Post #544: A brief comment on the Proposed Patrick Henry Parking Garage*

* and library.

Question 1:  What do these localities have in common:

  1. Fairfax County.
  2. Loudoun County.
  3. Arlington County (I think).
  4. Prince William County

Answer?  None of these localities has a library built into the first floor of a multi-story parking garage.  Or, at least, none that I could find after spending some significant time with their websites and Google Maps.

Question 2:  If you propose to spend millions of dollars building something in a way that nobody else has ever chosen to build, do you:

  1. Pat yourself on the back for originality.
  2. Rethink what you are doing, because maybe there’s a reason nobody does it that way.
  3. Never even to look to see how anybody else does it.

Answer:  Unfortunately, I get the feeling for the Town of Vienna, the answer is going to be 3.  They aren’t going to stick their heads up, look around, and see if they can find even one example of a library on the first floor of a parking garage.

Anyway, the genesis of this posting was my attempt to find even one library, in NoVA, built along the lines of the proposed Patrick Henry Parking Garage and Library.   The idea was that I’d ask the Town to visit that building, talk to the people who use it, and so on, before committing to the current library-under-garage design.

But the result is that I couldn’t find one.  Maybe I just missed it, but as of now, I think that’s a correct finding.  So if we build this, it’ll be the only one for many miles around.

I don’t think that’s a good thing.  I’d say that this fact, by itself, ought to give a sober person pause.  But if the Town never even looks for a real-world example of what they are proposing, they’ll never even realize quite how unusual their proposed library is.

Post #541: A couple of corrections: Beulah Road Park; $9M parking garage.

Here are a couple of non-correction corrections.  The first is fact, the second is speculation/reason/guesswork.

Fact is that the Town referred to its 8-acre Beulah Road property as a park for decades before it decided to use it for mulching (Post #526).   The documentary evidence for that is overwhelming (see first section below).

Speculation/reason/guesswork is that the town roughly doubled the estimated cost of the Patrick Henry Parking Garage, out of nowhere (Post #531), as a ploy to get somebody else to pay the full cost of the garage.  Funding agencies will want to see the Town pay half the cost.  But the Town wants somebody else to pay for all of it.  So, just claim that it costs twice as much as it actually does.  That’s a fraud, but so is the claim that this garage will serve large numbers of Vienna Metro commuters, which is how the Town justifies asking for regional traffic congestion relief funds for this.

Continue reading Post #541: A couple of corrections: Beulah Road Park; $9M parking garage.

#533: How will the Patrick Henry Garage fit into the Maple Avenue cityscape?

This is just a quick calculation to see where the proposed three-floor Patrick Henry Garage would fit on the on the graph above.  And the answer is, until 444 Maple West gets built, the Town’s garage will be the second-largest building on Maple. (Or, given the uncertainties in the measurement, tied with the second-largest building.)

The only building that will be larger — by total enclosed volume — is the Giant Food shopping center.  And while that shopping center is one-story and sits almost 400′ off the road, the garage will be 25′ off the road.

So I’m not exaggerating when I say that we’re in the process of making a parking garage the centerpiece of the new Vienna downtown.  In the context of the current Vienna, A 220′ long three-story garage, sitting 25′ off Maple, is going to be noticeable.  Continue reading #533: How will the Patrick Henry Garage fit into the Maple Avenue cityscape?

Post #520: Converting fraud to good government

source:  Image courtesy of Vectorstock

My wife tells me that some people object to my use of the word “fraud” in a recent posting (Post #515, but Post #446 does a better job of explaining the issue).  Fair enough.  If everybody is happy about what I write, I’m doing something wrong.

In this post, I’m going to explain how I got to that point.  Briefly, a year and a half ago, I was just sincerely trying to make sense of puzzling behavior by the Town w/r/t the Mill Street garage.  But as the Town’s claims got nuttier, I amped up the rhetoric correspondingly.

