MAC sidewalk standards, 2/9/2019

Posted on February 9, 2019

The proposed MAC design guideline for sidewalks is the first little ray of light I have seen, from the Town, in this entire MAC debate.  You can see my cynical overview of the entire process generating these guidelines on this page.  And, bear in mind as you read this that a) these guidelines are not final, and b) they are only guidelines, not requirements.  But at this point, I’ll take any sunshine I can get.

The first surprise is that the Department of Planning and Zoning decided — apparently by themselves — to try to push the MAC buildings a bit further away from Maple.  (That wasn’t their goal, presumably, but that’s the effect.)

Currently, MAC buildings have to be at least 20′ from the curb on Maple, and 15′ from the curb on any side street.  And, no surprise, the builders put them pretty much right on that line, so as to use as much of the lot as possible.

Under the new guidelines, the buildings have to be 28′ from Maple, 20′ from major side roads (such as Nutley), and still just 15 feet from minor side roads (such as Wade Hampton).  And so the proposed guidelines conflict with the actual zoning requirements, and suggest that the buildings be placed further from Maple than is actually required by the MAC zoning law.

Now, the guidelines still seem to think that people are going to be crazy enough to want to dine al fresco 20 feet from Maple.  Which, based on my measurements, would require shouting at your dinner partner to be heard, while breathing in particulates from diesel exhaust.   But, in an apparent change of heart, they aren’t actually going to require the builders to waste the space on seating for outdoor dining.  They can waste it on planters and benches instead.

To be clear, I’m fairly sure that none of the five MAC buildings or proposals meet these guidelines.  For example, I think 380 Maple West is just about exactly 20′ from Maple, and the actual pedestrian pathway on the sidewalk is quite narrow.

And while another 8′ doesn’t seem like much, it will be some small help in avoiding a “commercial canyon” feel along Maple.  The further they can get those big buildings away from the street, the better.  And by using up another 8′ of the lot, the buildings will be slightly smaller.

Second, they are going to make the sidewalks (mostly) out of concrete, not bricks.  The decorative borders still have to be brick, but the part you actually walk on has to be concrete.  Mostly.  They apparently will still require narrow strips of brick across the pathway, for decoration.  Which I think is a nuisance and a mistake.  But most of what you walk on will be concrete.

This is a major victory for common sense, for several reasons.

First, this is a victory for anyone who bicycles, pushes a stroller, rolls a wheelchair, or uses a walker or cane to get around on Maple.  For those populations, bricks are just about the worst possible pavement choice.  They not only make it hard to get around, they produce constant trip hazards as the bricks inevitably shift and decay in our mid-Atlantic freeze/thaw climate.

One Vienna citizen, Shelley Ebert, has been pushing the Town on this issue for quite some time.  She gets around in a wheelchair and she’s got a kid in a stroller.  I look at this as a personal victory for her.  (N.B., she’s the one who clued me in on this issue, and I definitely look at the sidewalk differently after having tried to see it from her perspective.  Our pretty little brick sidewalks are, in fact, a minefield of locations where you can get a wheelchair caster stuck.)

Second, bricks deteriorate, shift, and require maintenance.  If you walk Maple, you get to know that anywhere you have cars driving over the bricks, the bricks are a mess.  Maybe I’ll go take a few pictures this PM to illustrate.  Even where the cars don’t drive, freeze/thaw heaves the bricks out of alignment and creates trip hazards.  With concrete sidewalks, it’s a fairly simple matter to grind down any sections that heave.  (In fact, the Town did that just recently on Maple west of Courthouse.)  With bricks, the standard method is to pull the bricks up and re-set them, which is both expensive and labor-intensive.  And will, over time, lead to a “patchwork” look to the brickwork as replaced sections need not be an identical match for the original brick.

This is also a complete about-face from the current MAC proposals, where the Town has steadfastly insisted on all-brick sidewalks.  Just another example of the Town focusing on how it looks, and not paying much attention to how it functions.  But my guess is, all of the developers will be more than happy to substitute concrete for bricks wherever they can.

In a final victory for the disabled community, the pedestrian path will be broad and uncluttered.  There seems to be conflicting information as to whether it would be 8′ or 10′ along Maple.  But either way, the issue is (e.g.) allowing a person in a wheelchair to pass a person with a stroller without awkwardness, or allowing a person in a wheelchair adequate room to maneuver.

I won’t make anything out of the “uncluttered” requirement, because all our newer sidewalks are that way.  There are no obstructions on (e.g.) the sidewalks on Maple west of Courthouse.  Really, only the older sidewalks on the eastern portion of Maple are a mess that way, and this zoning isn’t going to do anything to fix that up.

And, as I have said on many occasions, other than for that specific community, there’s no need for broad sidewalks because you rarely have to pass another person on them.    As with the sidewalk cafe space adjacent to Maple that no one will use, I see the mandatory broad sidewalks as a fashion statement, not as practical need.  With the sole and significant exception that the extra space provides a tangible benefit to the disabled community.

Finally, bear in mind that these guidelines apply to little separate isolated stretches of Maple Avenue sidewalks.  One of the goofiest aspects of the Town’s discussion of MAC is that they continually talk about and picture this (as in these guidelines) as if all of Maple were redone to the same standard.  But that’s not going to happen.  For the forseeable future, what you are going to have is small isolated patches of these MAC-mandated sidewalks.  Patched into the existing sidewalks.  And the Town appears to have no plan, or even the idea that they might need a plan, for making the sidewalks match up some time in the future.  So unlike the last time the Town redid the sidewalks, and mandated uniform brick walks east of Courthouse, there is no overall Town-wide plan here.   These rules apply to little separate pieces of Maple.

When you get right down to it, I have yet to see the Town produce a sketch of what that’s going to look like where these posh broad sidewalks stop, and standard 5′ concrete ribbon sidewalks resume.  As I see it, that’s exactly what’s going to happen with the proposed 380 Maple West building.  And doubly oddly, nowhere in the regulations or guidelines does anybody even discuss how the builders are supposed to deal with that.  Taper it?  Put in a ramp?  Best guess, based on the law, the builders will have to build the broad sidewalk right up to the property line.  And the standard concrete ribbon will start on the other side of the line.  And … that’s that.  So, at this point, if you expect the sidewalks on Maple to look like anything other than a slapped-together patchwork for the next 30 or 40 years, I’d say, guess again.  Or show me the plan for restoring uniformity to the sidewalks once MAC has created this patchwork.