through this rezoning process with that sort of misdirection this time.

So here are a few items that, even if the Town says something great is going to happen in this area, well, I doubt it.  They said that the last time, under MAC zoning, and it turned out to be a complete fiction.

I’m sure there will be some noise made about open space and green space, and how the new zoning will ensure lots of both.  But I doubt it.  With MAC zoning, the “open space” requirement was touted as a huge benefit to the town.  But in fact, the open-space rules had no material effect.  The open-space rule was a sham, double-counting all the space that was already required to be open due to (e.g.) setbacks from the roadways.  (Click to see calculations in this post.)   It didn’t actually increase the open space at all.  And for green space, tn the one case where I decided to check the details, MAC redevelopment actually reduced the total amount of green space on the lot.  Like so, from the developer’s plans for 380 Maple West, soon to be an assisted living facility.

And so, my plea is, put in whatever regulations you want, but don’t sell it to the citizens based on false pretenses.  If you’re going to claim that some “open space” rule creates a lot of new open space, beyond that required by normal setbacks from the road and such, you should be required to offer some proof of that.  If you claim that the lots will have more green space than now, then lets see the actual calculation, based on what’s actually on the lot right now.   Because, given how that turned out under MAC zoning, we’d be pretty dumb to accept anybody’s word on it.

And I guess we’ll be hearing yet again about how Maple would be “walkable” if it just had broader sidewalks.  And about all the lovely “open space” opportunities this new zoning will create.  Both of which are within a few feet of a 30,000 car-per-day arterial highway.

Again, anybody who actually walks along Maple knows it’s not pleasant, due to the noise and air pollution.  Nobody’s going to stroll along Maple, during the evening rush hour, or Saturday afternoon shopping time, for the pleasure of it.  And if you need a lesson in just how desirable those street-side spaces are, I suggest you take a look at the packed tables just outside the Chick-Fil-A.  (That’s sarcasm.  In a pandemic where outside dining is flourishing all over Vienna, you almost never see even one person sitting at those tables directly adjacent to Maple.)

And so, as with MAC zoning, to make some promise that Maple Avenue will become some sort of stroller’s paradise is just absurd.  Make the sidewalks broader so that they match the look of the big new buildings.  Fine.  But don’t play on the gullibility of the citizens by promising something that clearly is never going to happen as long as there is a material amount of traffic on Maple.