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

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.

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

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.

 

Post #697: Town elections, see Post #508

See Post #508, from January 9, 2020 and earlier, on splitting the vote and political suicide.  My numbers were a little off.  But not much.

Votes Percent
Colbert 1545 43%
Majdi 1172 33%
Springsteen 869 24%
Total 3586 100%

Post #542: Needless risk

Source:  Town of Vienna.  This is the agenda for tonight’s Town Council meeting.

Dear Town Council and Planning Commission:  Please extend the MAC moratorium, right now.   Please don’t wait until the last minute, because that’s looking like an increasingly risky strategy.

If you agree with that, you don’t need to read the rest of this.

Edit:  I needed to make two corrections to the original post.  One is for the Vice-Mayor, which I misstate.  A more substantive correction is that, in this case, the Planning Commission’s role is purely advisory.  They would make a recommendation to the Town Council, but Town Council could chose to ignore such a recommendation.

Continue reading Post #542: Needless risk

Post #539: MAC moratorium schedule revisited – CORRECTED

 

Source: Tenor.com

Edit:  The main point of this post may be moot.  Town Council member Noble has reminded me that he has already asked that Town Council rescind MAC zoning entirely.  (Technically, Town Council would refer a motion to the Planning Commission to rescind all of MAC.)  That motion would be made at a Town Council meeting in late April or early May, at the same time the Town Council approves the consulting contract for rewriting the Town’s zoning.

At that point, if successful, MAC would be rescinded, and zoning on Maple would be by-right zoning under some variation of the commercial zoning that we have now.  Any MAC-like elements would have to be embodied in changes in the commercial code, not in revision of a separate MAC zoning.

I’m not clear on the details, but my guess is that this still entails a very tight schedule.  My understanding is that this change in the zoning rules requires two public hearings.  If so, the schedule here would have to be replaced by an equally strict schedule for rescinding MAC prior to the end of the MAC moratorium. 

So there’s still a fast track that has to be adhered to.  It’s just that the content of those hearings would be for rescinding MAC, not for extending the moratorium.

Just a reminder about unfinished business.  Briefly, the Town now needs to undertake a multi-step process to extend the MAC zoning moratorium.  May not seem like it, but the time available to do that is fairly short.  Let me walk through it.

On 11/4/2019, the Town Council extended the moratorium on new MAC zoning applications through June 30, 2020 (reference).

On 12/9/2019, they passed a motion to fold review of MAC zoning into the complete rewrite of all the Town’s zoning (reference).

On 12/9/2019, they didn’t extend the MAC moratorium.  That’s still left to do.  Instead, the minutes from that meeting read, in part, that our new zoning czar (Post #487) should provide ” … determination of a realistic moratorium period for the MAC zone based upon the scope of work identified.”

In other words, we are now waiting for Planning and Zoning staff to tell us how long the MAC moratorium must be extended.  Then Town Council has to go through the lengthy legal process to create that extension.

And that all must happen in the next four months.  And my point is, deadlines are approaching for getting that done.  In particular, Town staff have just about two months left to tell Town Council what that “realistic moratorium period” must be.  And then all the legally required steps for extending the moratorium have to go off like clockwork, from that point forward.

Detail follows. Continue reading Post #539: MAC moratorium schedule revisited – CORRECTED

Post #512: Census nonsense from Town government, and the larger lesson to be learned from that.

I have been told by friends that I need to keep going on this blog.  And so I will grudgingly try to grind out posts on a fairly regular basis.

That said, there seems to be little point to doing the extensive homework required to support the factual and logical accuracy of these posts.  Facts and logic are ineffective tools of rhetoric in the modern era, and my insistence on that approach is more a remnant of old habits than it is an effective means of mass communication.  I’ll go so far as to say that most readers don’t give a rat’s ass about factual accuracy, mine or anyone else’s.  After all, the central two-part concept of social media is that that we are each empowered to have strongly held and firmly expressed opinions, yet none of us is burdened to do even the slightest bit of homework so that we know what we’re talking about.