I’m going to end this post with a suggestion that would guarantee that this entire taxpayer-financed transaction is above-board, with no hint of fraud.  This suggestion would be cheap and easy to do.  It embodies the essence of good government.  And I am quite sure the Town will never, ever do it.

My suggestion:  Monitor the outcome.  That is, measure and report on Metro commuters’ actual use of these garages, once they are built.  I’m not even saying that the Town should give the money back if it turns out that this was a fraud mistake.  I’m just saying that the funding agencies should demand to know how effective their spending was, at achieving the stated goal of creating a commuter garage.  And if it turns out that this was a complete waste of money from their perspective, then at least they will learn something.  With luck, they will know better the next time somebody tries to pull the same scam make the same implausible argument.

Caution:  high horse ahead.  We can tolerate the occasional wasteful spending decision by a local government entity (NVTA or NVTC).  But we shouldn’t tolerate willful ignorance about the level of waste.  Instead, we should require that these government entities acknowledge and learn from their mistakes.  Just like any real business.  And that feedback loop needs to be built into the system.  And so, anyone receiving tax funding to build a “Metro commuter” garage ought to be required to provide an accurate measurement of the extent to which Metro commuters actually use it.  That’s all I’m saying.  I hope that makes sense.

Some history on this issue

I’ve been trying to make sense of the Town’s actions in this area for more than a year and a half.  That’s when I first found out just exactly how the Town had convinced the NVTA to fund half of the (now defunct) Mill Street garage (see this post dating to June 2018).

I was such a do-bee *, **, *** on this that I actually researched and developed a suggestion for how that garage might best serve Vienna commuters (as the basis for a slug line).  That’s how hard I was trying to make sense of this, at that time.

* Sadly, I find myself sincerely and without irony quoting Romper Room.  Youngsters in the readership here (meaning, anyone under about 60 or so) will have no idea what I’m talking about.  Think of it as reactionary propaganda — religious, patriotic, and social — aimed at the most vulnerable and gullible segment of the population, broadcast over the public airwaves.  It was as if  Sesame Street had been conceived by the John Birch Society.  Clearly, it succeeded at its insidious task, as I will probably remember the phrase “Do be a do-bee, and don’t be a don’t-bee” long after I’ve forgotten the names of my children. 

** This “do-bee/don’t-be” dichotomy is a widely-used method for embedding conventional social norms in literature aimed at young children.  For example, it was later adopted by children’s author Richard Scarry in his classic religious propaganda Busy Town series.  There, the (presumed) brothers Pig Will and Pig Won’t take the place of the gender-neutral Do Bee and Don’t Be, and are repeatedly used to demonstrate behaviors deemed socially acceptable and unacceptable, respectively.   By portraying Good and Evil in a concrete fashion, such authors directly impress their notions of right and wrong onto their target audience.  The sincerity of these characters (as propaganda tools aimed at the vulnerable pre-school popoulation) should be contrasted to the frankly tongue-in-cheek Angel/Devil imagery aimed at older, more rational children, such as the shoulder angel/shoulder devil debate in the animated classic “The Emperor’s New Groove“.

*** Upon close examination, other characters in Scarry’s “Busy Town” series were even more disturbing.  For example, the town butcher was portrayed as a pig, and yet had clearly identifiable hams hanging in his shop window.  I still wonder what message the author had in mind with that.

For the Mill Street garage, the Town only pretended that half the spaces would be for commuter use, and only asked for half the money to build the garage.

But in later iterations, for the proposed Patrick Henry garage, the Town’s story grew more absurd.  When the Town applied to the NVTA for money, it proposed that 100% of the spaces be used by commuters, prompting me to write my “absurdum” post (Post #446).  My point being that if this actually worked out as the Town suggested — if all the spaces were in fact used by commuters — then the garage would do the Town no good.  There’d be no spaces left for its actual use, which is to provide shopper/diner parking for local merchants.   But by saying that 100% of spaces would be used by commuters, it could then ask for 100% of the cost of the garage to be covered.

