Post #429: The 10/22/2019 Town Council work session on MAC and commercial zoning

Posted on October 23, 2019

I attended last night’s Town Council work session on revising the commercial zoning codes along Maple.  You may download my audio recording at this Google Drive link, and my Excel workbook “index” file (as to what was said, when) at this Google Drive link.  The Town will probably post its own (and much better) audio recording in the “archives” section of this Town web page.  They started their recording at a different time from when I started mine, so the times in my “index” file will be close to, but not exactly right, for the Town’s recording.

I’m going to think about this another day before I post any analysis of what went on.  I’m just going to offer a broad outline here.

Town Council members were given a list of six broad topic areas that need to be addressed for any rewrite of MAC.  That was given to them, on a white board, by Town staff, and was in theory a summary of the seven lists that Town Council members had provided (available here).  That list of six broad topic areas is equivalent to the first column in my summary of Town Council’s comments, found in Post #427.  I had a slightly different list, and I annotated who said what.

After a lot of discussion, it turned out that the core task for the evening was to come up with questions to be used in surveying Vienna citizens to see what they want on Maple Avenue.  But, at the end of the more than 2.5 hour meeting, that task of drafting survey questions was turned over to the Department of Planning and Zoning.  Which, as I have said as emphatically as I can say, is, in my opinion, a classic blunder (Post #415).  That’s also what prompted my just-prior post.

In the course of that, Councilman Potter repeatedly pointed out that we already have considerable information about what people want, from various prior surveys.  It’s mostly a question of using it.   And there seemed to be general agreement on Town Council that the Town Council itself did not want any more buildings like 444 Maple West.   But the idea here appears to be to survey Town of Vienna citizens on the fine details of things like allowable building heights.

I found that Councilwoman Colbert made the single most cogent point of the entire evening.  And was … not quite ignored, really, but nobody quite knew what to do about it.  Her point is that you need to show people realistic choices, in the sense that you can’t promise small buildings and lots of benefits for the Town.  There simply would not be the economic surplus/profit from small buildings to allow the Town to ask for much in the way of proffers from builders.  Her point is that you need to know what’s economically feasible, as a whole, before having a survey.  She suggested getting some builders to provide cost estimates of what would and wouldn’t be profitable on Maple.

But beyond that lack of any idea whatsoever of the underlying economics of what the Town is doing, asking separate survey questions on different aspects of MAC completely guts the point she was trying to make.  If you want to see why, look at the two two questions on burying the power lines in my brief parody survey, Post #428 As it turns out, the Town had already asked about burying the power lines, in its own survey, and found that Town residents overwhelmingly favored burying the power lines.  Something line 91% agreed that would be a good thing to do.  But the question they asked was like my first power line question.  In effect, if it were costless to bury the power lines, would you do that?  Unsurprisingly, many said yes.  The Town did not ask my second, far more economically realistic question, which included the cost of doing so.

But the Town has a long-standing history of asking mom-and-apple pie questions, when soliciting citizen opinion about Maple Avenue.  And the answers to those questions, asked that way, are more or less meaningless.  And damned if it doesn’t look like the Town is going to do that yet again.

Separately, just for the record, Councilman Noble again came out strongly in favor of a random-sample survey.  I could not possibly agree with him more on this point.  In fact, he asked for a stratified random sample — one that attempted to get a survey sample that was a match for the demographic mis of the Town’s residents.  (And, I infer, would have used the response rate from the Town’s prior survey, by age category, to set up different sampling rates by age, so as to get responses that reflected the actual cross-section of Vienna residents.)  I’m just making the point that one Town Council member was absolutely clear that this should be a requirement for the survey.  What I did not hear was any general agreement, and in particular, I did not hear the Mayor second that idea.  So we’ll see what the Town actually gets.

I only have one more thing to note here, which is that Maple Avenue traffic was a major topic in my summary of Town Council commentsBut that somehow didn’t make the cut when Town Staff put together a list.  And the first (and only) brief mention of traffic, in the entire 2.5 hour meeting, occurred at 2:15.  (That’s the image at the top of the page — that’s a snapshot of my Excel “index” file for the meeting.)  It was mentioned, once, incidental to a discussion about parking.  Make of that what you will.

Oh, and the third map was still missing.  And yet, still very much talked about, in some form or another, by both Councilman Noble and Councilman Majdi.  If I have to draw it, it has no standing.  Town staff have to draw that third map, the one that shows the potential downtown “core” area.  Coucilman Noble described it (Lawyer’s to Park, Maple and Church), but there needs to be a picture and it needs to be given some official status.