MAC buildings are four stories? Guess again, 2/15/2018

Posted on February 15, 2019

The pro-MAC members of our Town Council have sold MAC as preserving “small town” Vienna.  Putting aside truth or fiction of that claim, one of the key features of MAC buildings used to make that claim is that these buildings are only four stories tall.  (They are four very large stories, but, again, put that aside).

And, to their credit, that appeared to be the plain language of the MAC statute.  See for yourself, just below.  (Go here, by the way, if you ever want to find all the laws for Vienna in one place.  And don’t take the 54′ at face value — the walls can rise to 115% of 54′, or just over 62′.)

Seems pretty clear, doesn’t it.   “The maximum height shall be the lesser of four stories …”.

Then came the plans for 380 Maple West (40 condos, Maple and Wade Hampton).  Count the floors, starting with ground level.

And now we have just seen the plans for Sunrise Assisted Living at Maple and Center.  Again, count the floors, starting with ground level..

I’m seeing five there, in both cases.  (The Town did write in a loophole for mezzanine floors, but based on the plain reading of the Town’s definition, but I don’t think either of these buildings meets the legal mezzanine floor definition.)

Now why on earth do these developers think they can put in five floors, when the law clearly says four? 

The answer to that is a great story, and clearly illustrates how hard some members of Town Council are working on behalf of the developers. 

Go back to late last year, when the Mayor was pushing to have a set of amendments to the MAC statute.  Most were “tweaks”, I guess I’d say.  E.g., in the useless and unenforceable “statement of intent”, as an afterthought, they were going to add “neighborhood-serving retail” in addition to their original call for nothing but “destination retail”.   Window dressing, mostly, with a few substantive items like a limit on density.  None of the changes addressed what I saw to be fundamental problems with the statute.  You can find those draft changes as Item #2 in the Town’s posted materials for their 8/20/2018 Town Council meeting.

But among the changes was this odd, seemingly redundant and absolutely unnecessary change to the height limit.  (This was their draft, and the red text color is theirs, setting that off as a proposed change.)

So, after telling us that buildings can be no more than four stories, they were going to add “The building shall have the appearance of, at most, four stories when viewed from every cardinal direction”.

I noted at the time how weird that was.  I mean, if a building is four stories tall, isn’t it automatically going to look like four stories?  But only when the plans for 380 Maple West were revealed did it all snap into focus.  The clause wasn’t needlessly reinforcing the four-floor limit.  It was about gutting it.  What the clause says is, you can have as many floors as you want, as long as the building looks like it has only four floors, from the outside.

And when I finally figured out why that clause was there, in October 2018 I added this page to my website, asking “whom does Town government serve?  The gist of that being, sure looks like they wrote that in anticipation of the five-floor 380 Maple West building, to make sure it would pass.

Seems a little paranoid, doesn’t it.  Seems a little whacko, to think that, in our little Town of Vienna, behind closed doors, out of the public eye, members of Town Council were quietly drafting language to allow builders to evade the four-floor rule.  That’s the four-floor rule that those same members touted as being in keeping with Vienna’s small-town nature.

Turns out, not only was I right, I now know that the purpose of that clause, was, in fact, to allow five stories, starting with the 380 Maple West building.  As long as the builder disguises that, and makes it look like four.  How do I know that?  Because the architect for 380 Maple West said so.  Go to this page, click the link for Google Drive, find the mp3 file for the 380 section of the 2/13/2019 meeting, and start listing around 34 minutes in.  Councilwoman Sienicki was mentioned in the 2/13/2019 meeting as the source for this change, but it’s impossible to say whether or not that was, at some level, a group effort.

And, to be clear, this isn’t a dead issue.  That same clause remains in the revised set of amendments that the Town will now start working on.  You can find those amendments on this page.

So, the Town that touted the four-floor limit was, and still is, in fact, working diligently on behalf of the builders to get around that limit. 

I have more to add to this story, but let me stop there.

Bottom line:  Did you ever hear, or were you ever aware, of any public discussion by Town Council where they said, yes, the purpose of this is to allow more than four floors in MAC buildings?  I sure didn’t.  Maybe I just have not been paying close enough attention to this issue.  (That’s sarcasm.)  But more likely, you haven’t heard it, because the pro-MAC members of your Town Council don’t want you to be aware of it.

If you wonder why I don’t trust my government on this issue, this one is a perfect example.  Who would have thought that Town Council was in the process of amending the four-floor limit, so that builders could routinely get around it.  That sort of thing, it’s just not something that I expected my town to do.

And now that they’ve opened that door at the request of one builder, as you can see, looks like the rest are going to take advantage of that as well.  So they may have written the law to help out one specific developer, but now all MAC developers know they can have a five-floor building under MAC, as long as they figure out how to disguise it.

With a few months time, and some pondering, and finally catching a single phrase at a Planning Commission work session, I was finally able to put this all together.  It really has to make any thinking person ask:  How many more little gems like this are they writing into the MAC revisions?  I don’t know.  And it’s a fair bet the authors of those changes aren’t going to say.