MAC is just the beginning — take a look at what the Town is planning next. Updated 12/4 for a discussion of “by right”.

Posted on December 3, 2018

REVISION:  After writing the article below, I’ve heard from other people who have looked at this and come to a different conclusion.  Others believe this is just a routine, long-overdue maintenance of the Town of Vienna building code.  Under that interpretation, the verbiage about increased redevelopment and about more mixed-use buildings outside of Maple and Church is just there to get Fairfax County to pay for the work under the guise of “economic growth”.  I guess that’s possible.  But the plain reading of what was written is still as outlined below, in the quoted sections.  It was certainly written up with an agenda of increasing redevelopment and bringing mixed-used buildings to areas where those are not allowed (or at least, not economically feasible) under current Town of Vienna code.

My original writeup follows:

It’s not enough that the Town government has decided to convert Maple into high-density housing via MAC zoning.  Apparently the pace of change is not fast enough, and they aren’t clearing out the existing buildings at a rapid enough clip.

So you can get a peek at what “our” Town government has in store for us  next by looking at these documents, to be viewed at a Town of Vienna Town Council work session tonight (12/3/2018).  I would have provided more notice, but as is typical for the Town, these were posted with only enough notice to be legal.  As in, I think these were posted today, for tonight’s Town Council work session.

The key point point is that the Town is planning to overhaul all of the zoning in Vienna, to encourage redevelopment. 

Here’s a key phrase for you, from the .pdf describing the Town’s plans regarding zoning.

“An updated zoning ordinance will reduce the amount of time and money required by the private sector to gather information about development rights and zoning regulations, thus being able to maximize limited land areas.”

Translation:  Let’s make it easier and faster to tear down what’s here and replace it with much higher-density development.

I didn’t know this was in the works.  Did anybody outside of Town government know it?

So it’s not just MAC and Maple Avenue, now zoning for the entire Town of Vienna is going to be up in the air.  Just to be clear about where this is coming from, and what “our” Town wants, let me cite a bit more from that document, emphasis mine:

“The … Church Street Vision … Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) … provide developer incentives for revitalization … but outside of these two districts, much of the Town’s zoning code is out of date … . The current zoning and subdivision ordinances need to be comprehensively updated  …. providing more opportunity for redevelopment.”

”  … the Town will be more likely to attract the type of development so desired here, i.e., more mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development, rather than automobile-oriented, strip-mall development that currently dominates the Maple Avenue corridor.”

In case you have come late to the ballgame, in practice, “mixed use” translates to more high-density housing over retail space, as with four of the five current MAC proposals.

“So desired here”.  Isn’t that just indicative of how “our” Town knows what’s best for us.  How unbiased and objective our Planning Department is in this matter.

Sure, as a long-time resident, I absolutely want to cram as many people and businesses as possible into Vienna.  (That’s sarcasm.)  My point being, “our” Town assumes that growth and higher density are good.   I don’t think that’s such a great assumption.  Perhaps they should put that to a referendum and see what the people who live here think of that.

In any case, the Town appears to be preparing to open up every commercial/industrial zone in Vienna, and possibly more than that, to high-density housing (“mixed use”) of the type generated by the MAC proposals.  It is not clear from this document that they are only talking about commercial zones.

So at this point, I guess you can take all the commercial/industrial areas we have here in Vienna, and start figuring how many people we can cram into those areas with more large MAC-style buildings.

And what, if anything, this will do to areas currently zoned as residential — that’s far from clear.  This document explicitly mentions changing the rules on subdivision.  So, Town of Vienna resident, maybe you thought MAC zoning was just tough luck for people who were unfortunate enough to live near Maple.  But subdivision rules?  Hey, those apply anywhere.  Maybe this time they’re coming for your neighborhood.

For those of you who don’t think that’s possible — who don’t think “your” Town would allow inappropriate development in your quiet little residential neighborhood — I highly recommend that you drive past 901 Glyndon SE (corner of Glyndon and Tapawingo).   Perhaps I’ll go snap a picture of that this morning, and put up a separate page on that.

In addition, the Town of Vienna is continuing it’s “READY-FIRE-AIM” approach to planning by finally looking at the economics of Maple Avenue.  The .pdf for that is here.  For MAC, they just winged it.  As far as I can tell, they never bothered to do any formal assessment of the economics of what they were doing.  And now, half a decade later, they are actually going to get some analysis of what you can and can’t expect to do with Maple Avenue.   Better late than never, I guess.  This is of a piece with the requirement to place the power lines underground — the Town has only this year put a study of how best to do that in its capital plan.  Overhauling your commercial zone without studying the economics first was just-plain-stupid.  But I guess a retrospective analysis of what you should have done is better than no analysis at all.

Good luck, Vienna. With these folks in charge, you’re going to need it.

Addendum on “by right” construction, 12/4/2018. 

Arguably the most dangerous aspect of this is that, once the Vienna Planning and Zoning Department is done with this, MAC-style large high-density buildings will become the “by right” construction in (what used to be) the commercial and industrial portions of the Town of Vienna.  I have enough of a problem with that that I’m going to take the time to explain that.

In Virginia, once a locality has established the unconditional zoning rules for a particular parcel of ground, developers have the right to build, as long as they meet those rules.  So, right now, for plots that are “C1” commercial zoning, as long as a building meets all the zoning requirements (height, setbacks from the street, intended use), and meets some minimal standards for appearance, the Town has no say-so about what gets built.

The only reason the Town Council has to vote on the MAC projects is that MAC is conditional zoning.   It was not set up as a right for builders, it was set up as an option that builders could ask for, in exchange for certain features that were supposed to provide a public benefit, such as “open space”.   (That was the theory, anyway).

And, to be clear, the only reason that Citizens had any say, at all, in what got constructed under MAC was that it was conditional zoning.  By law, the Town Council had to let us have our say — even thought they completely ignored it.

What an annoyance that must have been for “our” government, to have citizens stand up and disagree with them.  Surely there must be some way for the Town Council to get the high-density development that is “so desired here”, without having to listen to the tedious complaints of the peasantry.

And there is!  Just make that zoning the unconditional zoning.  Once you replace the current commercial zoning (e.g., the “C1” zoning) with this new MAC-look-alike zoning, then builders can build large high-density MAC-like buildings “by right”.

And the Town Council then washes its hands of all further responsibility.  Once the law is revised to allow it “by right” instead of conditionally, the Town literally could not stop (e.g.) a building that looked just like the original 444 Maple West proposal.

The other thing I find astonishing is the tremendous shift of power from the Town Council to the Town bureaucracy that this represents.  Once you replace the current commercial zoning with MAC-alike zoning, then the Department of Planning and Zoning determines what gets built in Vienna, not the Town Council.  The Town Council abdicates its responsibility in this area.

A final thing to note is that, in Virginia, it is virtually impossible to “down zone” land once it has been zoned.  E.g., if a parcel of land is zoned for 10 houses per acre, it is virtually impossible to re-zone that for five per acre.  So once the Town establishes that large high-density MAC-type buildings are the “by right” buildings for commercial and industrial areas, it literally cannot rescind that.  It’s a one way street — once you’ve allowed a certain density by right, there’s no going back.

I guess, given all that, I should say that I wish our Town Council would proceed with forethought and caution.  But given recent history, I’d say that’s wishful thinking.  Best guess — they’re going to stumble through this one and end up with whatever Planning and Zoning wants.  Which in this case is clearly more high-density mixed-used buildings.