Post #222: TC, PC, TSC joint work session, 4/1/2019, Part One: Sunrise Assisted Living

Posted on April 2, 2019

Last night, the Town Council (TC), Planning Commission (PC), and Transportation Safety Commission (TSC) held a joint work session to talk about two items.  The first was what used to be referred to as the Town’s Maple Avenue Traffic study.  But should not be referred to as that, in the future.  The second was the Sunrise Assisted Living facility proposed for Maple and Center, next to the Vienna Inn.

I will be posting the cleaned-up audio for that meeting, shortly, along with the usual Excel index file, so you can tell what was said, when.  In this post, I give my impression of the discussion of the Sunrise proposal.

The major takeaways, in brief

There was not much change in the proposal.  They cut down the fifth (“mezzanine”) floor so that it would be legal under the generous MAC definition of mezzanine.   The made up for that by placing the lobby/foyer for the assisted living facility on the ground floor.  They lost one room in the process, so this is still somewhere around 100 beds, which appears to be their standard model see table, Post #205..   They reduced the retail square footage somewhat.  They also appear to have changed the exterior treatment of some windows, and asked for a larger fence, to make it less obvious from the outside of the building that half the building has five floors.

Otherwise, this one is just another variation of the MAC box:  It’s as tall as the law allows, as wide as the law allows (given the sewer line easement that will run next to the Vienna Inn), and a few feet shy of being as deep as the law allows. The rear of the building sits about 15′ off the lot line, which is several feet further from that line than it has to be by law, I think.  And has just about as many dwelling units as they could reasonably fit into the building.

My take on it is that, despite some misgivings by a some TC and PC members, this is in on a fast track toward a pro-forma approval.   Particularly given the “determination” on mezzanines (see below).

FWIW, my understanding of a similar structure on Broad Street in Falls Church is that an assisted living really is as low-impact on the neighborhood as Sunrise claims.  (Give or take a handful of holidays, which, in my experience with two assisted living facilities, are going to be a traffic problem, despite anything Sunrise may claim.  But all that means is a avoiding that intersection on the mornings of a few holidays per year.)

Further in its favor, this building is wholly within the core of the Town’s commercial district, so plausibly a height of on-order-of 60′ at the highest point is acceptable there.  It is adjacent to nothing but other commercial property.  Not, as with 380 Maple West, adjacent to neighborhoods.

But beyond that, Town Council still has not come to grips with the problems that this building shares with 380 Maple West.

The first of those is the first-mover advantage, also known as the extent to which this building impedes redevelopment of the adjacent lots. This one, at least, stays 15′ from the rear lot line, and 10′ from the side lot line (measured from the bay windows overhanging the sewer easement).  This is materially better than 380 Maple Avenue West, where (by my measurement) the ends of the balconies come within 3′ of the side lot line.

Since I am more than happy not to see further MAC-sized building in Town, I’m OK with this.  If, say, the size and position of 380 Maple West prevents MAC-type development of the next lot up the street, great.  (In the sense that it appears that the Town will allow a building that size, and with that much lot coverage.  So, given that we’re stuck with it, the fact that it makes it much harder for the next lot to be developed is a plus.)

But in both cases, any notion of a pleasant view out the windows, for these initial buildings, depends on someone not putting up a similar building on the adjacent lots.  As I said with 380 West, and will continue to say, Town Council needs to have the developers do a rendering with the mirror-image of the building shown on the adjacent lot.  Otherwise, they are allowing themselves to be fooled by all the empty space around the building.  That’s empty space that belongs to other people, and may be used by them to build future MAC buildings that are just as large, and just as close to the lot line, as the ones going up now.

The second issue is that the trucks servicing this building will do all their maneuvering in the street.  In this case, on Center street.  (Unless I’m misreading the plans, which is always possible — there was no “autoturn” diagram supplied with these plans to make the truck entry and exit path clear.)

To me, the most plausible truck maneuvering would have trucks turning from Maple onto Center, stopping in the middle of Center, then backing up across the sidewalk into the loading bay.

Just FYI, this new approach to truck delivery, which now appears to be the norm for MAC buildings, is brought to you by the same people who are trying to convince you that our current sidewalks are not safe.  You know, the sidewalks where any cars or trucks that cross them are facing forward, not backing up, when they cross the sidewalk.  Sheesh.

To my eye, this looks far worse then 380 Maple West in that regard. Not only is Center a fairly busy street, but assisted living facilities get a lot of truck traffic.  Where 380 Maple West really only had to worry about the servicing the retail spaces on a daily basis, this building will be trucking in supplies (including food and drink, pre-packaged prescription drugs, and for at least some patients, incontinence supplies) and trucking out waste for about 100 people.  Plus any marginal truck traffic servicing the retail space.  So, my guess is, this facility will have substantially more truck traffic, on a busier road, than 380 Maple West will.  And those trucks will use Center street either to back into the loading space, or back out of it.

I am trying to think of whether there’s any place like that now, in Vienna.  Where trucks have to maneuver, on the street, to get to the loading area of a commercial building.  If so, that’s not coming to me.  Even the semis that unload in the parking lots of the 7-11s, I believe they pull forward into and out of the lot.  (I.e., they do their maneuvering in the parking lot.)

