2019-02-27 Planning Commission work session — my humble suggestion

Posted on March 1, 2019

Let me briefly recap where we stand on building height, size, and floors, based on a quick summary of this Planning Commission meeting.  Then offer one suggestion regarding five-floor MAC buildings:   Trade the 5th floor for an overall smaller building.

Height. At this Planning Commission work session, the Chair and others said that there ought to be some serious reconsideration of 54′ height.  There was substantial pushback, not just from Planning and Zoning, but from other Planning Commissioners.  My guess is, there will be no material discussion of that.  So, any Town Council members who thought that was on the agenda, I wish you luck.

Size:  The revised regulations would clip a few feet off the buildings due to changes in the setback regulations and the sidewalk.  The Town provided illustrations of how existing MAC buildings would have changed, but those are misleading because they are “static”.  (That is, they did not let the builders reconfigure their buildings to game the proposed new regulations).  That said, having looked at the new setback regulations, I think the net effect will be to make future buildings a tiny bit smaller.

One commissioner brought up what I thought was an excellent point, that maybe the setbacks need to be scaled to the lot.  (Not just his point — that a “giant” lot could use a giant setback, but also that applying a uniform setback grossly disadvantages smaller lots.)   I’ll put that aside for now.

Four versus five floors. It was clear that the Director of Planning and Zoning was going to give this issue to the developers, over the strenuous objections of some Planning and Zoning commissioners.  So this current round of buildings will show the first way in which builders have successfully gamed (Sunrise) or just did a straight-up request for variance (380 Maple West) for a fifth floor of some nature.  Near as I can tell, Planning and Zoning is taking its cues from the developers on this one.

What is the market telling us?  The combination of 54′ and four floors is an inefficient use of space.  At least, that’s my interpretation.  Sunrise — let’s be clear, these people know their stuff.  They’ve been doing this a long time, successfully.  Last I looked annual revenues exceed $1B.  You don’t get in that position by being incompetent.

So, four floors is a waste of space, given the sacred and unquestionable height limit.

And yet, my objection is that five floors is higher density.  Five floors lets them pack in more stuff, per acre of ground.  And I would really rather not see that.  Like most Vienna citizens, I’d rather see smaller buildings and more green space.

On yet a third hand, Planning and Zoning is just giving away that fifth floor.  That’s also objectionable.

Here’s my suggestion.  Why not trade?  Why not set the law up to say, you can have a fifth floor if you shrink the building proportionately?  So that, in affect, the floor area ratio (FAR) remains the same.  So that, you don’t get to increase the overall density.  You just get to put it into a more efficient package?

Further, because the overwhelming result of my survey is that Vienna citizens want more open and green space, dedicate the building size reduction to that.  And rather than let the builders game you, I’d just flat write that into law.  Not like the totally ineffective open space clause of the law now.  Not “green space” in the form of a 1000′ long 4′ wide mowing strip wrapped around the buildings, as with Marco Polo.   Actual, green, accessible public space, meaningfully written into law.

So, let’s say that the builders want, in effect, a partial 5th floor, amounting to a building with 4.75 floors, by area.  Doing the algebra right is a little tricky, because I should net out the existing setbacks from the lot size before I do this next step (i.e., I want to set aside a proportionate piece of the buildable area, not the lot size).  But ignoring that fine point, and assuming I have done my algebra right, then a fair tradeoff would be to require 16% of the lot to be set aside as a single, contiguous open space.  In addition to any other requirements for open space already on the books.  (I.e., you can’t count the sidewalks, the required landscaping, and so on, as currently under MAC).

In effect, my solution would be to trade the developers for any floor area in excess of four floors. Not simply give it to them.  It would be a density-held-constant trade — same amount of floor area, in total, but packed into a smaller, more efficient package.  And the land that this frees up — at least as I would structure it — comes back 100% to the citizens of Vienna.

I have no clue whether developers would have any interest in this or not.  Yeah, they get to build a cheaper building with the same amount of floor space.  But, arithmetically, ceiling heights would necessarily be lower than the equivalent four-floor building.  So, unambiguously, they lose volume.

Would I trust the current Planning and Zoning Director to execute this in accordance with the spirit of what I proposed?  Obviously not.  But in some mythical alternative world, I think the Town might consider something like this.

For those of you in the know, this is just a crude variant of the Floor Area Ratio approach to regulating buildings.  Adapted to the fact that it looks like we’re stuck with 54′.