Post #213: The 3/27/2019 Planning Commission meeting on 380 Maple West, edited to correct a significant mistake.

Posted on March 28, 2019

More than 50 people attended last night’s Planning Commission meeting regarding 380 Maple Avenue West.  Twenty-five spoke.  Of those, just two people approved of the project.

The Planning Commission “held open” the public meeting, meaning, if you have not spoken up yet, you will have an opportunity to do so next month.  Next month, the Planning Commission should vote on this project and forward its recommendation to the Town Council.

Go to this Google Drive link to find my audio recording of the meeting, along with an Excel spreadsheet that serves as the “index” to the audio, showing what was said at what time.  The audio is a bit rough in spots due to the crowd noise.

In brief:  The builder offered a second option of a somewhat smaller building, with less parking, and one less condo unit.  He agreed to enclose the back wall of the garage (facing the residential area) as a noise-control measure.  He will put a masonry wall on the back lot line or not, at the Town’s option.  And he would not commit to burying the power lines as part of this until he sees the cost of that from Dominion Energy.

My review of the meeting follows.

Jump to:

Two options and one weird little curve-ball

The meeting started on an unusual note because the developer presented two different proposals. You can see them as Option 1 and Option 2 at this link.  The renderings (pictures) are items 4 and 5 at that link, but it is tough to get the essence of the difference from those.  You really have to look at the building cross-section in the architectural plans (items 2 and 3 at that link).

Edit:  I have just removed this entire section as a distraction.  The fact that I could not add the heights on the building drawings, and come up with the total, was my mistake. 

Initial discussion by Planning Commission

The times mentioned below should match (to within rounding error) the audio recording you can find at this  Google Drive link.  There’s also an Excel spreadsheet that serves as the minute-by-minute “index” to the audio, showing what was said at what time.

The first 20 minutes of the meeting was spent hashing out whether or not they could look at two proposals for the same building.  Commissioner McCullough started the meeting by asking  whether or not they should postpone this public session until the builder had boiled it down to a single proposal.  At least one Planning Commission member remarked that they had never seen two proposals submitted for one building.  The Planning Commission as a whole spent some time just working out the mechanics of how they had to deal with that, legally.  In the end, they proceeded.

Later, at the end of the meeting, Chairman Gelb strongly hinted that they would like the developer to come back with a (one) revised proposal for the next meeting.

At 22 minutes into the meeting, Town staff gave an overview of the project.  There were some clarifying questions from Planning Commission that were answered by the developer.

Briefly:  The first option has more parking, stands 54′ tall to the flat roof (60′ to the tallest parapet), stands 20′ off the Maple Avenue curb, and has a serpentine wall for both the storm-water planter at the back of the building, and a matching wall on the back lot line.   The second option has less parking, is 6′ shorter, has most of the ground-floor retail at 24′ from Maple, eliminates the wall on the back lot line, and has a storm-water planter with straight (rather than serpentine) walls.

The developer made it clear that either option could be done with or without the 6′ masonry wall at the back lot line.  And he made it clear that he now plans to put a solid wall at the back of the garage as a noise-control measure.

At 37 minutes into the meeting, the Planning Commission questions begin in earnest.  These questions focused on:

  • The back of the building (6′ masonry wall or not).
  • Enclosing the garage (builder agreed to build a solid back wall to control noise)
  • How many separate retail units (five separate retail bays).
  • Potential issues with truck traffic to the building and turning in Wade Hampton
  • Adequacy of parking (suggested looking at the former Magruders to provide a benchmark)
  • Putting the utilities underground (builder wanted to see the costs, from Dominion, before committing)
  • Are they actually installing solar panels, or just making the building solar-ready? (I don’t think there was a clear answer, other than the builder was, in fact, talking to a solar installer, unlike (say) 444 Maple West.)
  • The width of the sidewalk (drawn as just 5′), to which the builder said that the entire expanse will be brick, sidewalk is merely defined by color of brick, and there is no barrier to “stepping off” the sidewalk).  That said, Commissioners wanted the wall separating the outdoor dining area pushed back under the second option, to which I think the builder agreed.
  • Discussion of the rear sidewalk (on Glen), as a classic “sidewalk to nowhere” and the potential to expand that a bit.
  • Some minor traffic questions, which in part focused on “chanelized islands” to try to force traffic exiting the building to turn toward Maple (and not down Wade Hampton).