And in this most recent round (applying to NVTC for money), the Town is proposing that fewer spaces be used by commuters, but it’s still asking for 100% of the cost of the garage to be covered.

My guess is, the request that 100% of costs be covered is driven by our capital budget, where the Town is planning to borrow and spend vastly more in this year’s cycle than it has ever done in the past.  So much so that it had to assume the Patrick Henry garage would be “free” in order to get the numbers to work out (e.g., Post #488, Post #504).

Now, with that as perspective, surely you can put that all together the same way I have.  So far, the Town has done the following:

  • Claimed that half of one garage, on Mill Street, would be used by Metro commuters, and asked for 50% of the cost of that garage to be covered.
  • When the Mill Street garage fell through, blithely moved the money for that, to a different proposed garage on Church street, where the money would cover 59% of the garage.
  • Claimed that 100%, of a different, larger garage (Patrick Henry) would be used by Metro commuters, and asked for 100% of that garage to be covered.
  • Claimed that some smaller share (?) of spaces (certainly, a smaller count of spaces) would be used by commuters, in that same garage, and still asked for 100% of the cost of the garage to be covered.

This is in a Town that, prior to this, has done very close to nothing for Metro commuters.  (Well, they built bus shelters, starting back in 1977.  But not a lot, lately, for sure.)  And a Town where, if people were of a mind to park and catch a bus to Metro, there are copious opportunities for street parking right now (detailed in Post #447)****.

**** “… I count at least the following residential areas, with street-side parking, within walking distance of a bus stop for the 463 Fairfax Connector bus:  Kingsley-Meyers; Tapawingo; Roland-Mendon-Ceret; Moorefield-Princeton-Princess; Wade Hampton-Millwood-Glen; Pleasant; Berry; East; and virtually all the residential streets beyond East that connect to Maple.  That isn’t even counting the other bus routes that have some Metro connection.”

When I put that all together — the totally implausible story about commuting, the existing market test that shows people do not park/bus to Metro despite ample current opportunity, the repetition of the story for two different garages, and the morphing of the story over time — I come to the firm conclusion that the Town’s story is just that — a story.  It’s an untruth told for the purpose of achieving financial gain.  And that’s the definition of a fraud.

A simple fix:  Just come clean about the results

The introduction says pretty much all that needs to be said about this.  Given that nothing will dissuade the Town from doing this, and given that the Town has already gotten millions of dollars (for the Mill Street) garage with this story, it’s clear that this is the Town’s story and they are sticking with it.

My sole suggestion, then, is that the agencies providing the funding actually measure the effectiveness of their spending.  Require that the Town accurately count the number of parking spaces actually used by park-and-bus-to-Metro commuters.  This is the only way to close the loop, and force the funding agencies to admit what they have done — mis-spent funds that were intended for congestion relief, to give Vienna shopper/diner parking for local merchants.

Fill in your favorite aphorism here:

  • Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
  • Better late than never.
  • Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes.

My point is that, like anyone else, governments need to learn from their mistakes.  And in the case of government, that feedback needs to be built into the system.

If you really don’t think the Town is committing fraud here, then there should be no objection to building in that feedback.  If we are proud of getting taxpayer funding in this fashion, we should be proud to measure the results and to make that measurement publicly known.

Post #517: Last night’s Town Council meeting

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.

Continue reading Post #517: Last night’s Town Council meeting

Post #515: Fraud (noun): Intentional use of deceit for financial gain.

The last item on tonight’s (1/27/2020) agenda ticks all the boxes for me.  This is the item whereby the Town Council asks yet a different taxpayer-funded organization to pay for the new commuter garage in Vienna.

Wait, you didn’t know there was going to be a commuter garage in Vienna?  That’s no surprise, because there isn’t going to be one.

I mean, why on earth would anyone drive through this …

… in order to get to the middle of Vienna, park in the new commuter parking garage, then take the (once-per-half-hour) bus back down Maple Avenue, in order to get back to the Vienna Metro?

