Post #493: 12/11/2019 Planning Commission meeting

Posted on December 12, 2019

Carlyle acorn

Which picture does not belong?  Source of images:  Dominion Energy website.


Last night’s Planning Commission meeting was about the proposed Sunrise assisted living facility at 380 Maple West (Maple and Wade Hampton).  The MAC building at that location was approved with the understanding that it was going to be 40-ish condos plus first floor retail.  But plans changed after approval, and it’s now slated to be an assisted living facility.  This meeting was one of several legally-required hearings to bless that change.

The important upshot is that the Planning Commission unanimously approved everything they had to approve.  I don’t think that came as a surprise. 

You can find the meeting materials, including the most current building plans, on this web page.  If you just want to look at pictures of the building, download this document (.pdf).  If you want the full technical detail, download this document (.pdf).

You can find the Town’s recording of the meeting this at this link:   For me, that only plays in Chrome, but YMMV.  Times for starts of major sections:

  • Staff presentation: 0:04
  • Discussion of traffic counts 0:20
  • Sunrise’s presentation 0:27
  • Comments from the public start around 0:59.
  • Closure of public comment, and start of Commissioner comment, 1:20
  • Final vote, 2:18
  • End of meeting, 2:38

My ten-second take on it?  In general, my conclusion is that, to a very large degree, Sunrise listened to and acted on the neighborhood’s concerns. 

Unlike what you may have seen for other MAC projects, public comment started off with a  next-door-neighbor a) praising the developer for listening and responding, and b) offering support for the project.  Followed by several others in the neighborhood echoing that sentiment.  And the first speaker set the tone for much of the rest of the discussion:  Our main remaining concern is traffic.  It’s not just this one building, it’s going to be the cumulative effect of all the traffic generated by all the MAC buildings.  We want the Town to protect us, proactively, from the cut-through traffic that all this new development on Maple is likely to generate.

Many of my neighbors and I really would like to close Wade Hampton at Glen Avenue.  Our feeling  — between 444 Maple West, and this building, and all the rest that are likely to follow — is that if the Town is bound and determined to do this, fine.  Just keep the resulting cut-through traffic out of our neighborhood.  We’ve already been told that Public Works will not consider even as much as putting up a no-through-traffic-during-rush-hour sign.  So, we’d just like to sever the connection to Maple entirely, despite the obvious inconvenience to ourselves.

Separately, I found another issue that I would raise, given below in the section on lighting.  Sunrise appears to have been diligent about minimizing light, noise, and traffic spillovers onto the neighborhood.  But the Town of Vienna, less so.  The issue is installing four of the Town’s “Carlyle” acorn-style olde-tyme streetlights on that short stretch of Wade Hampton, a few feet from what will be bedroom windows in the Sunrise building, and a few tens of yards from residences across the street.  (N.B. Those lights are NOT shown on the architectural renderings, only on the lighting diagram.)  I think that’s the single most intrusive aspect of this proposal that could be easily remedied.

What’s the problem?  From the standpoint of lighting impact, those acorn lights are only slightly better than having high-wattage naked bulbs sitting atop poles.  Fine for an industrial/commercial area (the existing Maple).  But I’ll leave it to the reader to figure how how appropriate it is to locate those a few feet from somebody’s bedroom window.  Let alone in an existing residential neighborhood.  I believe the Town needs to rethink the use of those, period, if it continues with its plan to convert Maple Avenue into a housing district (plus retail).


The meeting.

The public hearing on this issue starts about 4 minutes into the recording.  Town Staff presentation went on for about ten minutes.  Here are just a handful of things I’d like to review, as they affect the neighborhood.

