Post #297: Chick-fil-A-car-wash, is that really a 20′ setback?

Posted on June 12, 2019

If you ever want to introduce MAC zoning to somebody outside of the Town of Vienna, just say “Chick-fil-A-car-wash”.  One word.  As in, “Oh, yeah, the first thing they are building is a Chick-fil-A-car-wash.”

Don’t explain it.  Act like it’s perfectly normal.  Keep talking.  And see how far you get before somebody says “a what?”.

At that point, they will have grasped the essence of MAC zoning.  They’re going to do what?  How big is that going to beAnd that pretty much covers it.

I’ve done a series of articles tracking the progress of the Chick-fil-A-car-wash.  You can read them here, here, here, and here.  Except for that last post — where construction of the exterior mysteriously halted just prior to the Town elections — its a series of posts detailing that a) the building was going to get bigger yet, and b) by MAC standards, this is a small building.

And now, the building is about as big as it’s going to get.  And it’s still small, by MAC standards.  But mostly, this post focuses on the outdoor dining area in the front of the building.

In my last post, I noted that the architects apparently did not account for the hill on 123 west of Vienna when they planned the exterior of the building.  They put up some parapet walls, presumably to hide the AC equipment on the roof.  But, due to the hill, as you enter Vienna from Oakton, your initial view of Vienna now prominently features the AC equipment sitting squarely in the middle of the Chick-fil-a-car-wash roof.  Presumably, if anyone in a position of power complains, they can fix that with some type of decorative fencing, after-the-fact.

But my most recent observation is about the distance between the Maple Avenue curb and the front of the building.  I have been joking for some time that you’ll be able to roll down your car window and shake hands with anybody crazy enough to use the outdoor seating in front of the Chick-fil-A-car-wash. But that’s a joke, and I know that’s a joke.

That said, my wife recently attended a luncheon (honoring some volunteer service) and a considerable portion of the chitchat was about the Chick-fil-A-car-wash.  And, specifically, the outdoor seating area planned for the front of the building.  My point is that many people are now independently figuring out that the outdoor seating area in front of that building is more-or-less a joke.  As in, who in their right mind would choose to sit there, directly adjacent to Route 123, to eat their lunch?

This is a point that I’ve made repeatedly on this website.  You can see some exact sound level measurements on this page, or listen to what a dinner conversation might sound like on this page.  In addition, the current lack of seating directly adjacent to Maple gives us a market test for how desirable it is.  It’s clearly not desirable, or someone would have built some by now.

But, arguably, the worst aspect of this is that the people who designed MAC could easily have tested this out ahead of time, simply by sitting in any one of the bus shelters along Maple and trying to have a conversation.  The bus shelters vary, but the back of the bench typically sits 15′ to 20′ from Maple.  If you want to experience roadside dining along Maple, under MAC zoning, get a sandwich and eat it while sitting in a bus shelter.

Here’s the kicker:  The Chick-fil-a-car-wash is actually generously compliant — more than compliant — with the MAC setback requirements.  The plans show that the front of the building is set back almost 24′ from the Maple Avenue curb, versus the legally required 20′ along Maple.  I just walked down there and verified it.  It is as stated in the plans.  The furthest-forward portion of the (fake) brick facade is just about exactly 24′ from the Maple Avenue curb, using my laser tape measure.

So, the outdoor eating area of the Chick-fil-a-car-wash is further from road than the law requires.  It is further, in fact, than the Maple Avenue face of 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande (about 21′), and much further than the Nutley Street face of 444 Maple West (15′ or so).

Now we get to the deeper question:  Now that you can see it in real life, it seems completely obvious to most people that this open-air dining area directly adjacent to Maple is a joke.  It’s all-but-useless.  But even before the Chick-fil-A-car-wash was built, a simple measurement with a recording decibel meter easily documented how loud it will be directly adjacent to Maple.  And it was completely feasible for the designers of MAC to test that out ahead of time, simply by sitting in a bus shelter.  Why, then, does every MAC project so far have outdoor seating directly adjacent to Maple?

My answer is that this is the great “let’s pretend” portion of MAC zoning.  The original schtick about MAC is that, sure, we’re going to have these great big buildings.  But in return for allowing that, we’re going to get some huge public benefits.  In the “purpose and intent” section of the law, they talk about “parks and plazas” as a public benefit of MAC zoning.

But, in fact, MAC was written more-or-less to maximize the value of Maple Avenue property, subject to some limits.  The writing of the law, was, in fact, overseen by Maple Avenue property owners and others with a direct financial interest in development along Maple.

So, how do you pretend to create something of great value for the Town, pretend to fulfill the “parks and plazas” mandate of the purpose and intent section of the law, but not actually cost the property owners anything?  You take the mandatory setbacks from the roadways, put some outdoor seating there, and declare it to be value “open space”/”gathering space” for benefit of the people of Vienna.

But in order to do that, you must steadfastly ignore how unpleasant the space is, directly adjacent to Maple Avenue.  And as a result, every MAC project must include some essentially-unusable outdoor eating space, directly adjacent to Maple Avenue.  And we have to pat ourselves on the back and describe it as valuable “gathering space”.

But here’s the dumbest part, with respect to the Chick-fil-A-car-wash.  The developers wanted to use the space in front of the building as an access road, just as it is now.  That way, cars using the drive-through window could turn left up the access road, past McDonald’s, and return to Maple westbound.  Instead, the Town insisted that the area be an outdoor seating area, because, see paragraph above.  They needed that area as their fig leaf.  So now, every car that goes through the Chick-fil-A-car-wash drive through window must turn right onto Maple and pass through the Maple/Nutley intersection.  Which is, of course, just exactly what that intersection needs on a Saturday afternoon.

In any case, if you look at the outdoor seating area of the Chick-fil-A-car-wash and ask “what were they thinking” — well, now you know.  They were thinking “we have to make up some benefit for the Town out of this.”   And that outdoor seating area — a generous 24′ from the Maple Avenue curb — that’s the marvelous public benefit that MAC generated in this case.  That’s our new “gathering space”.  I hope you enjoy it.