So it’s high time that I got with the program.  Logically, stridency, rather than accuracy should be my goal.  And so, in the toxic spirit of righteous cluelessness that is so central to internet-based discourse, let me dive right in.  I’ll try to keep this one short, to the point, and fact-free.

At the last Town Council session I attended, the following statement was expressed by the Director of Planning and Zoning, and duly echoed at various points by pro-MAC Town council member(s).

We have to wait to 2021 to revise the Town Comprehensive Plan because 2020 Census data will be available then.

Continue reading Post #512: Census nonsense from Town government, and the larger lesson to be learned from that.

Post #511: Three followups to the last Town Council work session

Source of this image is linked here.

This is about three unrelated points from the Monday Town Council work session that, in hindsight, struck me as possibly worth writing up:  The Town traffic simulation, the treatment of the Town strategic “plan”, and the end game 18 to 24 months from now.


Town traffic simulation.

Part of the Town’s “Multimodal” traffic study estimated the impact on traffic congestion from Maple Avenue development.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the consultants did to arrive at their numbers.  As of last night’s meeting, I have officially given up on that, because I can’t make head or tail out of it.

But I did take away one thing from trying to puzzle that out:  There’s a lot of uncertainty (wiggle room) in that calculation.  That’s worth noting, I think.  See if you can follow this.

  1. Back in August, the contractor presented results showing 758 additional net new evening rush-hour trips from Maple Avenue redevelopment.  They did not talk about it during that presentation, or during their next presentation.  But it was on a slide that they skipped over (Post #358).
  2. One issue I had with that is their “baseline” traffic, i.e., the number of trips that they assumed occurs right now.  Their graphic clearly showed that they assumed that (e.g.) currently-empty buildings were generating traffic on Maple.
  3. The single worst example of that was the assumption that the Suntrust Bank (east) currently gets 381 trips in the afternoon rush hour.  As previously noted, that’s a ludicrous number — it amounts to one car going into or out of that bank parking lot every 10 seconds.  Councilman Majdi called them out on that, but both the contractor and Town Manager strongly defended that as “science”.  I was so ticked by that misuse of the term “science” that I sat in the bank parking lot and counted cars to demonstrate that the actual traffic to that building was about one-tenth of that (Post #465).
  4. When I want to look at the final report, I couldn’t find those 381 trips.  As it turns out, at yesterday’s work session, it was revealed that the contractor removed those 381 existing trips from the baseline.  Simply zeroed them out.  That’s why they are no longer in the report. And so, presumably, we have no further cause for complaint.
  5. OK, fine, I can do arithmetic.  If they remove 381 from the baseline, that should then add 381 to the net new trips.  (Why?  Because you net out the existing traffic, when calculating the net new traffic.  If you reduce existing traffic by 381, then you should have increased the net new traffic from development by 381.
  6. And yet … in the final report, the net new trips from Maple Avenue actually decreased from 758 to 500.

So, without pondering how they justified that, just do the math.  Focus on the simple arithmetic of how they had to have gotten from the prior estimate to the current estimate.  Solve for X:  758 + 381 + X = 500.  Turns out, X = -639.  That is, they managed to extract a further 639 net new trips out of their analysis, to get from the original estimate that (presumably) netted out the Suntrust 381 in the baseline, to the final estimate that did not.  Just as a matter of arithmetic.

This X factor of -639 trips is what economists call a structural uncertainty in the estimate (as opposed to a statistical uncertainty).  It’s the uncertainty that arises from doing the numbers one plausible way versus another (as opposed to a more traditional statistical uncertainty, which arises from purely random factors, so to speak).

So this lower bound for the true stuctural uncertainty of the estimate — how much it changes based on choices made by the analyst — is larger than the estimate itself.

A lot of other things about the methods and results looked counterintuitive to me.  For example, the net new traffic during the AM rush hour, to the extent that it left Vienna, flowed mostly westward (i.e., against the direction of morning rush hour traffic).  About 2.5x as many additional cars exited Vienna at Nutley as at Follin.  But put those issues aside.  The simple arithmetic of getting from the draft to the final — the X above — is what convinced me that I would never have any real understanding of how they arrived at their numbers.