Public comment

At 1 hour 15 minutes into the meeting, public comment began.  There were 25 commenters, of which two were positive.

Oddly, the two positive commenters used nearly identical language in their presentations.  But, upon later inspection, it turns out they are a married couple who live about a mile (by street) from the 380 Maple site.  So these were people who lived in Town, strongly favored development of this type on Maple, but were not directly affected by it.   Seemingly completely spontaneous and legit.

Most of the commenters were from the adjacent neighborhood.  Their comments were largely as one might expect — this is a very big building, likely to bring cut-through traffic (in addition to what 444 Maple West will bring).  Its presence will change the neighborhood, and not for the better.  (Anyone who reads this website will know all of that by now).

That said, several of the commenters were not immediately adjacent to this site, and some brought up issues that were not routine.  Of those, the things that stand out in my mind are the following:

Cut through traffic:

  • One commenter noted that the cut-through traffic problem is not just on Roland and Glen, because all that cut-through traffic ends up on Courthouse, and Courthouse traffic has become pretty horrific in recent years.  And the coming expansion of the Seventh-day Adventist school is just going to make that worse.  Basically, during rush hour, you can’t get across the road.
  • Several commenters from the neighborhood called for closing off Wade Hampton in some fashion.
  • The combination of truck, car, and pedestrian traffic at the Maple/Wade Hampton intersection is going to make it hard for the elderly to get through that area  That was from commenter who lives in Vienna and visits her grandchildren who live near the 380 Maple West site.
  • The Town does not recognize the unique nature of the streets there, with both Wade Hampton and Glen being narrow streets with no sidewalks and hairpin curves.  They are dangerous enough as-is.
  • Wade Hampton already has traffic issues — a dog was killed there just a couple of years ago.

Other issues

  • The MAC concept of having a defined “town center” is lost with the approval of these three big buildings (Chick-fil-A-car-wash, 444 Maple West, 380 Maple West) at this end of town.  If MAC is materially revised, these buildings become “orphans”, with no other construction like this in Vienna.
  • There appears to be some conflict-of-interest issue for the Town’s traffic study, in that the same engineering firm (Kimley Horn) is working for Maple Avenue developers and simultaneously working for the Town of Vienna.  In fact, the same engineer who signed the original 380 Maple traffic study, is now being advertised as working on the Maple Ave traffic study on behalf of the Town
  • There is a potential issue for the lighted stairwell to bother the neighbors across the street from this building.
  • The back of the building would look less stark if they could add some gables to the roofs.
  • Several people questioned the viability of the proposed “green wall“.

I would also like to mention comments from Aldis Lusis.  He’s the guy who’s going to have a Wawa adjacent to his back yard, with (as of now) no wall between the two properties. I thought it was nice of him to take the time to come to this meeting and say, in effect, he feels our pain.  If there is anyone in the Town of Vienna who is qualified to say that, it is the Lusis family.

Commissioner responses in light of public comment.

After a break, at 2:45:18, Chairman Gelb re-started the meeting and asked for comments from members of the Planning Commission.

  • 2:45:55, Commissioner Meren asked them to look at using pervious pavement for the Glen sidewalk.
  • 2:49:55, Commissioner McCullough clarified that RS-16 zoning, by itself, does not make a property at-risk for MAC zoning.  The property has to be in the identified MAC area along Maple.
  • 2:54:49, after some discussion, Commissioner Kenney suggested a solution to the problem of the lighted stairwell bothering the neighbors:  Face the windows north, toward Maple.  That seemed to meet with some agreement.
  • 3:00:48, Commissioner McCullough clarified that we are in agreement on enclosing the back wall of the parking garage.
  • 3:03:45, Commissioner McCullough wanted the developer to show what could be done “by right”.

I will interrupt here for my comment:  Boy am I tired of the “by-right boogey man”.  The Town itself actually worked up the by-right scenario for 444 Maple West.  Here’s the problem. The main drawback of the “by right” scenario is that the issue is not what might, conceivably, be built by-right.  The issue is that economics dictates what can profitably be built, within existing commercial zoning.  And the economics is far more constraining than the zoning itself.

