Post #415: Survey

The Town would like to survey Vienna residents to get their opinion about key aspects of Maple Avenue development.   See the relevant section of Post #413 for the writeup of that.  I applaud the fact that the Town is going to do such a survey.

But the Town is just asking for trouble in how they have chosen to go about that.  It’s a real drag to have to say that.  But what I’m going to say here needs to be said, by somebody.  Even though people are not going to like it, and I will be accused of being a mean person for saying it.

Well, tough.

Continue reading Post #415: Survey

Index to Town Council 2-25-2019 Video, posted 2-26-2019

As you can read in my just-prior posting, the Town surprised me by posting the video from last night’s meeting in a very timely fashion.  For those of you who would rather not watch the entire video, here’s my “index” of the video.  It’s an Excel workbook (.xls) showing times within the Town meeting video, and my brief notes for what was being said at that time, by whom.  You can scan it for items of interest, then go to the video to see what was said.

2019-02-25 Town Council meeting, index to video

Use this along with the Town’s video.  You can find the Town’s video at this link.  On my computer, the only browser that will play the video is Chrome.

I suppose that, because I did the work, I can use this index to point out a few things.  Please keep in mind that times are approximate, and may be off by a few seconds here or there.
Continue reading Index to Town Council 2-25-2019 Video, posted 2-26-2019

Visual preference survey comments analysis tool, 2/16/2019

At the 2/13/2019 Planning Commission (PC) meeting, it was clear that the PC had expected Town staff to analyze, or at least categorize, the comments that were part of the Town’s Visual Preference survey.  E.g., how many people mentioned parking as an issue, that sort of thing.  That appeared to be part of the original plan.  But Town staff dismissed the idea.  Just won’t do it, plain and simple.

So I will. Continue reading Visual preference survey comments analysis tool, 2/16/2019

What do the citizens of Vienna want, 2/8/2019

The Town is, in theory, in the process of revising the guidelines for the look of MAC buildings.  It’s not clear what this is supposed to accomplish, because, first and foremost, these are guidelines.  They aren’t zoning law.  They are voluntary.

But the Town did its visual preference survey, and now they are going interpret the resulting chicken entrails as if they have found out something about what the citizens of Vienna want.  As I have noted, it’s tough to get any information whatsoever out of a visual preference survey.  Doubly so when your survey uses pictures of cute little buildings that have nothing to do with the reality of these large MAC housing projects. Continue reading What do the citizens of Vienna want, 2/8/2019

Two months into the MAC moratorium, an update 11/20/2018

Background on the MAC moratorium

At the 9/17/2018 Town Council meeting, the Town Council voted to suspend any further acceptance of MAC rezoning applications until (probably) after the next Town election in May 2019.  You can see my write up of that here.  In addition to the three projects that had already been submitted, two more were submitted prior to the moratorium deadline, and it appears essentially certain that the Town will approve both of those additional projects. Continue reading Two months into the MAC moratorium, an update 11/20/2018

Visual Preference Survey. Any color you want, as long as it’s black, 10/11/2018

Or, in the case of the Town of Vienna, you can choose any building you want, as long as it’s at least four stories tall.  Just below are the pictures you would be asked to rate if you took the portion of the Town’s “Visual Preference Survey” relating to building size and appearance.  Note that every picture has a four-story building.

There are a lot of other things questionable about this method.  You can see an overview on my other page on visual preference surveys.

But if the Town Council still wonders why we don’t trust them, just refer to their survey.  Sure, we can have any color.  As long as it’s black.

The lesson here is that when the Town of Vienna said this:
” … a collection of photos of mixed-use buildings, up to four stories tall, …”

What they actually meant was this:
” … a collection of photos of mixed-use buildings, all at least four stories tall, …”

Once again, if you wonder why many of us no longer trust Town government, just look at what they said (.pdf),  then look at what they actually did.   It sure looks like the Town was afraid to let citizens rate two-story and three-story buildings.  Because that way, they might actually find out what we prefer.   Instead of using this sham “preference” survey as yet another prop for MAC zoning.