So this is truly a black box, and a black box it shall remain.  There are open-source software packages that allows individuals to model transportation networks (e.g., here, here, or here.)  All of them require considerable amounts of data as input (e.g., traffic light timings, traffic counts).  I’m not going to put in the effort to try to gin up my own estimate.  But my conclusion is that this is the only way to avoid having the results be a total black box.


Addendum:  Traffic counts and the K-Q curve.

Addendum:  I also have no clue what these traffic models do when actual traffic passes the peak of the “K-Q curve”.  (Briefly, as you try to stuff more and more vehicles through a given roadway (increase the density of cars per square foot, traditionally represented by “K”), each individual car may move more slowly, but in aggregate, the total flow of cars (represented by the letter “Q”) increases.  That is, at first, each car may move slower, but you get more total cars moving through the road segment.  But as you continue to add cars, you reach a point where the reverse is true:  You get so crowded that adding more cars actually reduces total traffic flow.  Not only does each car move more slowly, but you actually get fewer total cars to pass through the road segment in a given amount of time.  That point — where jamming more cars onto the road actually begins to reduce not just speed, but total traffic flow — that’s the peak of the K-Q curve, as in this diagram (k = density of cars, q = total flow of cars through the roadway, v = average car speed).

Source:  Wikipedia.

As I understand it, this is the reason you will see (e.g.) metered on-ramps (ramps with traffic lights) at the on-ramps to the inside-the-beltway portion of I-66.  They are trying to avoid passing the peak of the K-Q curve.   Once you pass that peak, you are helping nobody by allowing more cars onto the roadway.  Not only does every individual car move slower, but you actually get fewer total cars to pass down the highway in a given amount of time.  All you do is increase the size of the backup.

It sure seems to me that we hit the peak of the K-Q curve during morning rush hour.  At least sometimes.  At the point where traffic from the Courthouse and Maple light backs up all the way to Nutley, it’s tough for me to imagine what we haven’t hit and passed the maximum possible through-put of the Maple-Courthouse intersection.  Here we are, just before 9 AM, looking east and west on Maple, at the Nutley Street intersection.

But here’s the technical question.  Look at the diagram above and think of the curved line as a hill.  In terms of traffic counts, you get the same traffic count if you are halfway up the upslope of the hill (before the peak of the K-Q curve, where traffic is light and moving well) as you do halfway down the downslope side of the hill (past the peak, where traffic is packed and moving slowly).

I think this explains one oddity of the report, in that the consultants seem to think that we have one long rush hour period from about 8 AM to about noon.  Because they are looking at the traffic counts, and the flow of cars is about the same throughout that period.  Like so:  The flow of traffic (cars/hour) is the same at 9 AM as it is at 11 AM.

Source:  Vienna multimodal transit report, 12/20/2019 draft, page 3-13.

But as anyone who drives that road can tell you, there’s a stark difference in the level of traffic queues or waiting times between 9 AM and 11 AM.  Just before 9, traffic routinely looks like the pictures above.  Whereas around 11 AM, traffic flows far more freely.  But you see no difference on the graph above, because the traffic counts, by themselves, are blind to the fact that Maple hits capacity during the rush hour.  The count you get when you are on the downslope side of the K-Q curve (just before 9 AM, with huge backups as pictured above) is the same as the count you get when you’re still on the upslope of the curve (around 11 AM say, when traffic moves pretty well).

So that’s just an oddity that I noticed.  Traffic counts (cars/hour) do not, by themselves, accurately measure traffic, because of the ambiguity caused by hitting the peak of the K-Q curve.  Very light traffic and very heavy traffic can generate identical traffic counts.  And the graph just above doesn’t show that we have one long rush hour.  It just shows that the total traffic counts don’t change much between the absolute peak of the AM crunch (which I place at about 8:45 AM) and the must less crowded mid-morning period.  I think that, as much as anything, demonstrates that we hit some measure of capacity on Maple during AM rush hour.  Once you hit capacity on Maple — as I infer that we due during the AM rush — additional traffic does not result in additional traffic counts.

