Community meeting with Sunrise Assisted Living, posted 11/7/2018

Posted on November 5, 2018

On Tuesday 10/30/2018, representatives of Sunrise Development (Sunrise assisted living) met with a handful of interested Vienna residents.  This meeting was essentially un-advertised, and you just had to know somebody to know it was going to occur.  I did not attend but got notes from two individuals who did attend, and my writeup is based on their notes.


The proposed building will be 54′ tall, per the representatives’ discussion, and sit adjacent to the Vienna Inn, across from Patrick Henry library.  (Although as with other MAC buildings, I think the highest parapet walls will exceed that height.)  It will replace two low-rise medical office buildings at Maple and Center streets.  It will have something like 80 units (rooms)/100 beds and about 8,500 square feet of retail space.

As is the norm for MAC buildings, it will more-or-less fill the lot.  It will sit about 20′ back from the curb at Maple Avenue, and 15′ back from the curb at Center Street.  There will be a 20′ wide space between the building and the adjacent Vienna Inn.  That space can’t be built on because, I believe, there will be a sewer line underneath that (and you can’t build on top of a sewer line).  And it will have the broken-up pseudo-many-buildings pseudo-olde-tyme look that is mandated by MAC.

Summary of the 10/30/2018 meeting.

This information is courtesy of Shelley Ebert and Laura Bligh.  Chris Hogan takes responsibility for the writing and additional analysis on this page.

The notice for the meeting was in the form of a circular sent to nearby businesses.  It became public knowledge when somebody mentioned it on Facebook.  The meeting was held in the Vienna Community Center.

A total of about seven (maybe as many as nine) Vienna citizens attended the meeting.  They were outnumbered by the Sunrise development staff, who came to the meeting in force and well prepared with printed materials, slides, and refreshments from Caffe Amouri.

Sunrise verified that there will be just over 80 units (rooms) and just over 100 beds.   

Parking was an issue.  They propose having 62 parking spaces and anticipate 35 staff at peak times.  They do not prohibit their residents from bringing cars (but expect few residents to do so).   Finally, there are just 17 ground-level parking places for the 8500-square-foot retail portion of the building.  All of these factors led to significant concerns about parking.

They were asked about procedures to ensure their staff do not overflow into the library parking lot and other nearby locations, which they committed to immediately.  They were asked about providing incentives for staff to use pubic transport and car pool, and reported that they had used such incentives in other locations.

They have included a new bus shelter in their plans. Michael Amouri mentioned that bus service in the area has declined as the route is now running less frequently. They said they were aware. They also have some bike rack space for employees and volunteers.

Ambulance and ride sharing.  They have three parking spaces reserved on Center for ride-share companies. These three spaces are where an ambulance would sit when needed. They said calls for emergency assistance average 2-3/week.

Retail space.   This is, apparently, the only Sunrise facility (out of more than 320 in North America) with retail space.  They said they don’t see the retail space as generating income.  They are looking to have between one and three establishments in their retail space.  It is highly unlikely a restaurant will be included since they won’t have the facilities to accommodate that type of business.  Given that, they were asked if they would consider discounting the rent for a small locally owned business, and they said they definitely would consider that.

“Pocket park”.  There will be a 20’ wide “pocket park” adjacent to the Vienna Inn. This will consist of a roughly 6’ wide brick sidewalk with 7’ of landscaping on either side, leading to two benches at the back of the lot. The building is pet friendly, so presumably residents will use this, in part, to walk their dogs. The park will be open to the public.

Other issues: They were asked if they would consider cutting out the 4th story on the right side so they would not tower over the Vienna Inn quite so much. They also said they would consider that.

Representatives from Sunrise assured us they will start a mailing list and we can sign up to be notified of meeting announcements and they have a website for the project that is ready to go live very soon. I didn’t ask for details re: their publicity plan but they seemed genuinely apologetic that people who were interested were not invited this evening. All of their meetings will be open to the public.

Analysis and comparison to Kensington facility in Falls Church

This section is organized to follow the boldface headings in the section above.

Sunrise verified that there will be just over 80 units (rooms) and just over 100 beds.   Given that the lot is just over 0.7 acres, this is more than 100 dwelling units per acre, far higher than the Town was considering for other developments along Maple.  Another way to calculate it is roughly 150 residents per acre.  Presumably the Town has some justification for not subjecting this assisted living facility to the type of limits that other housing might have.