And, because the Town seems to be giving these builders a pass on that, that’s now an accepted feature of these and future MAC buildings.  You can hardly allow Sunrise and 380 Maple West to do that, and then say no to the next guy.

Mezzanine determination

To me, it’s clear that Town Planning and Zoning staff are bound and determined to allow the builders to do what they want to do.  More or less, they have acted as cheerleaders for MAC and defenders of the developers.  And the tussle over “mezzanine” is probably the single best illustration of that.

People quickly forget recent history, so I’m going to remind you of the tricks that Town staff tried, on the last round of review for Sunrise, to justify what Sunrise wanted.  Then get down to this most recent “determination”.

You may have some naive notion of what a mezzanine is.  It’s a floor that is open to the floor below.  Naively, like a balcony in a movie theater. As you will see below, you can forget that.  At least, in the Town of Vienna you can.

As background, realize that adding a fifth floor via a “mezzanine” floor has been controversial.  For years, the Town sold MAC as allowing buildings that had, at most, four floors.  Then — shazam — the two most recent proposals had five.  The Town’s first approach was just to paper over it by not admitting that these buildings had five floors.  It was “a half story” or “an intermediate level” or some such.  Thank goodness that one PC member — Commissioner Kenney — dug in his heels and would not let the Town paper over the issue.

When Sunrise first produced plans, they had a mezzanine floor that spanned the majority of the building.  A few of the people in authority questioned the legality of that.  And here I’ll point to Commissioner Kenney and I believe PC chairman Gelb.

Immediately, Planning and Zoning Director came to the defense of the developers.  Citing chapter and verse, she said the oversized floor was legal because the plain language of MAC statute only applied to residential mezzanines, and this was a commercial mezzanine.

As far as I can tell, she simply made that up.  And I said so at the time.  It had all the earmarks of a classic bureaucratic baffle-them-with-baloney strategy.  That is, even if it isn’t true, if the people listening to you swallow whatever line you are pushing, then, problem solved.  And if they don’t, then you ignore that you ever said that, and think up some other reason why that mezzanine is legal.  And so on.  Keep throwing things at the wall, until something sticks.  The goal of “this is legal” never changes.  Only the rationale does.

The reason I’m bringing this back up is two-fold.  First, that strategy works if and only if people keep forgetting that you’ve used it in the past.  But second, more to the point, if it actually was legal, as was claimed, then we’d have to believe that Sunrise, purely out of the goodness of their hearts, completely re-arranged two floors of their building, and lost some rentable beds.  All merely to avoid irking some individuals who mistakenly believed that what they proposed was not legal.  Even though Director Petkac assured them that it was.

So, that’s the setup.  The first time this was looked at publicly, Sunrise had a fifth floor that spanned more than half the building.  Director Petkac asserted that this was legal, but enough people didn’t buy that that Sunrise was forced to rethink its plan.

But this time?  This time, Planning and Zoning was not taking any chances that the silly old Town Council might object. Even though adding a fifth floor is controversial, and may cost some Town Council members their seats, the last thing Planning and Zoning wanted was to allow Town Council to have any say in this. 

So Planning and Zoning pre-emptively made this new Sunrise mezzanine legal.  They issued a “determination”, which is a legally binding opinion.  They did this, with respect to the new Sunrise mezzanine, before Town Council had a chance to review the plans in public.  Because, God Forbid that our elected representatives should have any real say in this.  I mean, look what they did to that perfectly fine fifth floor that Sunrise had in its original plans.  They inconvenienced a developer, and we can’t have that happen a second time.

So, they didn’t present Town Council with this and ask their opinion.  They went ahead and made sure it was legal.  Then showed it to Town Council.  Councilman Noble, to his credit, pointed out that with this determination, they had set a few unusual precedents that they may come to rue at some point.  I.e., that they had opened up yet more loopholes for the next developer to exploit.  But, given that this was directed at Planning and Zoning, I’m not sure it was taken as the rebuke that was intended, or merely as confirmation of a job well done.

So the finding did two things.  First, the entire footprint of the building counts as the “floor area” of the floor mezzanine overlooks.  That’s what Councilman Noble objected to.  And second, the mezzanine does not, in fact, have to be open to the floor below.  As long as there are windows, that counts.  And, what a surprise — that’s exactly what Sunrise is proposing to do.

Finally, in one odd twist, the “determination” was issued as a .pdf image only.  I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that’s because it legally required a wet (actual ink-on-paper signature).  At any rate, here’s the determination:

So, once again, as we have seen with the proposed rewrite of MAC, our Planning and Zoning department has taken something that one developer wants to do, and has written the law around that.  If 444 Maple West is larger than a football field — then the Town’s response is to rewrite MAC so that football-field-sized buildings are explicitly allowed.  If the “open space” requirement is known to be useless, then replace that with an equally useless “gathering space” requirement, so as not to waste any of the builder’s valuable land on “parks and plazas”.

My final thought on this is the following question:  Can you pronounce clerestory?  I always have a hard time with that one.  If you can, then I think you see the future of fifth floors in MAC buildings.