I’ll mention one other truly weird possibility.  At this most recent meeting, Coucilman Noble made much out of the new traffic light system that Vienna is getting.  (I have the vague notion that VDOT, not the TOV, is responsible for that, but that doesn’t matter).  If that traffic light system actually increases throughput during the periods when Maple is at capacity (something that I doubt will happen, per discussion of capacity above, but is possible), then, by traffic counts alone, it will make it look as if traffic has gotten worse during rush hour.  That’s just another example of the way in which traffic counts, alone, can provide a misleading indicator of traffic when a road is at capacity.  If there’s a fundamental change in the roadway (in this case, new light timing), traffic (counts) going up can mean that traffic (wait times) is going down.

And as a final, final note on that, if the Town of Vienna wants Vienna citizens to be aware of some profound benefit they are going to get from new traffic signals, I suggest that they actually provide at least some sort of description of what they intend to do.  Near as I can tell, the entirety of what Vienna has to say about this project is a total of 23 words on this page on the Town of Vienna website.  Normally, as you may realize, I will do my homework to understand what the Town is about.  But from the description, I can’t even find the words to Google up what this is.

 


Town Strategic “Plan”

In theory (and by law), anything the Town of Vienna government does needs to comply with the Town’s strategic plan.  But if you look back at when the Town developed MAC zoning, they developed MAC zoning (2014), then rewrote the strategic plan (“mixed use development) to match it (2015-2016).

This more-than-begs the question of what you mean by “plan”, if you rewrite the plan to match what you subsequently decided to do.  I have a vague idea that it isn’t even remotely legal to do that.

That said, based on the last work session, that’s the plan going forward.  When Councilman Majdi brought up the idea of addressing the comprehensive plan first, that was (of course) immediately shot down.  The agreed-upon sequence is now to rewrite the zoning (with apparently no restrictions whatsoever), and then once again rewrite the comprehensive plan to match whatever comes out of the zoning rewrite, if necessary.

Just in passing, and to underscore how loosey-goosey this is, Town staff have now set it up so that this Town Council is actually providing less guidance to this process than occurred during the original development of MAC zoning.  At least, under MAC, Town Council somehow arrived at a firm limit on building height.  Here … near as I can tell, anything goes.  Town Council has not publicly agreed on even one single thing that they want to see in a revised MAC zoning.  It’s all up to the Department of Planning and Zoning.  That’s no surprise, given that Planning and Zoning appears to be controlling this process.


Looking 18 months down the road.

Fundamentally, the limit on the density of development on Maple Avenue appears to be a political limit.  It’s really about what the median Vienna voter wants.  There’s no technical barrier to filling Maple Avenue with Chick-fil-A-car-washes.  It’s just that the people who live here do not, on average, seem very fond of that idea, and they will vote for people who say they won’t do that.

This is all the more true if you purposefully ignore any other possible limits to growth.  E.g., if you will not discuss development in the context of the capacity of Maple to move traffic, or in the context of impacts on nearby residential neighborhoods.  Barring all that — if you acknowledge no other limits — then the only limit on the density of Maple Avenue development is a political limit.

This is a point that Councilman Majdi brought up at that work session.  And either his fellow Council members didn’t get it, or they just shot it down as sort of knee-jerk reaction.

So I need to point out the following:  Town staff have structured this process so that our elected officials have no say in shaping the new MAC.  They will have no formal input in what happens to MAC zoning until the very end of the process.  The process will be controlled by the Department of Planning and Zoning, with input from the Planning Commission (still largely staffed by holdovers from prior Town Council.)  Only at the very end of the process will Town Council be presented with the finished products.

Councilmember Patel tried to reverse that — to get Town Council to have first say over the shape of the revised MAC zoning — and got quashed by the pro-MAC members of Town Council.

So I’m just pointing out the disconnect here.  The only functional limit on MAC density is a political limit.  And our political body is (formally, at least) completely shut out of the process of shaping the new MAC, until the very end.