The true by-right question is what could be profitably built by-right, given what’s on the lot now.  And that’s a tiny subset of what might conceivably (legally) be built by-right.

Sure, you can imagine a three-story lot-covering building under C1 zoning, with at least 50% of the space being commercial, and no landscaping.  But the reason you don’t actually see any of that, in town now, is that anyone building that would likely lose a ton of money.  We have a “market test” on that.

And, as Town staff did, in trying to help the builder of 444 Maple West, you can imagine that the builder would knock down existing structures in order to build something less valuable.  You can imagine the builder would put in a busy grocery store (making that the fourth grocery store in town), when in fact Town history shows we can support no more than three grocery stores.  Again, if that would be profitable, we’d already have that fourth grocery.  We have a market test on that.

So, in practice, what this “by right” scenario does is let somebody imagine something that would never be built, in an attempt to make the MAC alternative look better.  As such, the value of the “by right” exercise — at least as it has been done so far —  is less than zero.  All it does is mislead.  Because it is not restricted to profit-maximizing by-right construction.

Returning to Commissioner comments.

  • 3:04:40, Commissioner Meren noted that the view of the building from the adjacent property that the homeowner had provided looked materially different from the presentation by the developer.  There was some discussion of some way to settle which picture was correct.
  • 3:10:07, Commissioner McCullough brought up the utility lines on Wade Hampton, not Maple.
  • 3:13:11, Commissioner McCullough stated that the neighbors should start the petition process if they wish to close off Wade Hampton.  This was amplified by the developer, who said he had told the neighbors to do that three years ago, but they still have not done it.

I will stop here for a second to point out the following:  We did talk to the Town.  The Town refuses to take action proactively in traffic calming matters.   The Town will only take action after-the-fact.  So, in order for us to produce a petition, we have to wait for the buildings to get built, wait for cut-through traffic to be more of a problem, and ONLY at that point, can we then file a petition for (e.g.) closing Wade Hampton at Glen, or making it one-way-toward Maple at that point.  My point is, stop blaming us.  We did our due diligence, we have a full grasp of the facts, and there’s not one blessed thing we can do about this proactively.  All we can do is wait for it to become a problem, because there is no mechanism within Town government to address these issues proactively.

In fact, we are aware of just how much the Town is proposing to change that process, to make it harder for citizens to obtain “traffic calming” measures, and to give (in effect) first veto power to Town staff, rather than have an option for citizens to address a citizen board first.  It’s not even clear that street closure, listed currently as an option, will remain in the traffic calming guide.  So, trust me, we have an eye on this.  And, as I have said so often on this website, with these changes the town is once again sending the message of Town to Citizens:  Drop Dead.

  • 3:16:30, Commissioner McCullough brought up affordable housing.
  • 3:18:31, Commissioner Kenney plainly said that he would vote no on Option 1, as a “line in the sand” against five-floor buildings.  He then offered brief comments on several other aspects of this, including adding more height variation along Wade Hampton, as Option 2 did at the back of the building.
  • 3:30:50, Commissioner Couchman said she strongly supported Option 1.
  • 3:31:00, Commissioner McCullough revisited the issue of having the developer come back with a single option.
  • 3:31:41, Commissioner Baum doesn’t much like either, but would take Option 2 over option 1.
  • 3:35:14, motion to keep the public hearing open, and adjourn.

A few summary remarks.

I have to tip my hat to Commissioner Kenney in this meeting.  I think he was instrumental in solving the issue of parking lot noise by closing off the back of the garage.  And, on the fly, he seems to have resolved the issue of having the lighted stairwell annoy the neighbors.

Another fairly deep comment that I do not want to be lost was made about 2:30:00 into the meeting by Chuck Anderson, a former member of the Planning Commission.  We did not expect MAC to turn into a housing zone.  And now, we have zoning that has no residential standards.  But we need residential standards in MAC, because this is shaping up to be primarily a residential zone.  Without that, we could be building the tenements of the future.

My view of it is this:  Although I do not want this building here, it’s legal.  And in all fairness, we’ve gotten more movement from this developer, up to now, than we ever got out of the developers of 444 Maple West, up to the point where the Mayor literally dictated what the revised shape of the building would be.  The problem here isn’t the builder.  The problem is MAC, and what it allows to be built.