Just as an aside, I don’t think there’s any doubt that this assisted living facility will be approved.  It’s just a question of doing the legally-required steps.  For one thing, there’s the $30M lawsuit that Sunrise filed for being turned down, still hanging over this.  For another, given that the Town has approved a big building there, this is likely to be the least-intrusive use from the neighbor’s perspective.  For a third thing, at this point pretty much everyone has given on up on the idea that MAC was supposed to generate significant public benefits and “open space” — what was described as “parks and plazas” in the MAC statute.  This building expands the Maple Avenue sidewalk from the current 11′ to 20′, and (I think) puts a short stretch of power lines underground.  But at this point (post-Chick-fil-A-car-wash), people have come to expect no more than than that, and have come to view lot-covering buildings as the new norm.

Traffic and parking.   

In general, the conclusion is that we’re going to get more traffic than the current building generates.  Particularly more weekend traffic.  But that we’ll get less additional traffic from the assisted living facility than we would have gotten out of the condos plus retail.

FWIW, the traffic study suggests that average weekday traffic into and out of that building will be about twice what we have now (419 trips versus 230 trips).  Weekend traffic will be much higher than currently, because offices are largely closed on the weekend, but an assisted living facility is 24/7/365). But the traffic report only shows Saturday peak hour trips.

As always, you have to take these traffic projections with a grain of salt.  Among other things, the estimate of increased traffic assumed that the existing office building is a fully rented, economically vibrant building, and matches the average of some sample-of-convenience data used by the traffic engineers.  But because that’s not true, the traffic impact study overstates the amount of traffic we have there now, as we have seen in other recent studies (Post #465).  This is a systematic problem of failure to correct for “selection bias”, as I described in Post #364.

This overstatement of existing traffic was among the issues raised by Commissioner Patariu around 20 minutes into the recording.  He made the plea for actually counting the existing traffic into and out of these properties.  He got gavelled down, and Town staff didn’t back off an inch, so don’t expect them to change what they do any time soon.  This was not helped by Commissioner Couchman, who both completely misunderstood the technical issue and strongly supported staff’s decision not to count actual current traffic.  This tells me I need to do yet another post to try to explain this issue once again.  In any case, it could be worse.  The projections are that the assisted living facility will generate about twice the current weekday traffic, but only about half the weekday traffic that the condos-plus-retail would have.

For what it’s worth, the builder appears to make a good-faith effort to keep traffic from this building out of the adjacent neighborhood.  The outlet of the parking garage on Wade Hampton is marked (“no left turn”) to prevent people from traveling back into the adjacent neighborhood, and a “pork chop” island will provide a physical reminder not to turn left (though it’s not hard to drive around such a barrier).

In general, the treatment of the Wade Hampton roadway is a lot better in this iteration than with the building full of condos.  For one thing, the developers actually provided a realistic truck-turn diagram.  Second, most of the truck maneuvering can be accomplished by driving through the building, rather than backing-and-filling on Wade Hampton itself, because they retained access to the building on Maple Avenue.  For a third, they’ve given up on striping Wade Hampton for three lanes, likely due to the expected reduced traffic flow.  Which is good, because trucks weren’t going to be able to make the turn onto Wade Hampton if a car were sitting in a center-turn lane anyway.

And instead of destroying street parking, they actually added one space.  Just as an example of how things go in the Town of Vienna, when the building was presented as condos, at one point Town staff claimed the condo building would result in no loss of street parking.  Now that it’s assisted living, Town staff claim that the assisted living is better, because the condo building would have resulted in loss of street parking.  Go figure.

The only new information I got out of that is that you can’t park within 30′ of a stop-sign-controlled intersection, per Town code.  I had missed that in my prior parking analysis, and instead read a separate section about staying 20′ back from an intersection.  That said, people actually park on Wade Hampton as I had said (Post #391).

Open space and green space — not discussed but still important.