The only logical conclusion is that this is likely to end (or, at least, risks ending) in some sort of train wreck.  The people actually structuring the new MAC are not subject to any political constraint — they are not elected.  And the people who are elected are not part of the MAC-rewrite process.  That’s exactly what the response to Councilmember Patel established.  But in the end, the constraint on what can and can’t be done is a political one.   So this is a fundamental mis-alignment of incentives, and poor overlap between scope of authority and scope of responsibility.  Town Council is going to be responsible for what comes out of this process, but they have been stripped of all authority to shape it.  

What guarantees that Town Council will be handed a new MAC that is politically acceptable?  Nothing.  The process is literally and purposefully structured that way.  Any notion that Town Council would offer overall guidance (by having first crack at proposals) was firmly snuffed out at this past Town Council work session.

And that’s the scenario that I reckon as a train wreck.  Suppose the very-pro-development Department of Planning and Zoning, working in a political vacuum, comes up with a zoning proposal that appears unacceptable to the median Vienna voter.  Then what happens?

I believe that Town staff are actually counting on that possibility of train wreck.  That is, they are counting on being able to cram this down Town Council’s throats, at the end of the process, one way or the other.  They think that those who oppose larger buildings and higher-density development will blink, in order to avoid that train wreck.  (E.g., to avoid vetoing a proposal that too two years and a quarter-million-dollar contract to develop, and that includes a bunch of purely technical and non-controverial fixes to Town Code in addition to a rewritten MAC.)  By refusing to separate out the non-controversial “clean up” portion of this work, from the more controversial changes to Town zoning, they can given Town Council a one-vote take-it-or-leave it choice (as I have already noted, per Post #483 and others).

Or, possibly, they are hoping that this next election will lead to a change in the fortunes of the pro-MAC portion of Town Council.  So that by the time this comes to a vote, they’ll have the votes for a higher-density MAC zoning.  That’s certainly possible.  From what I can tell, the anti-MAC forces seem totally disorganized at this point.  I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Post #510: Last night’s Town Council work session

The materials for this meeting are on this Town of Vienna web page.

I had intended to record this meeting, but I goofed, and so I have no audio recording.   This writeup is based entirely on about a dozen pages of sketchy notes.

For a brief shining moment, last year, I used to be able to say, no problem, the Town will post its recording of the meeting.  But they’ve just quietly stopped doing that.  In hindsight, looks like that started at the end of November, per the graphics above.  I noticed it in early December, (see Post #501, Hebrews 13:8), and tried to make light of it.

But ultimately, it’s not funny.  Well, it’s kind of funny, in a hypocritical way, for a Town Council that blathers about how deeply and sincerely they want “transparency” in Town government.  In any case, with regard to timely access to the content of these meetings, we’re right back where we were a year ago.  If one of the the peasantry citizens wants to know what the Town government is up to, he or she must attend these meetings in person.  Or have somebody record it for them.  As I intended, but failed, to do in this case.

And so, as we start the new year, we’re back to where we were a year or two ago, with respect to public access to the Town’s recordings of these meetings.

And, despite an election, and turnover of some Town Council seats, in a nutshell, that’s pretty much my take on this entire work session.  Nothing has changed.

Some detail follows.


Town actions from the Multimodal study.

The first part of the meeting dealt with action items from the Town’s Maple Avenue Multimodal study.  At one point, one member of Town Council described these items as “window dressing”.  I think that was in the context of Maple Avenue traffic congestion.  And that comment pretty much summarizes it for me.

So, they’re going to make the W&OD road crossings uniform, and muck about with the intersection of Church and Mill, and so on.  If you want to know the details, look at the meeting materials here.

It appeared that there was no apparent effort to do any type of cost-effectiveness analysis.  So this appeared to be a some collection of targets of opportunity and pet projects.

Not that anybody is listening, but I’ll give an example.  If you search the contractor’s appendix, looking for accidents with pedestrians, you’ll find none at the corner of Church and Mill.  If you search the Commonwealth’s TREDS, for the past five years, ditto.   By my recollection, it’s rare even to see a pedestrian there when the road is busy.  Near as I can tell, the Town does not even have a count of pedestrian volume for that intersection (as it does for others, as part of its 2015 traffic light timing study).  They don’t know if, in a typical rush hour, one person crosses that on foot or 100 people do.

