Post #296: Marco Polo/Vienna Market continues to evolve

Posted on June 12, 2019

This Friday, 6/14/2019, at 8 AM (yes, AM) in Town Hall, the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) will again examine revised plans for the Marco Polo/Vienna Market project.   It will be interesting to see how this evolves. I put in a series of drawings below to show how the Church Street view of the building has changed, ending with the drawings to be examined this Friday.

Looking forward, I think the more interesting question is how the BAR’s changes will be enforced.  For the time being, let’s assume the BAR and the builder can agree on a building.  After that, then who, exactly, is in charge of making sure the actual building matches that agreement?  As with the changes in the plans, does the Director of Planning and Zoning have the final say as to whether a building is substantially similar to what was originally agreed upon?

If so — if enforcement is in the hands of the individuals who played a key role in creating this mess — then these BAR meetings take on a tinge of theater of the absurd.  The BAR can demand any degree of architectural sophistication that it deems reasonable.  And then, when it comes time actually to build the building, that can all be erased by the Town bureaucracy.

So, it will be interesting to see what the BAR and the builder can agree to.  It will be more interesting still to see what actually gets built, and whether it bears anything more than a passing resemblance to any agreed-upon building.

For those who have not been following this issue, you can get up to speed by reading posts #245, #249, #253, #283.  In a nutshell:  Last year, the BAR approved plans for ornate Georgetown-style stone/red brick/wrought iron town houses on this site.  After that approval, partial plans for plain-vanilla generic-NOVA brown-brick were slowly introduced into the packet of plans — alongside the original design.  The Planning Commission saw one packet without the new partial plain-vanilla plans, and with packet with them.  The Town Council was given and passed a packet with both sets of plans.  The building was then sold, and when the new developer arrived for final approval by the BAR — for the plain-vanilla generic-NOVA brown-brick townhouses –the BAR said, nope.  Nope, that’s not what we approved.  And that’s the mess that they are trying to resolve now.

At the last work session on this topic, the instructions from the BAR were clear:  The developer needs to produce a building that is at least the equal of the original in terms of richness of architectural detail.  The builder’s architect protested that the modern style of what they had proposed does not lend itself to that level of architectural detail.

And now we get to see what happens next.

The comparison of the prior concept plan and the new concept plan has been posted by the Town of Vienna at this location.  Below is my version of the buildings facing Church Street, after crudely removing the buildings in the background.

The top is the original concept plan as approved by the BAR.  The middle one is the “plain vanilla” generic-NoVA town houses.  The bottom is the most recent iteration, to be presented to the BAR this Friday.


I guess that’s moving ahead.  Certainly, the worst offenses are gone — the bricked up windows and the metal utility double-doors.  Beyond that, I guess it’s just a question of what you’re used to.  To me, closely-spaced brown-brick buildings with flat roofs evoke Chicago, not Virginia.  But to other people, I suppose this must look downright attractive and homey.

As I look at the Maple Avenue view, the only thing I’m sure of is that this is completely unlike anything currently on Maple Avenue.  Not just for the fact that this is a housing development on Maple.  More for the densely-packed housing with a flat roof.  And for the self-consciously tacked-on ornamentation and broken-up facade that are hallmarks of the “stumpies” that are being built everywhere these days.  And, I guess, for the appearance that the bottom of the building and the top of the building came from two completely different Lego sets.

The pro-MAC members of Town Council have sold MAC as revitalizing Maple Avenue retail and bringing in beautiful mixed-use buildings.  What they failed to add is “that will stick out like a sore thumb”.  And, at a scale that dwarfs the surrounding buildings.

So, this building will be a landmark, for sure.  One way or the other.

But I have to return to my original question.  Suppose we all agree that this building is not a pig in lipstick, but is instead the acme of architectural sophistication for housing on Maple.  Even then, whose job is it to make sure that the building actually matches these new plans?  What is there to prevent Town staff and the builder from agreeing that the plain-vanilla building is equivalent to the final version, and so could be built instead?

Are the people who were instrumental in creating this mess now charged with enforcing the cleanup?  If so, that’s just plain bad government.  And that would definitely make me wonder about the extent to which the BAR’s deliberations will turn out to be just so much theater.  I applaud them for the work that they do, but I wonder who in Town government can simply undo any or all of that when it comes time to build.