The “open space” calculation for this building provides yet another example of the totally ineffective open space requirements of the law On the detailed plans (physical page 8), you can see that the legally-required setbacks from the street, plus the narrow alleyway between the building and the adjacent lot, sum to about 6400 square feet, substantially more than the required “open space” for this lot.  As occurred with 444 Maple West, in this case the open space “requirement” doesn’t actually require any additional open space, above what is already legally required for setbacks and/or separation from the lot next door.  In addition, a good chunk of the “open space” here is a narrow strip sandwiched between the building and a fence at the lot line (i.e., not even visible open space, unless you are standing right at the end of the fence).  So, as near as I can tell, that part of the law is simply window dressing.  It’s a great selling point when touting the benefits of MAC zoning, but it doesn’t actually require anything that is not already legally required.

The story for green space (which I will sloppily equate to “pervious area” here) is pretty much the same.  Existing lot has 10.8% pervious area, all of it in the form of turf, almost all of it visible as you pass by.  The new plan has 13.4% pervious area, of which about a third is the area sandwiched between the building and the fence on the lot line (i.e., not visible unless you stand at the end of the fence).  So this new proposal has more green space, but less visible green space, than the lot as it currently stands.  And, in particular, the green space visible from an arbitrary point on Maple Avenue appears greatly reduced.  Separately, as with the previous plan, the builder plans to use a storm water planter to control runoff from the lot.

Visual and audible spillovers into the neighborhood.

In general, Sunrise appears to have tried to address neighbors’ concerns about the back of the building.  The top floor is stepped back about 20′ more than legally required.  They reduced the window area of the back facade.  They made the storm-water planter less of a box by adding curved surfaces to it.  The electrical transformer at the back of the lot will sit in an enclosure.

They also appeared to be sensitive to noise and light issues.  In addition to reducing the window area, their lighting plan shows low stray light levels at the rear property line (with a caveat to be noted below).  And they decided against having a garage door, because they thought that the noise of opening and closing a garage door would exceed the reduction in noise from closing in the garage with a garage door.

In fact, likely the single most obnoxious source of stray light in the entire proposal is not going to be from Sunrise per se.  It’s going to be from the Town’s insistence on lining Wade Hampton with those “olde-tyme” acorn-style lights.  These lights are not shown on the architectural renderings, so you don’t see them in any of the visuals for the site.  But they are shown (Letter A) on the last page of the technical drawings, the lighting plan.

Where regular streetlights are way over your head, and largely shine down, and can be replaced (eventually) with dark-sky-compliant lights (as Fairfax County is doing, slowly, through out this area, .pdf), those acorn lights sit about 14′ off the ground, and shine in every direction, and basically illuminate the sky as much as the ground.  Functionally, they are only modestly better than having naked high-wattage light bulbs sitting atop the poles.

Assuming I’m reading that right, there are going to be four (!) of those inefficient but cute lights on that short stretch of Wade Hampton.  Shining in every direction.  Located within a few yards of residences.  I’m certainly glad I won’t be living across the street from that.  And it’s clearly a mistake to locate these right outside somebody’s bedroom window, which is what you are doing by placing them adjacent to the Sunrise building.

I think this is a mistake, pure and simple, and the Town needs to rethink the use of these lights on the MAC Maple streetscape.  The Town adopted those lights when Maple was, as it now is, a purely commercial district with no buildings directly adjacent to the road.  The fact that they shine out in every direction was mostly harmless, albeit hugely wasteful and completely at odds with modern dark-sky lighting requirements.  But now, those are a poor choice if located directly adjacent to somebody’s bedroom.  Or even in a neighborhood, because you’ll have line-of-sight view of those brightly lit acrylic “acorn” globes.  I think the Town needs to take a hard look at that, and change its requirement that those lights must be installed in those locations.

Finally, Sunrise is to be commended for providing true ground-level (pedestrians’-eye) views of the building, as requested.  These are far more helpful than other approaches for judging exactly how this will look to the neighbors than other approaches (see to see how other approaches can distort perceptions about a building).  So here, as opposed to the renderings provided for the Chick-fil-a-car-wash (Post #420), the modestly broader sidewalk (14′ paved, 20′ total distance to the curb) in front of the building looks like exactly that — a modestly broader sidewalk.