And so … closing off the right-turn-lane, and reconfiguring the intersection of Church and Mill is a Town of Vienna pedestrian safety priority.  Perhaps there’s some long-standing history of accidents there that does not appear in any current set of accident reports?  Otherwise, it beats me why that’s somehow a priority, from the standpoint of pedestrian safety.

Don’t know that there’s much else to talk about.

The Town is thinking of spending $400K/year (hopefully, of somebody else’s money) on a trolley for Maple and Church.  I’m not even going to bother to try to grasp the cost-benefit analysis there, but I will take a minute to correct errors of fact in that discussion.  Fairfax County took over almost all local bus transit from  Metrobus, starting in 1985.  (So the lack of a Metrobus route down Maple should not be a surprise to anyone.)   The Fairfax Connector 463 (Maple Avenue) service is not rush-hour only, but in fact runs every half hour M-F from about 5 AM to about midnight.

That said, I was probably the only person in the room who has ever ridden that bus (Post #225).  I guess the lack of understanding about the existing Maple Avenue bus service is understandable, because I don’t think anybody there actually gave a crap one way or the other, whether or not the description of current bus service was accurate.  If the Town wants a Trolley, then the Town wants a Trolley.  Besides, Vienna is too bougie for a bus (Post #416).

As a coda, I should note that Connector service is a lifeline for people with disabilities, who (in my limited experience) are significantly over-represented among ridership.  Pretty sure the Town isn’t even thinking about ADA access issues for the proposed Town Trolley.

And I guess I need to say that the Town is going to fund a study of the need for parking — in 2023, after they’ve funded two additional parking garages.  So, we’re back to that ready, fire, aim approach that appears to be a tradition in Town of Vienna planning.

Read the meeting materials if you want to know more.


Scope of work for rewriting the entire Vienna zoning code

Bottom line here is that I really don’t have the heart to write this up.  Suffice it to say that the Town Council spent spent a couple of hours, mostly wordsmithing the minutiae of the Staff-written Scope of Work document.

Town Council’s comments on that document were developed in private, via a Noah’s Ark (Post #480) meeting.  And, oddly, while it’s illegal for the Town to vote on anything in private — and so, clearly illegal to vote on anything in a Noah’s Ark meeting — nevertheless the discussion clearly separated out the comments that had four or more positive votes from Town Council members, from those that had three or fewer.

So that was a learning experience.  They can’t vote in private, by law.  But … approving comments with four or more in agreement was not the same as voting.  Got it.

So they spent their time buried in the details like good little boys and girls, doing exactly and only what Town Staff directed them to do.  Anyone who was naughty, and tried to raise bigger issues (Majdi), was firmly quashed.  Any notion that (e.g.) you might moderate the pace of development if it might increase traffic congestion was firmly excluded.  Any notion that Town Council would get to see the issues early on, and so direct the course of this from the outset, was firmly put down.  Any notion that you might separate out the non-controversial “clean up” portion of the task from the controversial policy changes, and so have separate votes on those pieces, was absolutely rejected.  The idea that we shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the MAC zoning development was immediately swept aside.  And any notion that Town Council should lead this process, by expressing a clear description of what they desire for the Town of Vienna, faded as fast as a fart on a windy day.

So, God bless Councilman Majdi for giving it a try.  But he was the lone voice of dissent on … yeah, pretty much all of that.

Bottom line, as far as I can tell, is that Town Staff — meaning the Department of Planning — will now proceed to lead Town Council by the nose through this process.  They’ll present Town Council with finished pieces of the new zoning  (“modules”), and … I don’t know, maybe allow them to do some more wordsmithing.  Then … just guessing here … force them to vote on the whole thing, up or down.

So, for me, this meeting just validated what I believed to be true in Post #487 and Post #495.

And if you don’t believe my description, listen to it for yourself.  Oh, sorry, I guess you can’t.  The Town has a recording of the meeting, to aid Town staff in constructing the minutes for the meeting.  But you’re not going to get to hear that.

Post #495: We’ve lost, really. I’m not kidding.

People don’t seem to have taken my Post #487 seriously.  Based on the reactions I’ve gotten, some people think I’m wrong, others think it was hyperbole.  I think it’s just accurate.

