Post #227: Lessons the Town has learned

Posted on April 5, 2019

I don’t encourage email.  You can find my email address on the splash page for this website, and I occasionally include it in posts when I am looking for someone to correct me on the facts.

I got an email on Wedenesday, from a reader of this site.  It was a classic example of why I discourage email.  I hate having to be “that guy”, that guy who always has something mean to say.

But in this case, I don’t see much choice.  There was nothing wrong with the email.  It was perfectly pleasant.  And I don’t need to say anything mean about the sender.

But it brought to my attention yet another thing the Town is doing.  So now — yet again — I need to say something deservedly mean about Town government.

Here’s what set me off.  My reader went to the Town’s “community workshops” last Friday and offered her comments.  And in her email to me, she included this, about 444 Maple Avenue West (the Tequila Grande development), emphasis mine:

" ...  The person with whom I spoke last Friday night said there was nothing the Town could do to reverse that.  She did however indicate the Town had learned lessons from that venture.  ... "  

Oh, yeah, our Town government has learned some lessons, all right.  But they are probably not the lessons you think.  Rather than just quietly email her back, I’m  going to lay out my view of the lessons the Town has learned.  In a nutshell, rather than back off one inch in the face of public protest, the Town has done nothing but double down.

Marco Polo/Vienna Market and the protest petition rules.

Situation: Residents adjacent to the Marco Polo site did not like the original proposal, a very large development with 54 deluxe townhouses and 40,000 square feet of retail.

Outcome:  Citizens filed a legal protest petition.  Pro-MAC forces on the Town Council could not muster the six votes needed in this protest situation.  The developer was sent back to the drawing board.

Lesson the Town could have learned:  Maybe these MAC buildings are too large and have too many persons/acre to be acceptable to Town of Vienna residents.

Lesson the Town actually learned:  The protest petition rules need to be weakened so this never happens again.  Town Council changed the rules to require just five votes to override a protest petition, not six.  And, subsequently, 444 Maple West passed 5-2, with only Springsteen and Majdi voting against.

Tequila Grande/444 Maple West and buildings the size of a football field.

Situation:  A football field, including end zones, covers just under 58,000 square feet.  The footprint of the 444 Maple West proposal is a little under 1.2 times the area of a football field.  Many citizens objected to this building, primarily due to its size.  One citizen — now Town Council candidate Steve Potter — set up an on-line petition against this building that drew more than 1100 signatures.  Town Council hearings drew overflow crowds.  By my count, roughly 100 people stood up to speak out against this building at various public hearings.

Lesson the Town could have learned: Maybe these MAC buildings are too large and have too many persons/acre to be acceptable to Town of Vienna residents.

Lesson the Town actually learned:  The MAC rules need to be amended to make sure football-field-sized buildings are explicitly OK.  So they proposed an amendment to MAC zoning that specifically allows building footprints up to 1.2x the area of a football field (literally, up to 350′ x 200′) before the developer is required to put separate buildings on the site instead of one large building.

The citizens remember that MAC was sold as “small town”, just four floors.

The situation: The existing statute explicitly limits buildings to four floors.  This was used as a “selling point” for MAC, because plenty of small towns have four-floor buildings in their downtown areas.  But the fourth and fifth MAC proposals (380 Maple West and Sunrise Assisted Living) both had five floors.

Lesson the Town could have learned:  Maybe the law needs to be tightened up to make sure that buildings are, in fact, limited to four floors.  The “mezzanine” section of the law is turning into a loophole to allow five floors.

Lesson the Town actually learned: The law needs to be modified to remove or nullify the four-floor provision, so that builders are free to build five floors.  Proposed changes to MAC zoning would, in fact, completely remove the “or four floors” limit on buildings.

The citizens want green and open space, but the current “open space” provision of MAC does nothing.

The situation:  From the beginning, citizens expected to get parks and plazas out of this change to the downtown.  When asked, more green space was the single most significant change citizens wanted from MAC.  But the existing “open space” provision does nothing.  In the case of Marco Polo, the “open space” is primarily a 5′ wide mowing strip wrapped around the base of the buildings.  For 444 Maple West, the open space is more or less the legally-requires building setbacks and legally required landscaping.

Lesson the Town could have learned:  The law needs to be changed to have an effective provision that creates significant “park and plaza”-type areas.

Lesson the Town actually learned: Now that the ineffectiveness of the “open space” requirement is common knowledge, we should replace that with a different, yet equally ineffective “gathering space” requirement.  (See post #212, calculations shown halfway down the page.)  Coordinate this with a provision for broader sidewalks, and the sidewalk areas (including outdoor restaurant seating, walled off from the rest of the sidewalk) will account for the required “gathering space”.  This effectively prevents the law with burdening builders with the requirement to include actual park-like or plaza-like areas in MAC redevelopment.

Concluding remarks.

I could go on, at length.  The only other one I’ll mention is the selectively-enforced ban on applause at Town public meetings. The Town passed this ban back in December of last year to discourage citizens from expressing negative sentiments about MAC.  But, in practice, not when they express positive opinions.  So, when Charles Anderson spoke at a recent public meeting, against the worst excesses of MAC zoning, he drew applause — and an immediate rebuke of the audience, from the chair of that Commission.  But when the Town’s contractor presented an outline of the (thing formerly known as the) Maple Avenue traffic study, the applause afterward (prompted by some thank-you’s from Town Council members) … drew no rebuke.

So what we have now, in practice, is a ban on applauding for things the Town doesn’t like.  That will draw a rebuke.  But we are encouraged to applaud for things the Town likes.  No rebuke there.

FWIW, we’ve already checked, and yeah, even without the selective enforcement, a government-enforced blanket ban on applause appears to be a violation of First Amendment rights that has already been tested by court cases.  I only bring it up because it nicely completes the picture of a Town that is determined not to hear what citizens have to say.

So if you think the pro- MAC portion of Town Council isn’t listening, you’re wrong.  They appear to hear the developers just fine.  It’s only the citizens they are deaf to.