Source:  Snapshot from Town of Vienna recording of the 12/11/2019 Planning Commission meeting.

(Separately, note that the picture clearly shows what I described about the green space earlier.  The green space visible from Maple, on the new building, is substantially smaller than it is now.  Compare to poor Google Street view snapshot below.)

It’s also worth noting (at around 51:00 into the tape) that they are aware of issues for those with mobility problems.  So, while they show a brick sidewalk, they plan to do that as brick over a concrete slab, to keep the brick surface as level as possible.  Otherwise, all entrances to the building are “at grade” and don’t require steps.  Given their resident population, I think Sunrise tends to be sensitive to issues like this, and the design appears to reflect that.

 Public comment started around 0:59

Unlike what you may have seen for other MAC projects, public comment started off with a  next-door-neighbor a) praising the developer for listening and responding, and b) offering support for the project.  Followed by several others in the neighborhood echoing that sentiment.  And the first speaker set the tone for much of the rest of the discussion:  Our main remaining concern is traffic.  It’s not just this one building, it’s going to be the cumulative effect of all the traffic generated by all the MAC buildings.  We want the Town to protect us, proactively, from the cut-through traffic that all this new development on Maple is likely to generate.

Of the speakers, Mike Ahrens in particular has taken the lead in showing the Town what could be done with that area.  He specifically asked that the Town bundle the closing of Wade Hampton at Glen as part of this overall project.  Basically, we’re at Ground Zero of Maple Avenue redevelopment, and from our perspective, it makes sense to block arterial traffic from running down our narrow neighborhood streets.

Many other speakers mentioned traffic, and some brought in traffic-calming measures less radical than outright road closure.  But it was clear that cut-through traffic from MAC development was our number one concern.

Subsequently, the Planning Commissioner’s commented, and, to summarize my take on it, it’s not their problem.  They punted the traffic issue to the Transportation Safety Commission (TSC). 

Well, it it’s up to TSC, we’ve already lost the battle.  Near as I can tell, the special accommodation that Public Works/TSC are willing to make, in this case, is … basically none.  Instead of using actual existing traffic counts, they’ll add in projected traffic from approved MAC buildings.  Beyond that, we can stand in line with everybody else in Vienna.  I have already summarized this in Post #436 and other posts done around that time.  The upshot is that they absolutely refuse to consider keeping a pleasant neighborhood pleasant, and only when we hit the appropriate threshold of traffic misery will they act, and then only if we jump through all the appropriate hoops.

If nothing else, I hope that other neighborhoods adjacent to Maple are taking note of this.  If your neighborhood currently does not have a big traffic problem, but you think MAC-generated development in your neighborhood will create such a problem, well … you’re stuck with it.  The Town does not see its job as preserving the peace and quiet of a neighborhood.  The Town only sees its job as acting once a neighborhood has already been made less livable by traffic.

In any case, DPW jumps in about 1:30 into the recording, and it’s pretty clear that they aren’t going to close the road.  It’s not clear they’d consider doing anything, to tell the truth.

In fact, I guess I would characterize more-or-less all the ensuing discussion, save the stray comment here or there, as a summary of the reasons why the Planning Commission was not/should not/cannot do anything with respect to the citizens’ request.

There were exceptions, most notably when Chairman Gelb (1:48 or so into the discussion) said that citizens in this situation shouldn’t have to go through the entire petition process to get something done.  Basically, that when the Town causes issues like this, it’s incumbent on the Town to try to solve those issues.  Maybe they should work out some sort of solution as part of the planning process.  I’m not sure that got any traction with the majority of PC members.

After the final vote for approval

Weirdly, the vote for the final approval motion took place at 2:18 into the meeting.  But there was another 20 minutes’ discussion on other matters.  Discussion ranged from what the Town Council passed at the last meeting, to safety at the Chick-fil-A-car-wash (though not the safety issue I brought up on this website).  I’m not going to review that portion here.