In this post, I’m just trying to get my bookkeeping straight on the Robinson estate sidewalks in the Town of Vienna, VA. This will be of no interest to anyone outside of Vienna, and of questionable interest to those who live here.
I think we just saw the first one of those completed, on Pleasant Street. And if that’s true, that’s worth noting.
But before I can say that, I need to get my head straight about where this now stands. The following is a timeline for this process, centering around my prior posts on this issue.
April, 2019, starting the clock. I believe this is when information of the Robinson bequest was formally delivered to the Town of Vienna, so this is the date when clock starts for the five-year period in which the Town must spend the money.
Post #518, the 1/18/2020 meeting of the Transportation Safety Committee. This is where first learned of the Robinson bequest for the construction of sidewalks in Vienna, and the restrictions on the use of the money. Apparently this discussion took place almost a full year after the bequest was made and the clock begain ticking on the five-year period in which the Town must use the money.
Post #532, the 2/24/2020 Town Council meeting. This is the meeting where Town Council authorized sidewalks on three streets literally chosen by the executor of the Robinson estate. This is also the first time that Town Council clearly stated that the estate’s executor would literally only pay for the sidewalk (not curb and gutter). This was also the first time that I calculated what a ludicrously small fraction of the Robinson estate money could be spent under the rules imposed by the estate’s executor.
The meeting materials for that meeting listed five candidates, of which Town Council approved three (in boldface below). I vaguely recall that the other two were rejected by residents on those streets but I may be imagining that.
* Even side of DeSale Street SW from Moore Street to Tapawingo Road * Odd side of DeSale Street SW from Tapawingo Road to end * Even side of Holmes Drive NW from John Marshall Drive to Upham Place * Odd side of Cabin Road SE from Branch Road to Glyndon Street * Even side of Plum Street SW from Cottage Street to Tapawingo Road
Post #1056, March 14, 20201, I revisited Plum Street (above), more than year after the Town appeared to approve a sidewalk there. I had something of a senior moment based on the complete and total absence of a sidewalk. Near as I can recall, the Town had done nothing about spending the Robinson sidewalk money since that 2/24/2020 meeting, but I can’t claim to have been tracking that closely. For sure, there was no sidewalk on Plum, nor on Cabin, so if they’d been working on it, they were taking their time. Particularly given the five-year limit on spending the Robinson funds.
By April 5, 2021, the Town had a new list of sidewalks to be considered, but it included some pretty bad candidates. That’s the gist of Post #1096. My guess is that with the restrictions imposed by the executor of the Robinson estate, the Town was scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to find candidates for sidewalks. At that point, one Town Council candidate (David Patariu) openly suggested that the Town take the Robinson estate to court to clarify that the actual language of the will did not contain those restrictions, and to get the court to remove those restrictions so that the Town could build sidewalks where they were needed, not where curb and gutter happened to have been put into place decades ago.
By April 23, 2021, the Town clearly had a list of 11 proposed projects that, in theory, constituted the Town’s proposed plan for spending the Robinson sidewalk money. They were going to have a public hearing on those the following Monday (4/26/2021), and by report, that public hearing did not go well. In Post #1120, I again took the time to show how little of the available money this was likely to use. I have since been told that my costs — based on VDOT data — are too low. To which my response is, then double my estimate, it’ll still be a tiny fraction of the total available funds.
In Post #1133 (May 3, 2021), I talked about the five projects that the Town approved after that 4/26/2021 public hearing and Town Council meeting. At this point, there appear to be no rules whatsoever as to what can and cannot be built using the Robinson estate money. Some streets have curb and gutter, others don’t, some are fill-in sections, some are entirely new street segments to have sidewalk, and so on. If there is some rule behind any of that, I was not apparent to me.
And, this was not some sort of make-believe. The Town’s meeting materials had contractors and firm contract prices listed. So approval of those seemed to indicate a pretty solid intent to build that hodgepodge of sidewalk sections.
Do I even need to say this? Again, any plausible total spending for the five approved projects would be dwarfed by the overall size of the Robinson bequest, which by this time had grown to a reported $9M.
Those five projects, approved in the 4/26/2021 Town Council meeting, are the focus on the rest of this post. To cut to the chase, I thought that all five of those contracts were superseded by what happened next. But in fact, one of the five projects was built. The other four were either canceled, or waiting.
Finally (Post #1139), at a Town Council work session scheduled for 5/10/2021, the Town had a brand-new, much larger list of sidewalk candidates. This, along with a brand new story as to what could and could not be done with Robinson estate money (curb and gutter? who said anything about curb and gutter)? This now included a thorough rewriting of history, as if this had been the plan all along, along with a document that listed a new, much-higher cost for a project that had already had contract bids, along with an astounding $450 per foot average cost estimate for the construction of plain-vanilla sidewalks in Vienna.
