Review of the July 30 Planning Commission meeting.

Posted on July 31, 2018

On the schedule:

Wednesday, August 8, 8 PM, Town Hall:  Planning Commission meeting for further discussion of proposed MAC amendments.  This is a continuation of the public hearing and citizens are invited to speak briefly about their concerns.

Monday, August 20, 8 PM, Town Hall:  Town Council hearing that should determine the fate of the 444 Maple West proposal (for now), and will also have a public hearing regarding proposed changes to MAC zoning.  The public may speak about those changes, but not about 444 Maple West.

The Planning Commission met July 30.  Most of the time was spent taking public comments on proposed changes to Maple Avenue Commercial zoning.

The meeting was well-attended.  My estimate is that somewhere between 80% and 90% of the seats were filled and that somewhere around 30 people spoke.   As with the prior Town Council meeting on this subject, no one from the public spoke in favor of MAC zoning.

I’ll try to condense the comments that stuck with me.

The main focus of comments was on the proposal to have a limit on density,  that is, housing units per acre.  Many people went so far as to recommend a number.   Nobody recommended as number as high as the Town staff recommendation (50/acre).  My plea was that they set it below the level that developers were comfortable with, and use that in conjunction with a true affordable housing program.

Many people urged the Town to figure out the long-term consequences of MAC zoning, particularly on traffic but also on infrastructure, taxes, and the schools.  In fact, the initial speaker set the tone by giving estimates of population growth the Town would get from just the first few MAC projects.  Several also suggested that now that the Town was in the business of determining the amount of retail space, they needed some informed estimate of how much retail Vienna could support.   They needed some way to estimate what the “right” amount of retail is, and they need input from current retail businesses.

Town staff presentation also showed wide variation in density across mixed-use developments in this area, and noted that none of the other mixed-use development efforts in the area had a density limit.   In the end, with regard to a density limit, I think an offhand comment by one Planning Commission member summed it up best:  We don’t have enough information to make a good, informed decision about what the right number might be.

As an aside, Town staff presentation drove home why I was confused about the Town’s take on walkability.   Indeed, the presentation said that “walkable” mixed-used development generates less traffic.  What it did not say that adding mixed-use development to Maple would generate more traffic on Maple.   Just not as much more as you might expect, based on current residents’ travel patterns.  I already worked this out for myself on my walkability page.  At least now I know why I was confused.  Unless you listen closely to exactly what was and was not said, you’d come away with the (incorrect) impression that mixed-use development (added to Maple Avenue) would reduce traffic (on Maple Avenue) — which makes no sense at all.

There was one comment on the schools that stuck with me.  Up to now, I had mentally dismissed the school crowding issue as being a problem for Fairfax County.  Fairfax runs the school system, it’s their problem.  But one father of young children changed my mind on that.  He pointed out that Vienna schools are all over capacity now, and that Fairfax has already said they need to adjust school boundaries throughout the county.

The likely result of adding a large number of additional children in Vienna would redistricting to send more Vienna kids to schools outside of Vienna.  In effect, by adding more people to Maple, we would fracture Vienna from the standpoint of school districts.  For me, it’s tough to think of any single change that was less conducive to maintaining the small-town atmosphere of Vienna.

With regard to the proposed wording changes about the retail spaces (“locally owned”, “small business”, “community-serving”, and so on), there were several comments to the effect of “sounds good, but there is absolutely no way you can enforce that”.   One commenter explained at length what happened in the prior mixed-use building put up by the 444 Maple West developer.  In getting the proposal passed, the developer talked about all the various types of delightful upscale retail and restaurant businesses that would occupy the retail space.   But once built, what they actually got was a low-end cafe, some offices, a yoga studio, and similar establishments.  The end result is a nothing like the vision that sold the building.

There were several comments on the new rule requiring developers to report on the likely fiscal costs and benefits to the Town.  Comments were all along the same lines:  Don’t let the developers report this without some reality check.  Either have Town staff do it, have Town staff check it in some uniform way, or require developers to use a trusted third party — some Town-certified contractor or contractors — to do the analysis.  By the end, I think the option of having a trusted contractor was the most favored.

Some of the history of MAC came out in this meeting.  What struck me is that nobody thought of MAC as a housing ordinance.  They expected “mixed use” to be a floor of retail, a floor of office, and then two floors of housing.  One comment was that nobody expected it to bring lots of housing up and down Maple Avenue.  So what they are getting now — proposals driven by and focused on housing — really is not at all what they expected when they put MAC together. 

In the end, there were several suggestions from commenters that trying to patch MAC piecemeal was not the right approach.  It really needed to be rethought.  One Commissioner voiced an opinion that they ought to recommend a moratorium on further MAC development until this could be sorted out.  This got a round of applause from the remaining audience.  It was then duly noted that only the Town Council could impose such a change — that was beyond the scope of what the Planning Commission could do.