Review of the 8/20/2018 Town Council Meeting

Posted on August 21, 2018

First a summary of the facts, then detail on the facts and my take on the meeting.

In brief:  No vote was taken regarding 444 Maple West.  Instead, there may be a vote at the October 15 Town Council meeting.  The delay is to allow the builder to come up with a revised plan.  There will NOT be any opportunity for public comment on the revised proposal.  Meanwhile, at the next Town Council meeting (9/17/2018), the Town Council will suspend the MAC zoning ordinance for a few months while they develop “visual design guidelines” for MAC.

My take, in brief:   The Mayor thinks a MAC makeover — changes in how the buildings look, with no changes in the substance of the law — is going to fix the future of MAC zoning.  I disagree.  One of us will be wrong.  Either way, the Town Council plans to forge ahead with some modified version of the 444 Maple West proposal at the October 15, 2018 October 29, 2018 Town Council meeting.

Detail follows.  Warning:  Contains potentially objectionable satire.

The August 20, 2018 meeting was well-attended, with more-or-less every seat taken and a modest overflow crowd watching video feed in the adjoining hallway.  Each Town Council member made a lengthy statement at the outset.  The 444 Maple West proposal was characterized by Councilman Springsteen as “the most divisive issue in the Town of Vienna in the past 20 years.”

Now, I think that’s a mischaracterization, if by “divisive” you mean a split within the Vienna citizenry.  So far, I believe I have heard exactly one person stand up in a public meeting and speak in favor of 444 Maple West.  And, at this point, going-on-100 who have spoken out against it.  The signature count of two look-alike petitions tells a similar story — more than 1000 against, versus 9 for.  (I believe the Town referred to this as “… 99 letters and two petitions”, which, if true, is an outstanding act of false equivalence.)  So, rather than being divisive, this actually seems to have united the townspeople — against the Town Council.   The only divide that I see is between what the Town Council has championed, and what the citizens want.  To be clear, I don’t think fisticuffs are breaking out among the townspeople over this.

The Mayor more-or-less started the meeting by saying that the Town intends to suspend MAC zoning pending further review.  This was phrased as a change to the agenda.  And then, legally, carried out that way.  The review will be to develop “visual design guidelines”.  The formal, legal proceedings to do that — to suspend further MAC applications for between 120 and 270 days — will take place at a joint meeting of the Town Council and the Planning Commission on September 17th.

On at least four separate occasions, Councilman Majdi asked the Mayor whether they would review and change the actual substance of MAC, instead of merely the look of the buildings.  And four separate times, the Mayor did not reply.  She didn’t say no, she sure didn’t say yes, she just ignored the question.  Four times.

There were several references to trust, and to us all being in this together.  If the Town Council wonders why a lot of citizens don’t trust them on this, start by examining that interaction.  Because it encapsulates much of the evasion and “bait and switch” that has characterized MAC zoning from the outset.  It was a straightforward question:  Shouldn’t we look at the substance of MAC, not just the “visual design guidelines”?  But the Mayor apparently didn’t want to go on record with a simple, straightforward “no”.  And so, because the motion was for “visual design guidelines” only,  in practice, the silence was a NO with regard to addressing the actual substance of MAC.  But the Mayor avoided going on the record saying that clearly.

So, I award two points for being being an adept politician.  The Mayor managed to dodge that question and still get what she wanted.  But for those who were paying attention, she further undermined the credibility of the Town Council as a whole.  A simple “no”  would have made the situation clear.  But she went way out of her way to keep the situation as muddled as possible.  To me, that’s the hallmark of the Town’s discussion of MAC zoning.

Councilman Noble tried to split the difference on that.  He suggest that changes to the MAC regulations would come out of “the back end” of this review of how the buildings look.

I’m still undecided on whether he had a valid point or not.  Let me give an example.

Councilwoman Bloch is clearly a supporter of MAC zoning.  But she criticized the lack of green space in the 444 Maple West proposal.  (As did at least one other Council member).  But as I have shown in black-and-white, the law as written does not actually require any significant open space.

So, what’s it going to be?  Are you going to complain about the lack of open space,  realize that the lack of open space is baked into the law, and then not change the law?  That’s ineffective at best.  Let me say this as clearly as I can:  If you want green space in these MAC projects, then CHANGE THE LAW so that it … wait for it  … actually requires green space.  To do anything else is just nonsensical.  Otherwise, the entirety of the green space plan is to complain to the builder about it, when he does exactly what the law motivates him to do.