But, by gum, the Town finally had a document — no matter its oddities — by which it could claim that it had a plan for spending the Robinson estate sidewalk funds. I think that, with the $450/foot, the new higher costs listed for already-bid project, and the inclusion of all the roads that they thought fit (including some clearly bad candidates, see Post #1096), they were able to claim with a straight face that they had more than $10M worth of potential sidewalk projects. And thus had a plan that would, on paper at least, spend that money.
Yeah. OK. Sure. That’s good, I guess.
Now that I’m back up to speed, my sole goal for this post is to see what the Town actually has done for the five projects that it appeared to approve on 4/26/2021. Because, near as I can recall, one of those re-appeared in the final plan at a vastly different cost, and the other four just disappeared entirely, and are not listed at all in the master plan for the use of the Robinson sidewalk funds.
And so, after all that to-ing and fro-ing, two years and two months into the five-year period during which that money must be spent, I just want a straight answer to a simple question: Have they started working on those five projects or haven’t they?
And as I now have come to realize is the norm for this topic, the answer is far stranger than I would have guessed.
The list of five projects is laid out in Post #1133. I rode past all five of them this afternoon, and the status is:
124 Courthouse Road SW. Not started. The missing sidewalk is actually along the back of the property, where Cottage Street dead-ends at the shopping center. It’s about 100′ of sidewalk.
503 Ware Street SW (~$17K). Not started. This is right across from Meadow Lane park. This is also about 100′ of sidewalk
1002 Hillcrest Drive SW (~$22K). Not started. This is about a 200′ long stretch.
Cabin Road SE – Branch Road to Glyndon Street. Not started. The entire stretch is just over 800′ long and pretty much dead flat.
Pleasant Street SW – Courthouse Road to Maple Avenue. Finished and road repaved. This is a several-hundred-foot stretch of road with sidewalk on one side, and no sidewalk on the other.
Here’s a before and after of Pleasant Street, courtesy of Google Street view and some photos taken today:
Source: Google Street View.
By eye, and by feel, it seems as if the Town widened the road a bit as it put in the sidewalk, but objectively, near as I can tell, that’s not true to any material degree. It’s just a lot easier to drive at the edge of the road when there actually is a well-defined edge (curb), instead of just pavement that stops.
At any rate, I find the outcome here quite odd. Three of those projects are no longer listed anywhere, and there’s no evidence of sidewalk construction. One of them — Pine — remains listed in the Town’s current plan, but now at a much higher price than the actual bid. And one of them — Pleasant — no longer remains listed as a Robinson estate project, but is now completely done, six weeks after the Town approved it. This, in a Town where it was reputed to take two years to get a sidewalk done.
In any case, I think I count this as the first sidewalk completed from the Robinson estate funds. I don’t think it would be asking too much for the Town to put up a little marker or something to commemorate. People get their names on a little plaque when they donate the cost of a bench to one of the local parks. Seems like every one of these new sidewalks ought to have something similar.
Maybe just a stamp, C&MR, to be stamped into the wet concrete at the completion of every project paid out of those funds. Fifty years from now, people might notice that and wonder what it’s all about. Maybe somebody will bother to look it up. Or if you don’t like that simple approach, find some alternative. The physical concrete in those sidewalks is no different from any other. Seems like all the more reason to provide a permanent reminder of the gift behind it. In any case, it seems a bit cold to finish a sidewalk, paid for from that bequest, and just move along to the next job.
Still, I keep wondering, why this street? Why so fast? Did they or didn’t they widen the road a bit as they did this?
This section of road met none of the criteria that were once presented as governing the use of those Robinson funds. Most of the section where sidewalks were placed had no curb or gutter. And this street already has sidewalk own the full length of it, on one side. And so on.
But there it sits, right across the street from 44 new dwelling units shoehorned into roughly two acres, constructed under MAC zoning. (I guess it’s rude to say “shoehorned” about townhouses that will cost more than my house.)
And so you might reasonably ask, is this just another part of the Town’s plan for the densification of Maple Avenue? And that’s why this, uniquely among all potential projects, got priority? Or was it the case that they needed to do it while the road paving crews were still here, owing to the nature of the roadway prior to the installation of sidewalks? And so the proximity to Maple and MAC development is just a coincidence?
Or yet some other explanation of why this street, and why so promptly.
As a member of the peasantry, I’ll never know. But in a Town where the standard spiel is that sidewalks take at best a couple of years, this one, completed about six weeks from the time the Town Council authorized it, certainly stands out. I just wish I understood why.