Post #1056: Town of Vienna, am I having a senior moment, or where’s the sidewalk?

Posted on March 14, 2021

Against my better judgement,  I’m going to start posting occasionally about the Town of Vienna again.  That was, in fact, the original purpose of this website.

I decided to start on an upbeat note.  And so, on one of the nicer days last week, I took a stroll to document some of the  progress the Town had made in putting in new sidewalks.  Using the millions of dollars it had been granted for that purpose by the estate of a former Council member and by reference, a revered former Mayor.

Because, seriously, one posting that combines good weather, free money, a bit of exercise, and civic progress in the form of new sidewalks?  Toss in a kitten on a  roomba and surely this had to be an upbeat post.

Or so I thought.

What I actually got, for my effort, was a couple of senior moments.  If you’ve ever walked into a room and forgotten what you went there for, it was like that, but with more exercise.

Simply put, I walked over to Plum Street in Vienna, VA and didn’t see a sidewalk there.  A sidewalk that I was virtually sure the Town approved more than a year ago.  With money to pay for it.

Up to that very moment, I would have thought that misplacing a sidewalk would have been a difficult thing to do.  But, somehow, that seemed to have happened.  Or I was going senile.  And given those two choices, it was obvious that somebody had moved the damned sidewalk.

And then I had a “Flowers for Algernon” moment afterwards, re-reading posts I had written on this subject more than a year ago.  The younger, more cynical me knew there wouldn’t be a sidewalk there yet.  But in the interim, the mind of the older me had replaced hard facts with a mushy bit of wishful thinking.

The back story.

I wasn’t entirely irrational in expecting to see a sidewalk in the picture above.  That’s the one block of Plum Street in Vienna VA that doesn’t already have a sidewalk. (I am certain about the lack of sidewalk, having been reamed out via email for getting that wrong in a posting (Post #532, Feb 2020).  And the Town did in fact approve a sidewalk there.  And already had the money to pay for it.  As documented in the just-cited post.

And so, more than a year later, I figured that surely the Town will have made some progress, so I can start by celebrating that.

This is, after all, a town where various arms of the local government make a big deal out of “walkability”.  When it suits them.

Though, of course, nobody ever bothers to define what they mean by “walkability”, or to pay even the slightest attention to those who have measured that via objective criteria, per this 2018 post.  As American suburbs go, the core of the Town of Vienna is already just about as “walkable” as it gets.  Like so:

Source:  You can get the walkability score for your own neighborhood from that website.

I imagine many Europeans would scoff at that, if they were to see this town.  We’re neither a city nor a village, but instead are a standard American suburb with an arterial highway running through it.  That said, you can walk to the shops, if you live nearby.  The outer reaches of the town are less “walkable” under the measures used above.  Even then, that’s almost entirely a matter of distance, not infrastructure.  It’s a long way to go to get from (e.g.) the southern boundary of the town to what is currently the Maple Avenue shopping district.

Walking around the Town of Vienna isn’t even particularly unsafe, compared to other local jurisdictions.  I documented that back in a March 2019 post.

At the very least, everybody takes walking/biking to school seriously.  If only because that’s a Federal priority, and so by inference that’s a Commonwealth (State) priority, which means that Virginia localities can grab themselves some free money.  And that, finally, gets people’s attention when it comes to putting in sidewalks.

And I know that school kids walk down that sidwalk-less stretch of Plum now.  Because of the reaming-out I got in the aforementioned email, for confusing that block of Plum with the adjacent block.

Finally, there’s the combined question of the money and the timing.  Which, briefly, is that a former Town Council member and former Mayor (husband-and-wife) left the town several million dollars for the sole purpose of putting in sidewalks.  (Well, a former Town Council member left it, as she outlived her husband.)  But the money has to be spent in five years, else it reverts to some residual legatee(s) of that estate.  And, by my count, the Town of Vienna now has something over three years left to use that money.

The estate’s lawyer did a “Merchant of Venice” interpretation of the will, in that the Town could have its pound of flesh, but not one drop of blood.  The spin is that by “sidewalk”, that literally meant the flat concrete thing that you walk on.  Not, say, the curb next to it, or the gutter next to that, or the grading/drainage needed to install the sidewalk.  And the Town, in classic form, did not contest that.

And, again in classic Town of Vienna style, the Town borrowed on-order-of $25M (or was it $35M?) in its last bond issuance.  Then diverted about $7M of that to various (presumably) unplanned purchases of land.  But, somehow, can’t find money in the capital budget to, say, contract to have a bunch of curbs and gutters installed.  So that that it can make use of the millions of free dollars from the former Town Council member’s estate, before time is up.

To be honest, I quit tracking the goings-on in the Town of Vienna roughly this time last year.  At that time, there was some talk of having some kind of plan to use the Robinson estate money.  Somebody on Town Council was going to focus on that.  Or something.  But if here was any follow-through, a) I surely haven’t heard about it and b) I’m surely seeing no evidence of it.

Anyway, naively, I figured I would see a sidewalk there, because this one ticks all the boxes.  The neighborhood wants it, it’s to be used by school kids, they have the precious curb-and-gutter already there, there’s money for it, it was approved by Town Council more than a year ago, and there’s some significant time pressure to get this large sum of money spent.