Next, if you follow up in detail, then you see that the Town is yet again presenting pictures of cute little buildings in the context of MAC zoning.  Let me just take that first picture (upper left above), and compare it to the reality of 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande proposal.

MAC zoning allows buildings that are up to 62′ tall.  (For example, the towers on the Chick-Fil-A building will, in fact, be 62′ tall).  So, how tall is the first building shown in the Town’s visual preference survey?

That’s easy enough to estimate.  Here’s the first picture in the Town’s survey.  This is 14 South Street in Morristown NJ.

Here’s a couple of estimates of building height, using Foxit PDF reader to measure distances on the photo, and then converting those to an estimate of height.  I assumed the car was 57″ tall (e.g., Toyota Camry, Honda Accord), and that the man was 5’10” tall (average height).  (The building tenants changed between photos, but orient yourself with the pink awning on the right — this is the same building.)

But 444 Maple West — the MAC building to be voted on at the October 29 Town Council meeting — comes in at 61 feet to the highest parapets.  So the actual MAC building is roughly half-again as tall as the building shown above.

But what about the overall size or mass of what the Town is showing, versus actual MAC buildings?  I don’t have the photoshop skills to draw that in, but I can show you the approximate footprint of the building in the Town’s survey, versus 444 Maple West.

The point is, the actual 444 Maple West (Tequila Grande) building that has been proposed would dwarf the building the Town used in its survey.


Heck, let’s use Google Street View to show just how absurd that first streetscape is, as an illustration for MAC.  Let’s start at the building used by the Town, and see how far we would have to walk, to get to the end of the proposed 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande building.

Ready?  Start with the building from the Town on your left, and note the vertical columns of the bank down the street.  Walk on down to that bank.

Are you there yet (below)?   Nope.  Note the church in the distance.  Keep walking on down to that church.

Are you there yet?  Nope.  Note the second church, in the near distance.  Walk on down to that church.

Are you there yet?  Nope.  Note the shops in the near distance.  Walk on down to those shops, and you have finally reached where the end of 444 Maple West would be.

Walk on down there, turn around, and realize you are so far away, you can’t even see where you started.   You can see the churches and the bank.  Where you started from is on the other side of the bank.

Here’s the whole layout using Google Maps 3-D view.  The building that the Town used for its visual preference survey is at the far left (orient yourself with the pink awning).  The building where you ended up in the walk above is at the far right.

At the risk of looking stupid (because I really have zero photoshop skills), here’s what an actual MAC building — 444 Maple West — would look like to scale, in that cityscape.

There is nothing like it in the Town of Vienna today.  When I show you an accurate representation of the length of it, along Maple Avenue (below), I am exaggerating nothing.  Below, the little red blob, in the window at the left — that’s a person, drawn to scale.

And so, exactly as the Town did throughout all of its prior public presentations on MAC zoning, it has depicted pleasant, small, human-scale small-town buildings.   Buildings that are not just smaller, but vastly smaller, than what they are allowing to be built under MAC.

Is it any wonder that the neighbors object to 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande?


Just so you see what I’m talking about, with respect to the Town’s history of doing this, compare these pictures above with the illustrations the Town used in the MAC statute itself.  Again, if Town Council wonders why we feel as if we were fooled by MAC, just compare and contrast the two sets of pictures.  Qualitatively different, I’d say.

If you want further background on visual preference surveys, click here.


Finally, did you notice how beautifully traffic-free the “visual preference survey” pictures are?  I’ve looked up a few of them, and all the ones I’ve found so far are located on low-traffic streets or in suburban shopping centers (as in the top right photograph.)  Yes, the Town is literally holding up a suburban shopping center as a model for the new Town of Vienna.