Similarly, the Mayor finally appears to have woken up to how useless the planned “plaza” in front of 444 Maple West is.  It’s a small space directly adjacent to Maple and Nutley, and as I demonstrated empirically, it’s way too noisy to be a pleasant location for socializing.  So she too had some pleading to do with the builder — make it bigger, add some landscaping.  But she too refused to connect the dots between MAC zoning as written, and the builder’s proposal.  So I’ll say it again:  If you want an actual usable public plaza in these MAC projects, then CHANGE THE LAW so that it actually requires that.  Haranguing the builder for doing exactly what the law incentivizes him to do is just the worst possible public policy.

Two Councilmen — Majdi and Springsteen — called for a complete overhaul of MAC zoning.  But instead, the Mayor foreclosed any possibility of real change in MAC for the time being.  To sum it up:  This is “the most divisive issue in Vienna for 20 years”.  The 444 Maple West proposal has some large and obvious flaws directly related to the MAC zoning law.  So we are going to make sure that we change nothing of substance in that law.  But we’ll survey the citizens regarding how they’d prefer the facades of the buildings to look. And that was decided, by the Mayor (and others?), in advance of the meeting, and simply announced at the outset.

If the Town Council wonders why they have lost some citizens’ trust on this issue, just reflect on that sequence of events.

Here are the things that stuck with me.

This is “the most divisive issue in 20 years” in the Town of Vienna.  So said Councilman Springsteen.  At this point, you’ve got just shy of 1000 Vienna residents having signed a petition against 444 Maple West.  Seriously, we only have about 12000 adults living in the Town.  That’s a huge fraction of the population.  To the extent that there is some significant divide, it’s not within the townspeople.  It’s between the citizens and the Town Council.

Town Councilmembers played quite a bit of “blame the developer” on that issue.  There was “a lack of outreach”, and so on.  But that strikes me as more-or-less missing the point.  My observation is that the more people learn about MAC zoning, the more they object to it.  If the developer had explained in detail what he was proposing, to a broader audience, all that would have done is gotten even more people up in arms.   The developer absolutely did the right thing, from his perspective, in NOT going out of his way to try to make his case.  The problem isn’t that the citizens of Vienna somehow don’t understand something about that proposal.  The problem is the proposal itself.

Most cringe-worthy moment:  The Mayor’s obsession with putting the power lines underground.  I never thought I’d feel sympathy for the developer.  This is, after all, a business deal.  But as a businessman myself, I’ve had to deal with my share of squirrelly clients.  So, honest-to-goodness, when the Mayor started in on putting a long-distance power transmission line underground (the line running along Nutley), I really felt sympathy for the developer   As near as I can recall,  it had been decided that this was not the developer’s problem.  And surely it should not be.  But now the Town was bringing this up again.  I believe the phrase “deal breaker” was mentioned at least once.  The developer then went on about the difficulty, cost and history of this — at considerable length.  In the course of that, he said that he regretted not having gotten the Town’s decision on this “in writing”.   (Let me tell you, as a businessman, that’s as close as you will ever hear to the developer ever calling anyone a liar.)

I felt sorry for the guy.  The Town has no business asking him to do this.  And no business leaving it hanging like this, if it is “a deal-breaker” as characterized.

To be clear, I’d love to see 444 Maple West torpedoed.  I don’t want it here.  But to yank this guy’s chain over this issue?  To turn a blind eye to the cost and the hassle?  So we can put what — something like 200′ of high-voltage lines under ground — with absolutely no intention of ever putting the rest of the utility lines along Nutley underground?  To avoid having two power poles on Maple?  I can’t see that on a cost/benefit basis.  That’s somebody making a decision to have no power poles on Maple, and sticking with that, no matter what.

Or there is some other reason for bringing this up again.  I see only two options.  One, the Mayor really is obsessed over this point, and really is willing to spend $5M-ish (of somebody else’s money), and tear up the entire Maple and Nutley intersection, merely to get two power poles out of the way.  So any notion of the value (cost/benefit tradeoff) has gone out the window.  Or two, she’s a crafty politician, and is setting this issue up to give her an option for voting against 444 Maple West in October.   It’s a “deal-breaker”.  So that, if public sentiment continues to run strongly against 444 Maple West, which she has championed, she can use this as an excuse to do a 180 at the last minute.