So without belaboring this, let me do three more things.  First, I’ll summarize three additional bits of detail that I think I now know, about this new-new plan to redo MAC zoning. Then I’ll explain how I believe this proposed MAC rewrite is going to work.   Then I’m hanging it up for the rest of the year.  I need a break.


If you want the background, read Post #487.  Briefly, the Town Council has decided to have Planning and Zoning redo all the zoning in Town, including MAC, as one big project.  And they’re giving Planning and Zoning a quarter-million dollars to hire the consultant of their choice to help them do that.  And then, as I understand it, just as with the original MAC vote, Town Council will be have a take-it-or-leave it up-or-down vote on the entire package.

My new information comes from Councilman Potter, who took the time to email me earlier this week.

First, he explained that he was the one who set this up, meeting separately with Town staff and various Town Council members.  So this new development was the outcome of his intense effort to get collaboration among all the parties involved.

The second new bit of information, again from Councilman Potter, is that there is no actual scope of work.  Instead, the scope of work, for what the Town Council voted to approve last Monday, is “in the initial stages of development”.

Third, the actual scope of work will be developed by having the Town Manager and Planning and Zoning director meet with each Councilmember.  In a spirit of cooperation.

So, for one thing, this explains why I somehow could not get the correct scope of work for this task.  First I said I could not find a public copy of the scope of work for this new task, because the Town didn’t post one with this agenda item.  Then Councilman Noble said I was wrong, and directed me to a scope of work from a meeting roughly two months ago.  So I wrote that one up, with a lengthy “caveat” section about not being sure about the scope of work.  Subsequently, I have been told that this effort was labeled incorrect as well, on social media, because I still did not have the correct scope of work.

And now I realize my fundamental problem.  The Town Council voted for this, last Monday, without knowing what “this” is.  They literally agreed on this new plan for dealing with MAC without knowing what the plan actually is.  The actual plan is still literally “to be determined”.

My basic confusion is that I never even considered that the Town Council would take an issue as important as this, and just wing it.  It never even occurred to me that as the Town Council was deciding to revamp the basic fabric of the Town, they’d do it off-the-cuff.  That this has gone from “the most divisive issue in Vienna for decades” to something you’d decide now, with details to be determine later.

The fact that all the details were tbd certainly didn’t come out in the “peace and love” discussion on Monday night.  But that appears to be exactly what they did.  They voted to approve something, and they’ll find out what they actually approved, some months from now.

Worse, it looks to me like that whole process of deciding exactly what they are going to do is going to be done in private, out of the public view, using the Noah’s Ark meeting (Post #480).  That scope of work is going to be hashed out by having the Town Manager and Planning and Zoning director meet with each Councilmember.  Thus they dodge around Virginia Freedom of Information Act requirements that all public meetings be open, by never having more than two Town Council members in the room at once.

Just keep that in mind the next time Town Council members start spouting off about “transparency” in government.


Next I’m going to bring up one little irony, and it’s about the use of a consultant to help straighten out MAC.  I don’t normally talk about myself, but I think this is worth saying.

When I first learned about MAC zoning, I was so aghast that I wrote to Town Council and offered them $50,000 to contract with an independent consultant to look the situation over and offer advice.  Not my expert, not the Town’s expert, but a true independent look at what the Town had done.  For free — I was volunteering to pay for it.  (And, to be clear, that was and is a lot of money, to me.)  My only restriction is that I would not control the consultant, and neither would they.  Truly independent look at the law.  For free.

The Town turned me down flat.  The answer was that the MAC law was fine as-is, they’d had lots of expert input, it didn’t require any changes, it was for the good of the Town, it was all about preserving small-town Vienna, and so on.  Basically,  take a hike.

Fast-forward about a year and a half, and … the Town is in the process of hiring a consulting firm to help sort out the problems with MAC zoning.  Only the key difference is, it’s not an independent consultant.  It’s going to be a consultant under the control of the Department of Planning and Zoning.