Again, turning to that first photo, that location has peak rush hour traffic of just under 800 cars per hour (which you can look up here, .pdf, South Street in Morristown.)  The comparable figure for Maple Avenue is just under 2500 cars per hour at the rush hour peak.

If we were actually going to get buildings of the size depicted, on streets with the traffic depicted, I don’t think anyone would be complaining about MAC zoning.  But that’s a fantasy.  And despite being called to task on this very issue, the Town continues to use fantasy illustrations to sell MAC zoning.

Visual Preference Survey, 9/22/2018

On this page, I describe what a “visual preference survey” is, why this matters, and why I don’t have much faith that it will result in material changes in MAC zoning.


At the 9/17/2018 Town Council meeting, there was considerable discussion of what needs to be done during the temporary halt in MAC zoning applications.   I list these items in my review of that meeting.  I would have added a few more (e.g., fix the open-space requirement so that it does something), but all-in-all, the entire list of things made a decent work plan for producing MAC buildings that the citizens would not mind living with.

But when the Mayor spoke, she ignored everything but the “visual preference survey” and the resulting “design guidelines”.  In my experience, that means the Mayor probably isn’t planning to do the rest of the items.  Reinforcing that is the  reporting by the strongly pro-developer Sun Gazette,  which mentioned literally none of the other items on that list, other than the “visual preference survey”.  And the fact that the Town had promised to do a traffic study before, and then reneged on that promise.

As I see it, then, there’s a pretty good chance that the only thing the Town is going to do is this “visual preference survey” and the resulting “design guidelines”.  If that’s right, then until such time as our current pro-MAC councilmembers change their minds, this “visual preference survey” is probably the only citizen input to the changes, if any, in MAC zoning. 

So, plausibly, this is all you’ve got.  If you have an interest in MAC zoning, you need to take this survey once the Town makes it available.  Let me now walk through what this is, and what it can and can’t do.


In a visual preference survey, you will be asked to rate pictures of buildings.   From the perspective of the survey respondent, that’s all there is to it.  Typically, you’d rate how much you like each building on a scale from “hate it” to “love it”, or “inappropriate” to “appropriate”, or some simple numerical scale (1 to 10, say).

Examples are easy enough to find:  SurveyMonkey gives you a sample page of a visual preference survey.   For that one it’s a five-point scale.  Here’s one that illustrates several different types of contrasts.   They can also be done with paired pictures, where you just pick the one you prefer, like  this one or this one.  Here’s an example of what the results could look like.  And I’ll just link to a few more random examples here, here, here, here, and here.

My point with the illustrations above is that “visual preference survey” is not some well-defined method.  It’s a wide-open, anything-goes approach.  Often the main point is not to gather data, but to have “community engagement” in the development, i.e. purely to allow citizens some ill-defined input to the process.

There are several obvious problems and pitfalls in using this approach.  Let me list them out.


First, the design of the survey itself — the choice of pictures, and the rating method — is a black box controlled by Town staff, with input from the Board of Architectural Review (BAR).

Wikipedia lists a quote that more or less sums up the issue:

“when you show citizens stark images of new suburban subdivisions or strip centers versus beautified images from America’s finest small towns, the outcome is predictable and largely meaningless.” 

So, for example, if shown pictures of buildings …

  •  with streets full of traffic in front of them versus empty streets;
  • photographed on sunny days versus buildings photographed on overcast days;
  • with utility lines in front versus utility lines missing;
  • in good repair versus poor repair;

… there’s a good chance that survey respondents will rate the prettier picture higher, regardless of the structure of the building.

The bottom line is that most people end up rating the buildings on overall attractiveness.  A researcher can intentionally or unintentionally bias the results by varying the “prettiness” of the scene with the desired building characteristics.  So, e.g., if shown a series of ugly small buildings and beautiful large buildings, a person who objectively wanted small buildings might be fooled into rating the tall buildings more highly.