It’s tough to say.  But whatever it is, I’m not seeing a lot of rational, linear, straightforward thinking here.  Is it really worth umpty-million-dollars and maybe weeks of traffic tie-ups to get rid of one set of power lines running across Maple?  Particularly when we have no plan for getting rid of the rest of them?  Why don’t we have the guy build us a heliport on the roof, while we’re at it?  It would probably cost less, and would have just about as much immediate benefit to the people of Vienna.

I’ll address this in a separate post on the obsession with “undergrounding” utilities, the value versus cost of that.  Apparently, it’s already going to cost about $1.5M just to put 450′ of standard streetside power lines underground.  Why doesn’t somebody — oh, I don’t know, do the math maybe — and figure out the cost of doing this for both sides of the entire length of MAC-zonable Maple?  (It’s about $30M, taking the builder’s figure.  Somebody will have to pay for it.  We really need to ask whether that’s the best possible use of $30M.  But I’ll do up a separate page on that issue.)

Purely strangest moment:  Had to be when the Mayor started dictating, line-by-line, how she expected the builder to revise his plans.  And I mean line-by-line, unit-by-unit.  This corner here, do that.  That corner there, do the other.  No, not that corner, the other corner.  Lower the building over the existing arcades.  The landscaping on the front needs to change thus-and-so.  Move the front of the building back and make the plaza larger.

I mean, by the time we got to the third or fourth or fifth or sixth line-item, you just has to say, what the what?  This is what the Mayor is focusing on?

Maybe that was planned in advance, and her job among Town council was to dictate the detailed changes that they wanted.  On the other hand, if that was really the extent of her comments, then that’s worrisome.  The job calls for directing things at a much more abstract level.   The Mayor doesn’t need to be telling the developer what to do with each corner of the building.  So that was just bizarre, to have that laundry list of changes, in the middle of this meeting.

The Town of Vienna is, at root, a medium-sized business with an operating budget of around $23M/year and something like 150 employees.  And we are talking about a building that the Town thinks will be worth about $45M, and I think will be worth about $75M if built.  Does it really make sense for the Chairman of the Board CEO of a company with $23M in annual operating revenues to spend her time working out how she thinks that building should be “fixed”?  In detail?  In public?

MAC zoning is a process that has now broken down for two of the first three proposals.  Marco Polo was turned down and went back to the drawing board.  And now 444 West Maple is in limbo.  And the Mayor’s response is to 1) foreclose on any change to the substance of MAC, and b) dictate the fine details of how 444 Maple West should look.  This does not have the feel of sound governance to me.

Most important moment:  Without a doubt, the four times that Councilman Majdi asked the Mayor to expand the review of “”visual design guidelines” to a substantive review of MAC itself.  And the four times the Mayor offered no response.

The point being, the vehement reaction from the public on 444 Maple West was not just about how it LOOKED, it was about how it will WORK.  Councilman Majdi got it, Councilman Springsteen got it, Councilman Noble maybe kind-of got it.  But the rest of them really did not get the basic message.

Councilman Majdi seems to have his act together on this.  Not necessarily because I agree with him.  But because he digs out the facts.  I had stayed away from Town Council members because I could not determine whom I could trust.  But I not only agree with Majdi, he brings up important fact-based items that I could not have identified on my own.

For one thing, he actually gets the height of 444 Maple  West right.   Which may seem like a small thing, but so many of those in the Town just can’t quite seem to state the actual height of the building.  It’s just over 61′ above mean grade, at the highest parapets.  And at the highest point, from the actual ground surface, the parapets are ~68′ above ground at the lowest point on Nutley, as Councilman Majdi said.  I know he’s right because I took the time to measure that off the plans.  As did he, apparently.

So if the Town wonders how “we” can work together, and how “we” can restore trust, a good first step would be … stop prevaricating about the height of the buildings.  Stop trying to tell people that 444 Maple West is 54′ tall.  That  happened at the last Planning Commission meeting.  And, at this Town Council meeting, we had yet a different Town Councilmember insist that the MAC buildings are 54′ tall.  If you’re going to insist that the building pictured below — 444 Maple West, from the developer’s proposal — is 54′ tall, and then wonder why “we” don’t trust you, you’re just being foolish.

We don’t trust you because, from our point of view, MAC zoning so far has just been one big exercise in bait-and-switch.  And prevarication.  And fuzzy-thinking.  Of which, the 54′ building height is just a symptom.  So I’ll put together yet another page laying out the bait-and-switch issue in detail.

In particular, I have been exposing some parts of MAC as just window-dressing, Councilman Majdi exposed additional elements of MAC as … just window-dressing.  This includes the storm water management and the recycling.  Both of which the developer gets credit for under MAC.  Both of which are either required, or are standard business practices.