Yet, so far, bupkis.  More than a year later and it’s as if nothing ever happened.  That said, I can see in my prior postings that it typically takes the Town two years to install a new sidewalk.  So I guess, despite the shortage of time, the Town is just moseying along under business-as-usual.

This is the sort of thing that made me give up writing about the Town.   There’s nothing I can do about it, other than make it known.  And when I do that, all I get for my efforts is a bunch of flak.  In the end, nobody seems to care enough to straighten it out.  Or there’s some mumblety-speak from the Town to make it seem as if this is normal.

Because, at this point, it’s easy enough to extend the math that I did in my year-ago postings on this topic.  And come to the conclusion that, no, the Town isn’t going to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime offer of free money for sidewalks.  Whatever intent former Council Member Robinson had in offering that money will not come to fruition.  A few pennies on the dollar will be spent, and a maybe a few hundred yards of sidewalk will be built.  And that will be that.

I haven’t even touched on the real irony here.  The Robinson’s are revered in this town.  The Town Council chambers are named after Charles Robinson.  So you’d think that the best way to honor them would be to see that all of that sidewalk money got spent.  But instead of spending Town dollars in some sort of celebrated, Town-wide push for sidewalks, in their name, Town Council bought the house that the Robinsons lived it, for about $1.6M or so.  They just recently let a contract to have it torn down, so that they can use the land for … something, to be determined.  (Aha, they’ve formally announced that it will be a park, per this news reporting.)  Meanwhile, a bequest directed at seeing the sidewalk system extended for benefit of Town of Vienna residents is going nowhere.  Seriously, I could not make up stuff like this (Post #534, Sell the Robinson Property, Use the Money to Build Sidewalks.)

This particular sidewalk on a single block of Plum street is just a small, humdrum  capital improvement that serves the needs of a few ordinary citizens.   And so, as things go in the Town of Vienna, it just doesn’t much matter.  It’s not a priority.

I have to make one exception to this generalization above.  I tripped and fell a couple of different times a year ago, at night, walking around the blind curve on the potholed pavement of my sidewalk-less street.  It’s an area where we have no choice but to walk in the road, as there is nowhere else to walk.  My local Town Council member, Steve Potter, heard my complaint and saw to it that the roughest section did, in fact, get repaved.  And so, while we don’t have sidewalks on my street, and the view around that curb is still obstructed by shrubbery that the Town owns, we at least have pavement now that I can walk on without twisting an ankle.  So sometimes some Town Council members listen.  I am grateful enough that Mr. Potter has my vote in the forthcoming election on the basis of that alone.  Though, given the status of this blog with the Old Guard in this town, I’m not sure I’m doing him a favor by saying that publicly.

But if you’re just a citizen, and this is just a standard qualify-of-life issue, you have to raise your voice and make yourself heard.  Which is pretty damned tough to do in a pandemic. 

And ,when you think about it, isn’t it kind of pathetic that I’m so grateful that the Town used some of my tax dollars to fix one lane of a 40-foot-long section of grossly decayed pavement.  It’s a section of roadway that we in this neighborhood must use in lieu of a sidewalk, to get around a blind corner this is only blind due to the Town’s neglect of its own land there.  I guess that shows what can happen if you lower expectations far enough.

I wish the people on Plum the best of luck in eventually getting their sidewalk.

Meanwhile, in the bigger scope of things ,the Town is letting millions in sidewalk funding slip away.  I think.  The next time some Town official starts yakking about how important “walkability” is, please feel free to throw that in their face.

I mean, heck, the Town OK’d that sidewalk just a little over a year ago.  The ink is scarcely dry, as Vienna measures these things.  More than two years ago, the Town’s Transportation Safety Commission green-lighted a simple pedestrian crosswalk light at the end of my block.  This is maybe a $15K item, so that we residents — and the kids at the school located there can safely cross a busy street in Vienna (Courthouse Road at Glen Ave.)  That was in February of 2019.

I get the impression that Town staff want to pay for this pedestrian light by taxing the religious school located nearby.  The plan seemed to be to force the school to pay for it as a condition for getting the permits to expand their school building.  That surely ought to be illegal.

Re-reading my original post on this point (accessible here), I can see that I was a little angrier about this then than now.  So I titled that discussion Extortion, or “now I get why Virginia changed the law on proffers”.  Town staff were so sure they could put the squeeze on the Seventh-day Adventists that they hadn’t even bothered to mention mention it to them ahead of time.  The first time the minister of that church heard that he was paying for this light was in the public meeting where the light was approved.

“One, I didn’t know that DPW had the power of taxation, which is what that amounts to.  Two, I didn’t know that we taxed church property here in Vienna.  And three, DPW was so casually sure of their position that they hadn’t even bothered to mention it to the Seventh-day Adventists.  Literally, this meeting, in public, was the first time the Seventh-day Adventists heard that they were supposed to pay for this.”

In any case, if that’s the holdup (in both senses of the word), then the Town has made the implementation of pedestrian safety measure conditional on a private religious entity’s decision on whether or not to expand their school.  Which makes less-than-zero sense from a public-safety perspective.  But absolutely would not surprise me, given how decisions seem to be made here.

Maybe some day the pedestrian light fairy will grace us with that light.  In the meantime, I’ll just consider jogging across the street to dodge the traffic as a needed bit of fun post-pandemic exercise.

Not as good as a kitten on a Roomba, but that’s the best I can do for upbeat.