Recap and some thoughts on strategy, 10/30/2018

Posted on October 30, 2018

So, what did civic involvement with 444 Maple West get us?

My bottom line is that all we did was help the Town of Vienna government do what it wanted to do.  Public protest merely helped the Town extort more out of the developer, while producing more-or-less the same very large building holding a lot of housing units.  We took what was going to be a blight on this neighborhood, and forced the Town, to force the developer, to pretty it up a bit.

When all is said and done, thinking about the long run, I don’t think that was a win.  For the long run, the uglier and more dysfunctional these buildings are, the more we can hope for a change in the broader public sentiment.

So, for the future, maybe the overall strategy needs a re-think.

I got started on this path by talking to members of Vienna Citizens for Responsible Development.  Those folks were concerned about the entire town, and they were convinced that they could get material changes in the size and density of the proposal at 444 Maple West.

Within that context, raising a fuss about the size and housing-unit-density of the building made sense.

But now that the Town has passed 444 Maple West, it’s pretty clear that they will pass anything.  Developers are now welcome to “fill the cube” on every lot, creating buildings that are as tall as possible, with as large a footprint as possible.  And we know that the Town Council wants that.  They’ve wanted that since 2010, and wrote the law to achieve that.  So if you, the citizens, protest loudly enough, you might get some token paved “open space” directly adjacent to Maple Avenue.  But that’s about the extent of it.

But wait, you say, wasn’t there material change in the Marco Polo proposal?  Yes, there was, back before the Town Council changed the law regarding the voting on such proposals.  For the original Marco Polo proposal, it only took two “nay” votes to block it.  So after that defeat, the Town Council changed the law, and now it takes three “nay” votes to defeat a new building that has been successfully “protested” by the neighbors.  That’s a whole different ballgame, and we’re now seeing the results of that.

In other words, the lesson from 444 Maple West is that these buildings are going to be built pretty much however the developers want to build them, as long as they fit within the “cube” defined by setbacks and height restrictions of MAC zoning.  And in hindsight, the idea that citizen protest would result in a materially smaller building appears naive.

Given that, let me see if there is any strategy going forward that makes sense.

First, forget about the impact on the Town of Vienna as a whole.  E.g., the Town is never going to do any comprehensive study of what MAC will do to traffic on Maple.  And given that, the idea that you, in your local neighborhood, should work for the greater good?  In hindsight, that’s lovely, but that’s also laughable.  The Town of Vienna is treating each MAC project as a unique one-off zoning request.  That’s all they are ever going to do.  And so, and notion of any sort of top-down planning for the overall functioning of Maple Avenue is simply off the table, as long as we have the current Town government.

Second, the Town has made it clear that they are not going to do anything to prevent cut-through traffic in the adjacent neighborhoods.  Instead, we who live near 444 Maple West are slated to receive “traffic calming measures”.   Not that the Town has asked us about that, or told us that yet.  Of course not.  That was all decided between the developer and the Town, resulting in a change in the developer’s “proffer” to pay for these measures.  So, the exact cost of this has already been worked out, in private.  And we’ll be told what’s in store for us when the Town is good and ready to do so.  This, of course, will not prevent cut through traffic, but will merely mark our road as a busy urban thoroughfare.

So, as I see it:

  1.  You aren’t going to get any material reduction in the size and density of these buildings, because the Town Council wants tall buildings that cover the lots.
  2. You aren’t going to get any relief from cut-through traffic, because … yeah.  That one, I have not yet figured out, but that seems to be Town policy and cannot be rescinded, not even questioned.

Assuming those are true, is there any point in raising a fuss about these buildings?  I’m beginning to think the answer is “no”.  As long as those five Town Council seats are filled by those five people, items 1 and 2 above pretty much summarize your total impact on MAC projects.

Personally, my preferred strategy from the start was just to move somewhere else.  I’m an economist, and once I realized what the Town had done with MAC zoning — placed large financial bonuses on redeveloping property along Maple into high-density housing — I pretty much figured the game was up.  There’s too much money to be made to stop this.  Unfortunately, my wife absolutely will not consider it.  So I’m stuck here.

The only other thing I have done is to boycott Vienna.  I literally haven’t driven down the length of Maple in weeks.  I no longer buy anything in the Town of Vienna that I can buy elsewhere (because one way or the other, the Town collects its rake-off on every purchase made in Vienna.)

But that’s it.  I can’t move.  The Town isn’t going to reduce the size of these buildings or deal with cut-through traffic.  And my boycott does nothing more than salve my conscience.

Given that Town Council and Mayoral elections are almost always unopposed, I guess this is quite rational on the part of Town of Vienna government.  The only option left is to change the people sitting in those five Town Council seats.  If that’s even possible.