Yesterday’s Sun Gazette and thoughts on a survey of Vienna residents, 7/27/2018

Posted on July 27, 2018

It’s no secret that the Sun-Gazette is strongly pro-developer.  Every editorial regarding this current MAC zoning controversy has them wagging their finger at the Town of Vienna, warning of the vague-yet-dire consequences if Vienna does not allow 444 Maple West to be built as proposed.

Yesterday’s Sun-Gazette editorial had a new twist:  They implied (with absolutely no evidence to back it up) that the Town is evenly split on this issue.  The last Town Council meeting had 53 citizens speak, all of whom opposed 444 Maple West.  The Sun-Gazette suggested that citizens were “maybe evenly divided” on this issue (and were subsequently called out on that).  While I think that was just a standard propaganda tactic, I have to admit that I don’t have any hard data to back up my opinion either.  Possible there is a silent majority in favor of redevelopment.  At this point, nobody knows.

I think somebody should step up and remedy this situation.  We need a fair assessment of what residents of Vienna think about MAC redevelopment.

The Town does have some survey data, but the questions were “motherhood and apple pie” softball questions.  They were not realistic questions about actual changes to the downtown.  I describe the relevant sections of the Town’s two surveys (residents and businesses) here.  The responses to those questions really provide no information about how the citizens feel about the actual changes MAC zoning will create.

I’ve thought a bit about ways to do a more realistic survey.  The key point is that they all require taking a realist view of MAC zoning.  If you can’t present people with realistic alternatives (e.g., allow MAC zoning or pay higher property taxes), you can’t get a useful assessment of opinion.

It’s not clear that the Town, officially, can make a realistic assessment of MAC zoning.  At this point, they appear to be pretty much in the mode of  “selling” MAC to the citizenry.  In yesterday’s Sun-Gazette, for example, the Mayor continued to describe MAC zoning  as “small town”, when, objectively, the resulting buildings are anything but small-town.  And the Town has yet to produce any estimate of the likely long-run impact of MAC redevelopment on Maple Avenue traffic.  Probably the Town thinks that admitting there will be more traffic is more-or-less political suicide.  If so, the Town isn’t capable of fielding a realistic survey.

What are some ways to get a realistic assessment of the average citizen’s opinion about Maple Avenue redevelopment?  I see several aspects of this that need to be addressed.

How will it look?  This is probably the easiest one to address.  We can just show them pictures of the current downtown, and realistic assessments of what MAC buildings will look like, and ask what they would prefer.  This is not intrinsically different from my “small town” survey.

What will it do to traffic?  The idea that traffic will not increase with MAC redevelopment is just not credible.  So far, the Town has done some hand-waving about “walkability“, and about the benefits of closing curb cuts (my analysis is halfway down this page).   As far as I can tell, those are both fig leaves, and are there to fuzzy-up the reality of more traffic on Maple.  For sure, neither of them amounts to a quantitative estimate of future traffic.

What will happen to taxes with and without it?  As I note here, the only thing that appears consistent about MAC is that it seemed geared toward maximizing the Town’s tax revenues.  The amount of potential tax revenue from MAC redevelopment is quite large, compared to the Town budget.  If we make the (heroic) assumption that Town government spending will be the same with or without MAC, town taxes paid by existing residents should be less if MAC goes through than if it doesn’t.

What will happen to Vienna retail with and without it?  Without it, I believe the consensus answer is “nothing”.  There’s no particular reason for (e.g.) the strip shopping centers along Maple to fold.  The big unknown is what will happen with it.  The architectural standards are geared toward generic “upscale retail” (high ceilings, glass front and back wall).  Would the citizens be happier with our current garden-variety retail (dry cleaners, barbershops, nail salons …) or would we be happier with upscale national chains.  A further consideration is the fate of the small locally-owned businesses currently in those spaces.  E.g., will Tequila Grande, unique to Vienna, be replaced by Chilis or Olive Garden, and does anyone in Vienna care one way or the other about that.

Schools, apartments, affordable housing, and other aspects.  Schools are really Fairfax County’s problem, from a cost standpoint, but an influx of school-age children would result in crowding of the relevant schools.  I’ve heard sentimetns that apartment dwellers are not “invested” in the Town and so are less involved.  (Again, with no evidence to back that up).  I’ve addressed affordable  housing elsewhere.

Where to go from here.  First, surveys do not have to be expensive in the modern world.  For example, for gathering responses on-line, SurveyMonkey charges about a dollar per survey.  Second, the expensive part is getting a random sample of Town of Vienna residents to respond to such a survey.  Third, the difficult part is writing the questions to be as neutral and fact-based as possible.  To some degree, the answers you get depend on how you ask the question, and good surveys work very hard at making sure that the respondents have no idea what answer the survey sponsor is looking for.

I don’t have a good answer yet, as to how I am going to do this survey.  But I can see that we need one, and I don’t think the Town government can do it.  Likely, there will be a direct-mail (post-card) appeal to a random sample of Town of Vienna residents, asking them to respond on-line to a survey hosted by SurveyMonkey.  An alternative is to mail out paper-copy surveys, but that’s vastly more work (and will not allow (e.g.) pictures of different downtown districts to be displayed well).  Finally, if I could get permission, I could literally hand out invitations at neutral locations around town (e.g., in front of a grocery store).  That also seems implausible, and subject to possible bias.