Post #1257: Town of Vienna revised zoning 1, building height along Maple


An odd thing happened yesterday.  I started to look at the draft of the new zoning regulations for Vienna Virginia, and I wasn’t horrified.  Yet.

The materials I’m looking at were provided for the September 1 2021 Vienna Town Council work session, at this link on the Town’s Granicus website.  I’m starting with those, and I’ll work my way to more recent materials as time allows.

There’s some turbulent history behind this rezoning, which I’ll recap below.  For now, all that Town of Vienna residents need to know is that the Town is redoing all the zoning, for the entire town.  And whatever the end result, it’s pretty much a certainty to be passed unanimously by Town Council.  (Because, despite it being illegal to take votes outside of Town Council meetings, somehow, Town Council votes seem to be determined ahead of time, and voting “no” in a Town Council meeting no longer seems to be allowed (Post #1132).

I’ve been putting off looking at the new zoning because I fully expected to be horrified.  I just couldn’t stomach looking at it.  Not after the rhetoric that was flying last year, at the start of this rezoning process.  The scope of work gave town staff carte blanche to change any and every aspect of zoning in the town (Post #481, Post #487).  Town staff were aiming for building sizes and housing densities that far exceeded anything permissible under prior zoning (Post #1123).  There was, as I recall, a completely goofy contractor’s report telling Vienna that, in effect, people who work in Vienna have to live in Vienna, and vice-versa, so that’s why they needed to zone for at least 100 dwelling units per acre, all up and down Maple Avenue (Post #1138).

With that as context, the Town website characterizes this town-wide zoning revision as “a tune-up” of the old zoning laws.   As well as stating that the zoning hadn’t changed in 50 years (conveniently tossing the now-rescinded (Post #706) Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) zoning down the memory hole).  Meanwhile, everything else on the Town website regarding zoning is the usual peppy, upbeat, agitprop that was the hallmark of their presentation of MAC zoning to the public.

Against this backdrop, there was what I interpreted as some modest push-back from Town Council.  Here’s what I wrote at the time (Post #413):

Councilmember Potter said, in so many words, the voters gave us a mandate, and it wasn’t for larger buildings. I believe Councilman Springsteen used the phrase “mission creep”.

Given all that, I expected the worst.  I figured it was deja vu all over again.  I expected the Town to ignore the prior citizen unrest over the rescinded MAC zoning, and just plow ahead with MAC-on-steroids.

But that hasn’t happened.  At least, not based on the code contractor’s initial report (in the materials cited above).  It’s not the MAC-on-steroids that town staff were so adamant about a year ago.  It’s not the minimum 100-dwelling-units-per acre that their hired experts insisted on.

To the contrary, my impression is that Town Council and town staff seem to be aiming for some level of moderation in the new zoning.  I’m floored, because if you read the scope of work for this task, and what was said at the outset, that clearly is not where Town staff were coming from a year ago.

There are still things that run contrary to what I believe the town’s citizens would like to see.  And things that are objectionable from the standpoint of the taxpayer.  There are some ambiguities, which in the past meant deliberate ambiguities designed to provide loopholes.  And the Town remains completely, nuttily inconsistent with regard to automobiles, parking, and alternative forms of transport.  But that’s all to be expected.

For now, I’m going to put those caveats aside, take the proposed rezoning at face value, and assume this is being written and presented in pure good faith.  Nothing up their collective sleeve.  I hope.

Let me start with what I believe to be the two key issues to keeping the Maple Avenue area livable:  Building height and number of allowable floors.


Proposed commercial building height along Maple: Background

The most objectionable aspect of the now-rescinded MAC zoning is that the building were big.  At least, big in the context of what’s here now.  They were objectively different from the existing “small town Vienna”, as I showed in a survey of 100 disinterested U.S. adults (Post July 14, 2018).

For example, the roughly 150-apartment MAC building being constructed up the street from me (444 Maple West/Tequila Grande) will be, by far, the single largest commercial structure on Maple Avenue. 

Source:  444 Maple West MAC proposal to the Town of Vienna.

That building — approved under MAC zoning — will enclose more than twice as much volume as the entire Giant Food shopping center, from Giant down to Advance Auto, currently the largest commercial structure on Maple.


