Review of the 10/4/2018 Town Council work session

Posted on October 5, 2018

At some small risk of sacrilege, I will subtitle this one “An Appeal to Saint Jude”.

I attended the Town Council’s 10/4/2018 work session where they reviewed the revised plans for 444 Maple Avenue West.  Though, honestly, sitting here this morning, I’m not sure why I bothered.

Here’s what I think I learned.  Five Town Council members will vote for every MAC project, no matter what.  Two won’t.  Everything else is detail.  Until the Town Council changes, every MAC project that complies with the law will be approved.

The problem isn’t the developer.  To be honest, at the end of the day, I had more or less nothing but respect for the developer.  He’s just a businessman going competently about his business.  The problem is the Town Council.   Five of them want Maple to be a clone of Falls Church’s Broad Street.  So that’s what we’re going to get.

Let me plow through this anyway.

There were maybe 40 people in attendance, more or less.  The Town appeared to be prepared for full riot mode, because they had at least two uniformed Town of Vienna police officers there.  That said, I’m pretty sure this was a good crowd for a work session, because I saw Councilman Noble turn around and count the crowd.

Councilman Springsteen pretty much summed it up for me in his first comment.   This is still a massive building for Vienna, at our busiest intersection, and it gives us that “Falls Church effect”, because it’s right next to the road.

Similarly, Councilman Majdi noted that buildings last 75 years or so.  If they build this, right next to the road, they’ve locked in that Maple/Nutley intersection, in its current form, for that length of time.

While I appreciated both comments, and believe them to be both correct and material, I think it’s a little late in the game for that.  MAC practically mandates putting the buildings smack up against the road.  It more-or-less requires a “Falls Church effect”, that is, a road flanked by tall buildings, with only a small portion of the sky visible from street level.  The only way to avoid turning Maple Avenue into a clone of Broad Street in Falls Church is to make material changes in the law.  Which this Town Council will not do.

So, I think these comments were absolutely correct. And absolutely nothing will change despite that.

Councilman Noble, to his credit, sort-of called the developer out on the new renderings (pictures) of the buildings, what I termed “architecture porn” in the writeup linked above.  They were done with “forced perspective”.  Like a fisheye lens, to some extent.  What he did not say is that this hides the size of the buildings.  But I’ll give him credit for pointing out the perspective issue.

Then a lot was said.  But I only learned a handful of new information that I would not have known simply by looking at the revised plans (linked above).  Let me see if I can get that down without editorializing too much.

  • The revised building loses 12,000 square feet of apartment space.  The count of apartments will fall from 160 to 151.  So the density falls from 58 units/acre to 55 units/acre.  Not a material change, from my standpoint.  .
  • The facades will have more variation now.  Per the builder, the idea was to make this look like several different buildings.  I don’t think that’s even remotely plausible.  Plus, disguising the fact it’s a big building doesn’t change the fact that it’s a big building.
  • Looks like they finally figure out that noise is a problem If I heard that right, the two small plazas added to the design will have low noise barriers (“hard seating”) between the road and the plaza.
  • It looks like the developer will win on the issue of not spending $5M to eliminate two power poles on Maple.   At least, that’s my take on it.  He did his due diligence with Virginia Power, and yeah, it’s as expensive and difficult as he said.  And, seriously, while the Mayor seems obsessed with this, does the average resident really care?  I think the Town is making an expensive hash out of burying the power lines by doing it piecemeal on both sides of the road.  And we’ll get to pay for it.  But in any case, I think the world has a better use for $5M than spending it to get rid of two telephone poles.
  • The “transportation demand management” proposal was finally laid out.  Here’s how that will work.  Based on national averages for this type of building (“ITE trip rates”), they’ll project how many car trips they expect residents to make.  How good an estimate that is, I don’t know.  Then, they’ll set a goal of 25% below that value.  They’ll work to get people to use public transit.  They’ll measure actual car trips.  How they were going to measure that  was not stated.  If they don’t meet that goal of being 25% below the predicted value, something will happen, but nobody said what.  They also committed to keeping a shuttle running to Metro for at least a year.   This may be some sort of standard approach, but as you can probably guess from my writeup, I don’t think much of it.  Possibly I’ll write up a page about that.
  • There was a long discussion about extending the left turn lanes (Maple West to Nutley South, Nutley North to Maple West).  The one thing I learned is that, based on their traffic study, the lights could be timed better.  Either that’s just a difference of opinion, or the Town has let that light remain poorly timed for decades.  Also, the planned extension of the turn lane on Maple will block entrances to some of the shops, but … it’s not clear anybody cares enough about that to stop it.  They also talked about giving pedestrians a few seconds’ head start across the intersection.
  • Councilman Majdi raised the issue of people getting frustrated with trying to turn left, out of the building, across Maple.  Was there anything they could do to make it easier to turn left.   I didn’t hear anything useful.
  • The developer confirmed, several times, that he would not consider building a three-story building. 

So here’s how I sum this up.  Every property along Maple has an approved MAC proposal.  The developers just have to file it.  As long as it’s legal, it’s going to pass.

All that noise that certain council members spouted at the last Town Council meeting — how critical and sincere and important the MAC “statement of intent” is  — that was just so much sanctimonious and hypocritical posturing.  If citizens of the Town of Vienna are dumb enough to swallow that, then we get what we deserve.  Because those Town Council members checked that box off at the last meeting.  And here, it was back to business as usual.

The fact is, we started with a building 61′ tall, footprint bigger than a football field, standing 20′ off Maple, with 160 apartments, .  We ended with … ditto … but standing 21′ off Maple, with 151 apartments.

The enclosed volume of the building is about twice as large as the largest structure currently on Maple (the Giant Food shopping center building).  It’s a little chunk of the Falls Church commercial canyon, brought to you by your Town Council.

I’ll end this with a quotes from the MAC statement of intent, and from the Maple Avenue Vision (a document that appears to have been removed from the Town of Vienna website.)

“The zone is intended to ensure that development along the corridor promotes Vienna’s small-town character and does not compromise the character of residential neighborhoods abutting the corridor.”

“It ensures that the corridor will continue to maintain and promote Vienna’s small- town character …”
” …architecture that is consistent with Vienna’s small- town identity.”
“The MAC is specifically designed to maintain our small-town integrity …”
“Protecting our small- town character is of the utmost importance, …”

If only that were true.