Post #245: The 4/18/2019 Board of Architectural Review meeting

Posted on April 18, 2019

Let me boil down last night’s Board of Architectural Review (BAR) meeting regarding the Marco Polo development to two words/two pictures and one question:

Bait: What they told the BAR they were building. This is what the BAR approved.  Georgetown-like red-brick/ironwork turn-of-the-last-century architecture.

Switch:  What they are actually proposing to build.  Chicago alleyway, complete with bricked-in windows.  (Who in their right mind includes bricked-in windows as a design feature in a new building?)

Looking on the bright side, at least the cars were the same.  Even if the building was not.

(In the drawing above, ignore the portion of the building fading off into the distance.  All of the new “switch” building matches what you see facing you.  The parts fading off into the distance are parts of the old “bait” building that they either didn’t bother to, or intentionally failed to, erase.)

This was, apparently, the first time the BAR had been asked to look at the revised plans. They were not pleased.

Church Street, in particular, is more-or-less treated as an alleyway.  Here I have crudely removed the buildings in the background, so you can see the face of this development, as it sits on Church.

It’s no exaggeration to say that if you added a couple of rusty fire escapes and a dumpster, you would not be able to tell it from any alleyway in a large Midwestern city.  My wife’s observation is that “it looks just like the subsidized housing in the City of Alexandria.”

I believe that was not lost on the BAR.   And this is on Church Street — you know, the one where the Town mostly got the redevelopment right.  Until now.

So here’s the question:  Who in our Town government is going to be held responsible for this?  Is anyone going to be held responsible for this?  And what’s to stop this from happening again? 

OK, that’s three questions.  But my bet is, they all have more-or-less the same answer:  Nobody, no, and nothing.

Interestingly, the original developer — the person who managed to achieve the passage of this — just recently sold it to a new developer.  In one of those strange coincidences, yesterday morning was the public announcement that the Marco Polo project had been sold to new owners.  Before this, the sale had merely been a rumor.  You certainly have to applaud his sense of timing.

The new owners clearly did not expect the reaction they got from the BAR. The new owners walked in with samples of bricks and other materials, for the BAR’s approval, so that they could start construction.  But the BAR more-or-less cancelled that.  The BAR deferred approval of anything until this could be straightened out.

I have a lot more to say about this, but I’ll just end by noting who was there, and who was not, to see this through.  For this item, the citizen audience consisted of a half-dozen people.  It was Vienna Citizens for Responsible Development (VCRD) and a handful of their friends.  They were there because they had done their homework.  John Pott — a founding member of VCRD — got up and asked for an investigation — why was this wholesale change only being brought to light now?  Chuck Anderson had spent the last two days compiling the complete history of how this occurred, along with clear “before-and-after” pictures.  On net, the BAR seemed appreciative of the information and clear presentation.

But in the end, it was the BAR itself that caught this.  They knew that what they were seeing was not the building they approved.  And, unsaid but pretty clear from the comments, had this “Chicago back alley” been the building they were shown, it would not have been approved.

At this point, I’m just going to clean up my audio recording and post it, so that you can hear the discussion for yourself, if you choose to do so.  I’ll have the link to that in a separate post.

But the long and short of it is that the building that the BAR passed had almost nothing to do with the building that the Town Council may-or-may-not-have passed.  The BAR was shown plans for a building that evoked turn-of-the-century Georgetown — red brick, ironwork, rounded facades, detailed windows, stone lintels.  It respected the adjacent streets by presenting a house-like facade.  And it would have been expensive as all get-out to build.

But what the Town Council appears to have passed — it’s not clear right now exactly what they were looking at — can best be described as Chicago back alley.  But as they were looking at that, they were also shown pictures of the original, Georgetown-like building.

Apparently both sets of plans — Georgetown turn-of-the-century and Chicago back alley — were presented, in pieces, simultaneously.  This is something I find hard to believe, because when the Planning Commission (PC) was explicitly faced with two sets of plans this year, for 380 Maple West, they literally didn’t know how to deal with it (Post #213).  They had not, within living memory, dealt with two different proposals simultaneously.

The Chair of the BAR rightly rejected any part of the discussion that dealt with how this came to pass, or what other parts of the Town of Vienna government did.  The BAR is not an investigative body.  He focused on what the BAR’s mission is, which is to review the architecture of buildings proposed for the Town of Vienna.

The bottom line is that the BAR deferred any decision on the Marco Polo/Vienna Market development.  They will have a work session to sort out how best to deal with the new plans that have been handed to them.  But it is not their job to ask how this mess came about.

Completely separately, and not to be forgotten, the BAR accepted Wawa’s gracious offer to build a solid vinyl fence at the back of their property.  If you want the back-story, read, in chronological order:  This post, then this post, then Post 241.   As one BAR member put it, Wawa met them more than halfway.