Yet it sits on a property that’s about one-fourth the size of the Giant Food Shopping Center.  As a result, it’s going to place a whole lot of people, into a very compact space, compared to the adjacent neighborhoods.  (With no southbound egress to Nutley, so it’s a sure bet those new commuters will be coming down my quiet, narrow, sidewalk-less residential street, where the Town has made it crystal clear they will do nothing to moderate that additional traffic.)

Above:  Typical pre-pandemic AM rush hour at 444 Maple West.

Within that overall bigness, the allowable 62′ overall building height under MAC zoning was a focal point.  The neighbors objected in part for the visual aspects of that.  But in addition, with height comes density.  Taller buildings mean more floors, and mean that you can pack more people onto an acre of ground.  The denser the population, the more problems the neighbors will have with (e.g.) more cut through traffic, and more light/noise pollution associated with the building, its occupants, and their movement to and from the building.

With the stroke of pen, Town Council doubled the population density of my little corner of Town.  Left is a (slightly outdated) count of dwelling units from that one new building, compared to the entire adjacent neighborhood.  Imagine zoning the entirety of Maple for that level of housing density or higher?

Let there be no revisionist history regarding the unpopularity of this with the average citizen of Vienna.  Here were the results of dueling on-line petitions at that time.  Even though voluntary internet surveys and petitions are not a legitimate means to assess the true cross-section of public opinion, the difference in the response in this case is fairly stark.

And in the following Town Council election, it seemed as if the citizens of the Town spoke pretty clearly (Post May 8, 2019).  It was the largest turnout for a Town election up to that point. Among other things, an incumbent lost a seat, which is all-but-unheard of in Vienna, and a candidate strongly endorsed by an incumbent lost a seat.  Three strongly anti-MAC candidates are at the top of the list.  It was nothing short of a referendum on MAC zoning.

And, eventually, more than a year later, the MAC statute was eventually rescinded, with what struck me as a truly unnecessary bit of flirting with deadlines (Post June 2, 2020).  But, duly noted, I was a businessman, not a politician.

Proposed commercial building height along Maple:

It’s 20′ shorter than MAC zoning,

It’s arguably 7′ taller than existing commercial zoning.

With that as background, how does the proposed zoning compare to existing commercial zoning along Maple, and to the now-rescinded MAC zoning, in terms of allowable building height? 

Obviously, that’s going to be a key determinant of dwelling unit density, and all the spillover problems that brings.  If limit buildings to three floors, with no housing on the first floor, you get two floors of dwellings.  With four floors, you get three floors of dwellings.  That seemingly innocuous difference results in a 50 percent increase in dwelling-unit density.

But as importantly, to an economist, it’s not just the physical limit that lower building height implies, its the economic limit.  Shorter buildings reduce the economic incentive to tear down the existing Vienna downtown.  It allows more existing buildings to stand, based on their profitability relative to conversion to housing.  And so it slows down the pace of development.  The right way to think of it is that it gives more current property owners the choice to hold onto what they’ve got.  A choice that would not be economically viable if there were larger profits to be made in converting the existing retail establishments to “mixed use”, that is, medium-density housing developments with some retail.

The current commercial zoning on Maple has a height limit of 35 feet.  But there’s a catch.  That’s just to the flat roof of the building.  You can have projections above that.  Some of those projections above the roof are designed to be seen (generically termed “architectural elements”, I guess).  Other projections are just ugly equipment, that you can still see.

Using the altitude function of Google Earth, you find the height by paying attention to the altitude reading (lower right corner) as you mouse over a building and the adjacent parking lot.  Using that approach, you can easily find buildings on Maple whose actual ground-to-highest-point height exceeds 35′.

As an example of architectural elements well over 35 feet, the former Rite Aid (now Dollar General) is just about 48′ to the top of its signature tower.  The flat white roof sits at 35′ above ground level.  But the surrounding brown parapet and the tower go far above that.



As an example of HVAC equipment, the former office building at 380 Maple Avenue West (Wade Hampton and Maple) that was recently torn down was 35′ to the flat roof, but 44′ to the top of the HVAC equipment that sat on that roof.

The point is that, under current zoning, the interior space — the living space, more or less — is limited to 35 feet in height.  But the exterior of the building, including either architectural elements or visible roof-mounted equipment, can be considerably higher than that.

(And yet, neither building looked exceptionally large from any angle.  That’s because they sit far back from the road and adjacent neighborhoods.)

The new zoning will allow 42′.  But unlike the current zoning, that’s to the top of the building, not to the flat roof.  The current wording appears to say that any projections that are part of the building’s architecture have to fit under that 42′ limit.