To be clear, in a survey using actual pictures of buildings, you may or may not know what the researcher is attempting to measure with any given set of pictures.  For example, a researcher might show you a series of buildings with and without canopies at the entrance door, and you might be rating them on the attractiveness of their color scheme.

This is why some visual preference surveys use computer generated images to isolate the characteristic that they want to you judge.  The more modern approach is NOT to compare pictures of different buildings that vary based on some characteristic, but to use computer-generated or Photoshopped images that vary by a single characteristic at a time.  E.g., if the Town wanted your opinion on building heights, they’d show you pictures of buildings that only varied in height, not in any other way.

It does not sound like the Town of Vienna survey will do that.  The first task appears to be agreeing on a set of pictures with the Board of Architectural Review.

Edit 9/27/2018:  Because of this, I think my minimum due diligence is to audit the survey for balance.  That is, are tall buildings and short buildings depicted in roughly the same way?  Or are the picture of tall buildings “beautiful” and the short buildings “ugly”?

Objectively, there are some commonly used visual cues for “beautiful” and “ugly” urban scenes.

On the ugly side, we would have:

  • Traffic, crowds, people pushing along crowded sidewalks.
  • Overhead power lines.
  • Adults and the elderly.
  • Inclement weather, overcast sky.
  • Dirt, trash, indications of poor repair (e.g., peeling paint).
  • No or sparse landscaping.
  • No pools, fountains, or other water features.
  • Dull color field (browns, blacks, grays).
  • Middle-aged buildings — not new, not old enough to be quaint.

On the beautiful side we would see:

  • Empty streets or little traffic, a few individuals relaxing, eating, etc.
  • No power lines visible.
  • Children and pets.
  • Sunshine and blue sky.
  • No evidence of litter, dirt, or surfaces in need of repair.
  • Abundant green space and blooming flowers.
  • Pools, fountains, and other water features.
  • Bright color field with vibrant colors.
  • New buildings and quaint old buildings.

It will be simple enough to split the pictures of buildings into tall (four story) an and short (3 or fewer stories), and calculate the average rate at which ugly and beautiful clues occur for the two groups of pictures.    This is a perfect little project for crowd-sourcing via Surveymonkey.


Second, the use of the results — how the ratings of the pictures will be translated into a guide, and possibly to changes in MAC zoning law — is a black box controlled by Town staff.  Consumer preference surveys tend to produce modest and often inconsistent differences in the best of times.  What, exactly, will the Town do with that information?

Just think about it for a second and you’ll see what I mean.  Let’s say that, on average, four-floor buildings were rated 0.5 point lower than three-floor buildings, on average, on a scale of 1 to 5.  How, exactly, does that translate into a design guideline?   Would MAC then be changed to allow only three floor buildings?  Would builders get some sort of credit for only building three floors?

There’s no answer to that.  There is no well-defined way to translate ratings into design guidelines or zoning rule changes.  That’s entirely subjective.  So, what the Town actually decides to do with that information is … entirely up to the Town.


Third, the size of the buildings is a big problem for a lot of people, but there won’t be any scales on these pictures.   A “four floor” building can be less than 40 feet tall (typical), or it can be 62 feet tall (as allowed under MAC).  Siting that building 10′ from the curb results in far more of a “canyon” effect than siting it 30′ from the curb.


Fourth, the results will be used to “inform” a set of voluntary guidelines.  For example, even if tall buildings are universally hated, there’s no plan to reduce the maximum building height under MAC.   We will still have the profit motive driving builders to construct the largest building that will fit on the lot.  Compared to that, any “visual guidelines” would be a slender reed, indeed.


Fifth, the technical approach to conducting the survey — inviting people to take it on-line via social media — does not guarantee unbiased results.  E.g., if older residents are less likely to use or respond to social media, and they strongly dislike large buildings, that dislike will be missed under this survey design.  This is a well-known problem with surveys of this type and can lead to significant mis-statement of public opinion even for straightforward yes/no questions.