Nobody’s going to do that.  But our Town government is happy to lie about that, if that fraud means somebody else will pay for the proposed shopper/diner parking garage at the Patrick Henry Library.

On top of committing fraud against the taxpayer by lying about commuter use of this garage, this item has several other features worth noting.  All of which I’ve touched on before.  It’s more-or-less a microcosm of … well, pretty much how I view Town government.

  • Keep Town Council/Public in the dark.  There’s no copy of the staff presentation in the Town Council meeting materials.  This is now standard operating procedure by the Department of Planning and Zoning, and serves to keep both Town Council and (particularly) the public in the dark as long as possible.  Consistent with SOP, if anyone on own Council dares to slap their wrist over this (yet again), DPZ will offer to send them a copy after-the fact.  And the public?  Anything sent out with the meeting packet itself has to be public information, by law.  But if they don’t send it out?  Well, you peasants can FOIA it if you want to have a copy of it.  You can see my writeup of this tactic, as the new norm, in the middle of Post #480, which discusses FOIA issues in general.
  • Ask for a rubber-stamp approval.  Heck, they didn’t even bother to provide a copy of the two items that the Town is backing with this resolution.  I.e., the story here seems to be “just say yes, you don’t need to bother your little heads about the details of what you’re endorsing”.  If that’s not the definition of rubber-stamping something, I don’t know what is.  (And note that the story about the garage continues to change, see below).
  • We’re already overspent the capital budget.  The Town is already so over-spent on its capital budget that it needs this free shopper-diner garage, or it’ll have to scramble to find the money.  So Town Council has no choice but to endorse the fraud.  (See, e.g., Post #504, Post #488, Post #485.)
  • The story keeps changing.  The number of “commuter” parking places in this proposal is less than the number in the prior funding proposal the Town Council approved for the NVTA.  (Versus this new funding proposal, to the NVTC — see last item).  Arguably, that’s because the last proposal, for money from a different local government agency, was totally absurd.  So our story about these fictional commuter parking places continues to morph, even as we apply to additional entities to pay for them.  (See, e.g., Post #447, Post #446).
  • The only option on the table is just plain ugly, but nobody will object.  The only viable parking garage plans result in a new library that squats under a parking garage.  See illustration, and see, e.g., Post #367, Post #369, Post #371, Post #372.
  • Ready-fire-aim.  The Town will, eventually, get some consultant in to tell it how many parking places it actually needs.  But only after it has already funded both a Church Street “commuter” garage and this Patrick Henry “commuter” garage.  Call me cynical, but I bet the consultant ends up telling the Town that it somehow, though sheer guesswork, funded exactly the right number of spaces, whatever that number turns out to be.  (See, e.g., this post or Post #481 for discussion of other ready-fire-aim studies, or Post #510 for the parking study, or this post from a year ago about the economic development plan that will justify MAC zoning after-the-fact.  The point is, ready-fire-aim is the Town’s normal mode of operation in this arena.)
  • Ludicrous cost. The current lie (to NVTC, as opposed to the previous lie, to NTVA) is now stated as a request for $5.5M to buy 84 “commuter” parking places, or $65,000 per putative commuter parking place.  That’s exceptionally expensive, and doesn’t even factor in a reasonable utilization rate (i.e., doesn’t even account for the fact that commuters aren’t going to park there).  See e.g. Post #447 for how the “commuter” garage cost-benefit analysis ought to be done.
  • We have two local government agencies handing out cash?  Where do I stand in line?  Yes, the first application was to the NVTA.  That’s the organization we suckered into paying for half the Mill Street Garage 59% of the Church Street Garage, or whatever-the-heck portion of whatever-the-heck actually gets built, if anything.  (See Post #491 for explanation.)  I mean, it’s the taxpayers’ money, so it’s not like anybody needs to care about it, or anything.  So, whatever. Noted above, we’ve already put in an application to NVTA, promising that all the parking places in this new garage will be for commuters (Post #446).  But this new application, for funding the same garage, is to NVTC, and I don’t think we’re promising every space is a commuter space.  (But how can I tell, since there’s no copy of the actual proposal posted.)  In any case, we haven’t scammed them yet.  In short:  Two different taxpayer-financed tax spigots, two different applications.  The names are so alike that staff stumbled over the acronyms at the last Town Council session on this.