(But, to be clear, these new buildings will appear much larger than what they replace.  That’s because, unlike the older buildings, they are going to cover the lot, and sit right up next to the road.  You’ll lose the buffering of the surrounding parking lots.)

My reading is that the proposed zoning ignores the height of HVAC or other equipment on top of the building.  (There is no mention of it, and in the industry in which I used to work, such items would be classed as fixtures, not building).  If I have that right, builders could place a flat roof at 42′, and put their unshielded HVAC equipment on top of that.  From any perspective where that is visible (as it was at 380 Maple West), such a building could appear significantly taller than 42′.

The proposed zoning has an exception to the height limit that applies in the very center of town, where the commercial lots do not abut residential areas.  There, they would allow another 12′ of height for “rooftop uses”.  (The example given is a rooftop dining area).  That section of the proposed zoning seems loosely written at present.  But, a) I don’t live next to that area, and b) the plain reading seems to rule out using that 12′ for another floor of housing.  So that’s not a huge concern for me, and maybe I’ll look at that some other time.

Under the rescinded MAC zoning, the equivalent maximum building height was just over 62′.  It was 54′ to the flat roof, plus an allowance for parapets and such.  I am not sure whether everything — including HVAC equipment — had to fit under that height.  (For example, the HVAC equipment on the MAC-built Chick-fil-A/Car Wash is plainly visible from the road as you enter town.)  But, for sure, all of the building’s architectural elements did.

In summary, the proposed 42′ building height limit along Maple …

  • Is 20 feet shorter than the now-rescinded MAC zoning, as measured to the top of the building itself, including parapets, projections, and so on.
  • Is an unknown amount shorter, to the highest visible point, if HVAC equipment is allowed to project up above a 42′ roof and be visible.
  • Is arguably 7 feet taller than existing commercial zoning.  That’s arguable because the existing zoning doesn’t include parapets and other architectural elements within that limit, but the new zoning does.
  • Is an unknown amount shorter, to the highest visible point, if HVAC equipment is allowed to project up above a 42′ roof and be visible.
  • Can be increased to 54′ for “rooftop uses” in the very center of town, where the commercial lots are not adjacent to residential areas.
  • May allow for buildings with about 20% larger interior volume than are possible under current zoning.  The regulation appears to leave open the possibility of having the flat roof of the building at 42′, with HVAC equipment allowed to project an undetermined amount above that.  If so, that’s a 20% increase in above-ground interior volume for the same building footprint.

Proposed number of stories allowed:  Not specified?

Another aspect of MAC zoning that left a bad taste in many people’s mouths is the issue of floors or stories.  This issue is key for housing density, but it also has to do with promises made and broken under MAC zoning.

Obviously, the more floors in the building, all other things equal, the higher the housing density.  And once you realize that the zoning won’t allow housing on the first floor, you realize that adding a fourth floor increases housing density by 50 percent, relative to a three-floor building.  You go from two floors of housing, to three.

Near as I can tell, the draft zoning discusses this as if three story buildings are a given.  But, again, near as I can tell, they don’t explicitly say that.  I don’t see an explicit statement that buildings along Maple, under the new zoning, can have no more than three floors at ground level or higher.

If that’s left ambiguous, I think that’s an easily-remedied mistake.  Just specify a three-floor limit, in addition to specifying height.

There’s a historical reason for that.

MAC zoning was sold with the promise that the buildings would only be four stories tall.  That was literally written into the code.

And, each in their own special way, developers, town staff, and (by rumor) at least one Town Council member did their best to gut that promise.  The rule doesn’t apply because of this-and-so.  So long as there is the appearance of four floors, that’s fine.  Oh, this thing that looks like a floor, that’s not really a floor, you are mistaken, because the rules applying to commercial floors don’t apply to residential floors.

In other words, there were flagrant attempts to game the four-floor limit under MAC.  Even though the plain language of it appeared quite clear.

That experience with MAC zoning made it perfectly clear that if you don’t have an airtight rule regarding the number of floors, somebody will take advantage of that.  Or, at least, try.

And so, to all the people who will say, oh, that’s not necessary, it’s not possible to fit four floors in 42 feet, builders wouldn’t do it because it wouldn’t be commercially viable, and on and on.

To all those people, I say:

“Great.  If that’s true, then there’s no harm in making a three-floor limit explicit in the zoning rules.”