On the storm water management:  If Councilman Majdi is right — and I’d bet on that — the storm water management practices dictated by MAC are no more stringent than what the County requires anyway.   They are just window dressing and they give the developer “credit” for doing what he’d have to do anyway to comply with County regulations.

I believe that — without having done my homework yet — because one of the things the builder could get credit for is a storm water retention tank (cistern) of at least 500 gallons.  I had to laugh at that, because I have 480 gallons of “storm water retention” at my house.  They are called “rain barrels”.  So 500 gallons, on a property that size, is a drop in the bucket.

The interesting thing here was how hard the Town Planner fought back against that — by fuzzying-up the issue.  The County doesn’t require any one thing, they have a menu of options, so you can’t say that MAC doesn’t impose a requirement.  She didn’t take Majdi’s comment thoughtfully, but instead pretty much leaped to a defense of MAC-as-written.  But Majdi wasn’t putting up with that.  His firmly stated opinion is that MAC is no more stringent than the pre-existing County requirements that the building must meet in any case.

I’d bet he’s right, and I’m going to make that one of my items to research.  So that’s yet another item in MAC that looks good — looks like it benefits the Town — but actually does nothing.

On recycling, the developer gets credit for having some on-site recycling bin.  Councilman Majdi pointed out that this is just standard practice these days.  I see now that Fairfax County requires it, everywhere.

From my perspective, the most disappointing moment belongs to Councilwoman Bloch.  She actively argued for not looking at the bigger picture.  She literally made the argument that because we can’t know exactly what the future will bring … we should not plan for it.  So that, e.g., we should not try to estimate the long-run effects of MAC.

I’ve seen that sort of thinking before, and it’s just not logical.  “Your assumptions about the future might be wrong.”  That’s true.  And people who say that, they think they avoid being wrong because they have not made any estimate about what the future will bring.  But that’s simply false.  In fact, they are making an assumption about the future, just a really bad one.  It’s an assumption of zero — zero additional fill-in-the-blank from future MAC development.  That’s what you assume if you turn a blind eye to the long-run impact.  And whatever you may think of my projections of the future under MAC, I’m pretty sure that an assumption of zero additional change is guaranteed to be wrong.

For traffic, in particular, you’ll just miss the point if you don’t look at all of this new development as a whole.  As with 444 Maple West, each individual building adds just a few more trips to the already-crowded arterial highway we call Maple Avenue.  Each individual building can then rightly say, traffic is not our fault.  But line Maple with buildings like 444 Maple West, and traffic will become materially worse.   Not looking at this as a whole — all the development, now and in the future — is just not responsible government.

Which brings me to my final point for today, traffic.  There was an extended discussion on traffic, but my takeaway was the following:  The reason the developer could show that the building would have no material impact on traffic was that the Maple/Nutley intersection is already just about as bad as it gets.  Councilman Majdi tried to focus in on that by asking whether the current status of the intersection — either an E or an F, I didn’t catch which — was as bad as it gets.  In other words, did the additional traffic not downgrade the performance of the intersection because, on the grading scale, there was no worse grade it could get?   I didn’t quite catch the answer to that question.

Anyway, that seemed to be the gist of it, expressed many different times over the course of the discussion:  Traffic there is so bad already, another 5% increase  (1449 trips, on a road segment that handles 29,000 on a weekday) did not much matter, as traffic engineers reckon these things.  Apparently it  might make some difference to the left-turn-lane from Maple to Nutley southbound (I think).

(Councilman Noble is a national expert on transportation issues, and his discussion went way over my head.  I’m going to have to get educated just to figure out what some of last night’s discussion was about.)

But that gets back to my point about the long run.  Just imagine four of these buildings, one at each corner of the Maple/Nutley intersection.  Kind of like this picture that the Town Council was looking at back in 2010.

Each such building, individually, will be able to repeat the traffic analysis that 444 Maple West just did.  Each time, the traffic engineers will probably give the same answer:  another 5% addition to bad traffic does not make it materially worse.  Does that mean that we should ignore that cumulative 20% addition to traffic?  No, clearly not.  And does it mean that we should ignore the potential for a 20% addition to traffic, at that intersection, by never looking to the future?  My answer remains, no, we really have to think about that possibility.  And I still think that’s preferable to the Town Council’s current approach, which is to say, in effect, we can’t be sure that the other buildings we drew there will actually go up — so don’t worry about the future.