2019-03-04 Town Council/Planning Commission work session, audio and index

Posted on March 5, 2019

The Town Council and Planning Commission held a joint work session on 3/4/2019 to discuss three items:  two MAC projects (380 Maple West and the Sunrise assisted living facility), and to discuss restrictions on private meetings between property developers and elected or appointed Town officials.

I was hoping the Town would have its audio file posted by now.  Their file is much clearer than mine.  And, for this meeting, I left partway through the discussion on Sunrise.

That said, this stuff goes stale pretty quickly, so I have cleaned up and posted my audio file, and the accompanying Excel file as the index to the recording, at this link on Google Drive.   The posted materials for this meeting, from the Town, can be found at links on this page.

I’ll just give a few impression of the meeting.

The discussion over restrictions on private meetings between property developers and individual Town officials was fairly acrimonious.  The Town lawyer was of the firm opinion that they couldn’t make such meetings illegal.  Councilman Majdi offered several alternatives (e.g., guidelines) to try to get the same effect.  Planning Commission chairman Gelb offered that their soon-to-be-updated bylaws (available here, .pdf)  would require them to report any meetings.  Yet another idea, from Councilman Springsteen, was that private meetings with developers should only occur with some Town staff present.

It was a bit of an eye-opener to me to start to see how much of this whole redevelopment process goes on in private.  I knew there was some, because the Town always knew what was in the development pipeline long before it became public.  But I never knew how much.

But the real eye-opener was how strongly some elected and appointed officials would fight against any such restriction.  I really didn’t expect that.  But my government experience was limited to the Federal government, where there is (compared to Town of Vienna) considerable sunshine.

With all the money to be made from redevelopment, I think one Councilman summed it up as “this isn’t Mayberry any more”, or some such.  I think I would have to agree with that.

The discussion of 380 Maple West was largely unmemorable to me, other than for a handful of items. 

The developer summarized what the local citizens had asked for, but didn’t mention that the local residents had asked about enclosing the garage to keep the noise level down.  I have to infer from that that enclosing the garage would be a fairly expensive thing to do.  So, if it goes through as currently planned, two floors of concrete garage will be open to the air, maybe 90′ from the nearest house.

(For this next part, you have to know that the MAC regulations limit buildings to four floors.  Or, at least, they kind of did appear to do that at when they were passed.)

The developer has five floors in most of the building, with the fifth floor adding parking.  If that floor were removed, the building could be about four feet lower.  Apparently that wasn’t the right answer, so one Planning Commission member (Couchman) actually coached the building architect to say that the building could be just large as it is now, without that floor.  (Although they would be unlikely to do that, as the extra four feet would cost them money to build.)

One Commissioner said pretty much what I had been thinking, which is that fifth floor here is more-or-less a clever use of space.  As I put, the market is telling us that four floors is inefficient, given the mandatory tall first floor that MAC imposes on all buildings.  I would try to trade the developers for the right to that fifth “half-floor” (in exchange for more green space), but I suspect the more likely outcome is that the Town will just give that away.

Otherwise I am not sure I heard much of substance.  So that one appears to be on track to be approved.  I guess nobody would be surprised by that.  The Town wants big lot-filling buildings, and this one takes up very close to every cubic foot of space it is legally entitled to.

There were a couple of funny things.

On 444 Maple West, I characterized the Town’s (absolute and total lack of) deep and sincere concern about cut-through traffic as “Town Staff to Citizens: Drop Dead“.  But now, even the pro-MAC Town Council members were falling all over themselves to talk about how critical it is to protect the adjacent neighborhoods.  Yeah, sure.  To me that says “next election is two months away”.  So I’ll believe it when I see some positive steps taken.

The Town appeared purposefully to confuse the technical real estate terms “abutting” and “adjacent” in one of its rulings.  The Town requires that the low point of the building face any adjacent single-family homes.  But the Town is ignoring that here, more or less by substituting “abutting” for “adjacent”.   (This will make more sense if you read my separate page on this issue, to be posted soon.)  That was notable for the number of people in the audience shaking their heads and muttering when the Town’s decision came out.  When the Town said “adjacent” meant “abutting”, the guy next to me said “not in real estate it doesn’t”, or words to that effect.

The former private “dog park” in the back would, apparently, become publicly accessible space, with no wall or fence in the back.  Or some such.  So in theory, there would be a 12′ grass strip at the back of the building open to the public.

The discussion of Sunrise started with the developer’s exposition, and noted that they had to dodge around/move two big pipes on the site.  One was for storm water, and the other was for sewer.  The sewer main will be moved off to the side and will lie beneath the “pocket park” (which is also the sewer maintenance right-of-way) on one side of the building.

The problem with the building is that it has five floors, more or less. But the developer came loaded for bear on that issue, and put up several variations, including one that would let them build a “normal” Sunrise facility, meaning, no retail space on the ground floor.  And without the 5th floor.  Sunrise has maybe 450 facilities world-wide, and as I understand it, exactly one will be required to have retail space — the Vienna facility.  Near as I could tell, all options preserved the number of rooms or beds at the currently proposed number (of about 85 rooms).

I have no idea how that will shake out, particularly because from the back and side, the building clearly has the appearance of five floors now.  Otherwise, I can’t imagine that, one way or the other, Sunrise will get whatever it wants here.

I left while that discussion was still going on.