Parking was an issue.  We can compare this proposal’s parking to three standards:

  • What’s there now.
  • What would be required under standard Vienna commercial zoning.
  • What was used for the Kensington Assisted Living in Falls Church.

What is there now:  The current businesses on that lot have a gross floor area 10,890 square feet, and 51 parking places.   That appears to comply (barely) with existing Town code for required parking for retail.  If the retail portion of the new Sunrise building were parked at that same rate as the existing businesses — that is, under standard commercial zoning in Vienna — the 8500 square feet of retail would require 40 spaces. That’s more than twice the 17 ground-level parking provided.  And so, the retail parking currently proposed (per square foot of retail space) appears to be less than half of what is there now.

What would be required under standard Vienna commercial zoningFirst, commercial space (e.g., standard retail space other than restaurants) requires one parking place for every 200 square feet of floor area, or in this case, 42 spaces. Next, “hospitals and other welfare institutions” require one parking space for every 800 square feet of gross floor area. Given the Sunrise building footprint of about 23,000 square feet, and three floors of assisted living, then the current town code would require 95 spaces for the assisted living portion of the building. E.g., if that were a 100-bed hospital, of that size, the Town would require 95 spaces.

In total, current commercial zoning regulations in the Town of Vienna appear to require 137 parking places for this building. But the proposal under MAC zoning has just 62.  So, again, the proposed parking for the building as a whole is just under half of what would be required under standard commercial zoning in Vienna.

What was used for the Kensington Assisted Living in Falls Church?  The Kensington facility is a mixed-use building similar to what is being proposed for Vienna.  It has 114 beds and peak staff of 40 (versus just over 100 and peak staff of 34 for the proposed Sunrise building in Vienna.)  The documentation for the Kensington assisted living makes the logic of what Falls Church did fairly clear.

That Falls Church Kensington assisted living building has just 51 parking places.  This, despite having more beds (114 versus 100) and staff (40 versus 35), but what appears to be less retail space.   The proposed parking for Sunrise in Vienna is modestly more generous than the parking at the Falls Church Kensington assisted living facility.

How did they do that (Kensington), and more importantly, is that working out well?

First, Kensington provided significant financial incentives for employees to use Metro or carpool, and as a result, their 40 employees per shift were expected to use just 23 parking spaces. Further, Kensington guaranteed that.  If employees actually used more than 23, Kensington agreed raise those financial incentives until they got the employee parking down to the target.

The Falls Church Kensington facility is substantially closer to Metro than the Vienna Sunrise facility is.  The Kensington facility is 1.2 miles by foot / 9 minutes by bus from West Falls Church Metro.  By contrast, the Vienna Sunrise facility is 2 miles by foot/15 minutes by bus from Vienna Metro, 2.9 miles/18 minutes from Tysons Corner Metro.

Second, Kensington banned residents from parking in the building or on surrounding streets.   You have to agree to that to live there.  By contrast, Sunrise does not bar residents from bringing cars, though they expect few to do so.

Finally, they allotted just 8 dedicated short-term parking places for the retail portion of the building.  This may be, in part, because half the retail space was turned over to a not-for-profit arts organization and is not true retail space.  (The other half is a small cafe.)

The obvious thing for the Town of Vienna to do is to ask Falls Church how that is all working out.  If the parking situation around the Falls Church Kensington appears OK, then it seems plausible that with the same sort of incentives in place, it may work out at the Vienna facility as well.

One unrelated note on traffic and fast food.   The Falls Church Kensington assisted living replaced a busy Burger King restaurant.  The upshot was that it substantially reduced local traffic compared to the Burger King.  So while Falls Church was happy to eliminate a fast-food restaurant and see an improvement in traffic, the Town of Vienna was in the process of inviting in a brand-new fast-food restaurant (Chick-fil-A).  Go figure.

They have included a new bus shelter in their plans.  The bus shelter is one of the Town’s “incentives” which the builder can use to reduce the required parking.  So the purpose of the bus shelter is to reduce the number of required parking places.  This is vastly favorable to the developers, financially.  A bus shelter might cost $10,000.  A single underground parking place might cost them $20,000.  By taking advantage of this, they likely avoid hundreds of thousands in costs.

Ambulance and ride sharing.  Three ambulance transports per week does not seem like much, but this will actually make up a substantial share of all ambulance transports in the Town of Vienna.  