I worked as an economic consultant for more than 20 years.  You can definitely find some consultants who view it as their job to give you the answer you want.  And you always find consultants who see it as their job to take direction from the client.  Because that’s part of the job, and if you don’t do that, you don’t get the work.

So the difference between what I proposed almost two years ago, and now, is not just in the overall scope of work.  It’s in the independence of the consultant.

Just look back at the original MAC process to see what I mean.  The consultants originally wanted to divide Maple Avenue into three distinct zones, each of which was (in hindsight) roughly as large as the Mosaic District.  But by the end of the day, they’d had that nonsense beaten out of them in favor of a single zone, not because that was in the best interest of the Town, but because the Maple Avenue land owners who were running that process all wanted an equal slice of the pie.  And so somewhere along the line, some consultant ended up giving the Town what the Town’s steering committee asked for.

If you think this new MAC process is going to happen any differently, then you’re living in a dream world.  Or, as likely, you’ve never done consulting for a living.

Under this new plan, not only are you going to get a revised MAC, it will come wrapped in the sanctimony of the consultant’s blessing.  Town staff may now direct the consultant as to the general outcome that they want.  Then pretend that the results reflect the independent wisdom of their expert consultant.

I’m telling you that from experience.  Along with firing people, avoiding having to be held responsible for a decision is one of the main reasons that Fortune 500’s hire consultants.  You get done what you need or want to get done.  But you get to keep your hands clean.  A year and a half from now, everyone in Town government will be showing us their clean hands, and pointing at the consultant.


I guess I’ll end this with an anecdote about “spirit of cooperation” and Town staff.  At a recent Town Council work session, Councilman Majdi got everyone to agree that the Town should use “hard” traffic counts (meaning, actual traffic counts) in its estimates of MAC impact.  In fact, the Town’s traffic engineer helpfully volunteered that the Town had the equipment to do that.  But that, depending on the scope of the work, they might need to hire somebody to do that for them.

Fast forward to last night’s Planning Commission meeting, and there were two Town staffers, telling the PC that under no circumstances were they going to use actual traffic counts for any estimates of MAC building impacts.  Sometime between that work session, and yesterday, somebody decided they didn’t want us to know the actual traffic counts.  So that isn’t going to get done.

Mind you, it’s not merely that they aren’t going to use the actual traffic counts.  Nothing wrong with doing the traffic counts, then deciding whether to use actual data or look up some national average in a manual and use that instead.  It’s that they’re going to prevent us from knowing the actual traffic counts.  So, e.g., at at the Suntrust Bank, we’ll have no choice but to assume that a car enters or exits that lot every ten seconds, right now.  No matter how ludicrous that assumption is (see Post $465).

I believe that’s indicative of the cooperation you’ll get from Town staff on this new project.  They’ll cooperate … as long as it’s what they want to do.  But if not, I think its wishful thinking to expect them to operate with a true spirit of cooperation.  Or, at least, as far as MAC goes, I sure haven’t seen that so far.


Summary

The holidays are upon us.  So I’m going to stop blogging, at least until after the new year.  It’s just too damned depressing.  And given how the game is now rigged, it’s increasingly hard for me to see the point of it.

To recap, I believe this is now the straight story:

On Monday, Town Council voted to approve a plan that rolls a rewrite of MAC zoning into an overall rewrite of every aspect of Town of Vienna zoning.  But, as of now, there’s no actual detailed plan for how they are going to go about that.  All the things that favor our pro-development Planning and Zoning department have already been granted — ever aspect of zoning is up for grabs, and there’s a quarter-million dollars to hire the consultant of choice.  But all the things that might put in some “checks and balances” are still in the process of development.  And that development will be done in private, using meetings structured to avoid triggering Virginia open meeting requirements.  And I think that, a year and a half to two years from now, Town Council will be take a yes-or-no vote on whatever package of changes Planning and Zoning develops.

If you think this is going to come out well, for those of us who wanted to moderate the size and density of MAC buildings, you are welcome to think that.  But I don’t.  I think we’ve lost.

See you next year, I guess.  This is my last blog post for 2019.  I may reshuffle and reorganize some content on this site in the coming weeks.  Repost some older stuff.  But there will be no more new content this year.