Except for that last point, I’ve documented all of this before, so I don’t see the need to write this up again.  Read the prior posts if you want the details.

Post 446: Patrick Henry commuter garage, reductio ad absurdum

What is wrong with this picture (Page 30, Town of Vienna Capital Improvement Plan (.pdf) as of October 21, 2019).

This is a tough post to write, so let me get to the point, with a set of simple declarative statements below.  I’m going to provide just enough detail to show you what’s wrong with the picture above.

Continue reading Post 446: Patrick Henry commuter garage, reductio ad absurdum

Post #372: Patrick Henry, power lines, parks, and value.

In my last post, I casually suggested that the Town spend about $1M of your tax dollars to create a third-of-an-acre park as part of the new Patrick Henry library.  And with that proposal, they would create a low-rise, low-key, light-and-airy library structure, instead of squashing the new library beneath a lot-filling parking garage.  But they’d end up with less total parking available.

While it may be fun to spend somebody else’s money, at some point, you have to ask about value.  Is it really worth it to spend that much money, voluntarily, just to have a “prettier” library site that includes a small park?

The answer to that is obviously a matter of opinion.  I.e., there is no one way to answer that question.

But I can make a comparison to another voluntary expenditure that probably is going to be made, solely to “pretty up” that location:  Burying the power lines.  It’s Town policy to get the power lines buried along Maple.  Presumably, that’s going to be part of this redevelopment.

In this brief post, I’m just going to point out that burying the power lines, at both edges of the Patrick Henry site, will almost certainly cost more than my $1M “Library Park” proposal.  Best guess, it will cost in excess of $1.2M, possibly substantially in excess of that.

So one way to look at the value question is by comparison to that.  If you only had $1M to spend, and could either bury the power lines or buy the “Library Park” proposal, which would you rather do?

Detail follows.

Continue reading Post #372: Patrick Henry, power lines, parks, and value.

Post #371: Library Park, Part 2

This post is a followup to my prior writeups of the new Patrick Henry library.  You can see my discussion of what the consulting firm proposed in Post #367, and you can see my “Library Park” alternative in Post #369.

The point here is to ask the following:  Sure, it costs more to put the parking garage underground, as in my “Library Park” proposal.  But in return, that buys the Town a one-third-acre park on Maple Avenue.  Is the tradeoff worth it?  And I mean that in a very narrow sense: Is this cheaper than simply buying a third of an acre of commercial land on Maple, given current prices?

The answer appears to be yes.  In round numbers, a $1M investment in putting the bulk of the parking underground would buy the Town a new one-third-acre park on Maple Avenue.  That works out to about $3M/acre.  As I understand it, commercial property on Maple is currently going for around $6M/acre.  So, think of this as a way to get park land at half-price.  (It’s actually slightly less than half-price, due to the foregone tax revenues that would result from buying commercial land outright and converting it to park land.)

To be clear, there’s no sleight-of-hand here.  This is just a consequence of what builders already know:  When land prices are high, it’s smarter to conserve land by build parking garages than to have surface parking lots.  In this case, I’m just using the land that would be saved by an underground parking garage as a park, instead of using it to make a larger building.

This approach has several other advantages beyond being a (comparatively) cheap source of park land.  The foremost of those is that this frees Fairfax County to build a showpiece of a library, instead of stuffing the new library under a parking garage.

I hope the Town will give this, or something like this (underground parking) all due consideration.

Continue reading Post #371: Library Park, Part 2