You can get the average for our area from Fairfax County’s annual report:   If one pro-rates the numbers for our district, based on population, one would expect about 1200 ambulance calls for Vienna per year.  Assuming the 3/week for Sunrise are all new (additional) transports, the 3/week amounts to a 12% increase in ambulance runs in Vienna, all concentrated at that one address. 

The upshot is that one-in-eight ambulance transports in the Town of Vienna will occur from that address, based on the projected 3/week.  On the face of it, that seems to have significant potential to annoy the neighbors.  It’s not clear that anything could be done about that.

Retail space.   It was certainly refreshing to hear the developer say, flatly, that the retail space was unlikely to generate income. Most MAC developers have resisted building retail space, so this comes as no surprise.  Add to that the fact that out of more than 320 Sunrise facilities in North America, this the only one with retail space.

Together, these factors begin to highlight the peculiarity of the Town’s relentless drive for more retail space, and makes you question the point of that additional retail when a developer is willing to say flatly that the space can’t be let profitably.   Not to state the obvious, but when you’re the only place in the US that requires these folks to have retail, you really ought to step back and ask whether every other place in the US is misguided, or you are.

We can also look at the Falls Church Kensington facility for some guidance.  Vienna appears to require retail space amounting to about 11 percent of the combined retail/housing floor area.  By contrast, the Kensington in Falls Church (by eye, looking at the site plans) appears to devote about 6% of the combined retail/housing space to retail.   So Vienna appears to demand a lot more retail than Falls Church did, as a fraction of gross floor area of the building.

Finally, you can preview the (lack of) usefulness of the retail space here by seeing that the Kensington used half of theirs for an art gallery, which presumably means they gave the space away for that low-(economic)-valued use. (Falls Church Arts, a non-profit all-volunteer arts organization occupies the space.) Similarly, Sunrise said they did not expect the retail space to generate revenue.

So, in effect, the Town is requiring the builder to produce some sort of low-(economic)-value ground-level space, probably something that the Town will then get to direct the use of in some fashion, along the lines of the art gallery in Falls Church.

“Pocket park”.  While that looks like a voluntary contribution, I’m fairly sure that they can’t build on that land anyway. There’s a sewer main running under the existing parking lot, and you can’t build a building on top of a sewer main.  So they will have to move that sewer line aside to be able to build the assisted living facility. Presumably they moved it to the side of the lot next to the Vienna Inn. And, hence, the “pocket park” for the land that cannot be built on.

And so, when you step back, as is the hallmark of these MAC buildings, the builders have claimed almost every cubic foot of space that they could legally claim.  The notion that MAC zoning is some kind of privilege for which the Town extracts concessions for its citizens is again proven to be — a farce, a smokescreen, an untruth — take your pick.   I don’t blame the developers for doing what they need to do to maximize their profits.  But I do blame the Town for writing the law this way, and then claiming benefits that just are not materializing.  That said, this little sliver of pocket park/dog walking area/sewer right-of-way is the first significant public green space to be proposed by a developer.  So kudos for that, I guess.

Coda:  A previous failed Sunrise proposal in McLean.

Last year the County Board of Supervisors turned down an application by Sunrise to build an assisted living facility in McLean.  That’s interesting for two reasons.

First, Sunrise’s McLean permit was denied because the building was too massive to be compatible with the surrounding neighborhood, and would add to already bad traffic.  So, exactly the arguments that the Town of Vienna ignored for 444  Maple West appeared to been respected by the County Board of Supervisors for this McLean proposal.

So, just how massive was that building, that it was too big for McLean?  The article cited above says 60,000 square foot building, 22 feet tall, on a 3.79 acre lot.  Or, compared to 444 Maple West:

  • About 80% of the footprint of 444 Maple West,
  • About 30% of the total enclosed volume of 444 Maple West,
  • On a lot that is about 35% larger than the lot for 444 Maple West.

That building was judged too massive for the surrounding McLean neighborhood.  But the Town of Vienna Town Council has no problem approving 444 Maple West.  Go figure.

Second, Fairfax County zoning will not allow a “medical facility” on less than five acres.  So this sort of smaller-scale assisted living facility as proposed for Vienna isn’t really viable outside of a handful of locations in Fairfax, mainly the independent cities and the incorporated towns where Fairfax County zoning rules do not apply.  Not unless Sunrise wants to buy and maintain 4+ acres of park land around each building.

So, to the extent that Sunrise wants such smaller facilities in Fairfax County, there are relatively few places to put them.