Because, if they could squeeze five floors into the MAC 54-foot height limit, I really can’t see how much more difficult it would be to squeeze four into the proposed 42 foot height limit.  In particular, I have not yet seen anything equivalent to the MAC rule that all first-floor retail had to have minimum 15 foot ceiling height.  Absent that, it would seem perfectly possible to squeeze four floors into 42′.

And if you allow that, then we’re right back to a MAC-level housing density along Maple.  Which is, I think, something this new zoning is attempting to avoid.  So, I, for one, would like to see an explicit, no-exceptions, air-tight three floor limit.  If that’s redundant, then I’m happy to wear belt and suspenders.

Above all, we can’t rely on the descriptions and the drawings, all of which refer to three-floor buildings.  All the illustrations for MAC showed cute little three floor buildings as well.  Those drawings have no force of law.

Write it explicitly into the code, please.  Some of us still have trust issues after MAC zoning.

My final word here is that the height isn’t everything.  I don’t want to give the false impression that there’s no real change here.  The main change is opening up Maple as a medium-density housing area.  That’s the money that will drive the change, result in replacement of smaller older buildings with new buildings that have much larger interior volume.  So we are going to get bigger buildings, and that is going to be driven by the zoning change.  They are going to appear much taller, due to the loss of the buffering parking lots.  But, purely as a matter of fact, they aren’t going to be much taller than the tallest commercial buildings already on Maple.

Once you’ve bought into using Maple Avenue as a housing district — as the Town of Vienna appears to have — you’ve got to take your victories where you can.  And conditional on that, lower building height (versus MAC zoning) should moderate the persons-per-acre density of the new housing that will be built.

A few other things to note.

The new zoning along Maple is specified as zoning for the core of the downtown, and then, separately, zoning for the east and west ends of Maple.  Near as I can tell, the east and west ends are identical.  The core of the town, however, has provisions for additional height and additional by-right uses.

Of particular interest to me, medium density housing is a conditional use on the ends of Maple, not straight-up by-right.  In the middle of town — mostly but not entirely away from the residential neighborhoods — using the upper floors of a building for apartments or condos is given as a right.  Any building meeting the zoning requirements and the building code can do that.

But it looks like apartments and condos are a conditional use on either end of Maple.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t going to happen.  It just means that there will be some public discussion of them before they happen, because the Town has to issue a “use permit” to allow them to proceed, and that requires a public hearing.  So you’ll at least be apprised if one of those is going up near you, on either end of Maple.

Source:  Town of Vienna code.

Otherwise, if you step back from it, the proposed revisions of the existing zoning actually look like revisions of the existing zoning.  By that I mean, not wholesale replacement, as was the case with MAC zoning.  It looks like the Town will modestly expand the height of allowable buildings somewhat. Allow more uses.  Probably skimp on the parking requirements, relative to what’s required now.

By far the most profound change is the one you’re not allowed to question:  Medium density housing.  The current commercial zoning is just that — you have to use the majority of the building for commercial (non-residential) use.  That’s going to be tossed.  And that decision apparently cannot be rescinded, not even questioned.  The voracious demand for housing in Northern Virginia is what will drive the construction of the new, large, “mixed-use” buildings — apartments and condos, with first-floor shops — on Maple.

Of the additional rules they are imposing, the one I like the least is that they’re still writing the zoning in a way that will eventually create a “commercial canyon” on Maple, assuming enough redevelopment.  That is, they are banning front-of-the-store parking, and effectively requiring that the facades of new buildings be located 15′ from the curb.  This will eventually give a much more “urbanized” look to Maple, compared to the visually empty parking-lots-with-offset buildings that we have now.  Currently, the view on Maple is mostly open sky, and you can see the trees in the neighborhoods behind buildings offset from the road.  In the future, with this plan, you’ll see building facades.

Otherwise, it looks like the “open space” rule along Maple will  be as ineffective as it was under MAC (Post 7/12/2018).  So you should expect to see buildings that cover the lot, or come close, as is true with the two MAC buildings in my neighborhood.  Assuming they calculate it as before, for most of the lots, the sidewalks, walkways, and little bits of standard greenery will more than satisfy the “open space” requirement.

Source:  See this post for full writeup of methodology.

That is, I think, where the proposed revision falls most short of what the people of Vienna wanted out of a rezoning of the commercial district.  When I did my small random-sample survey of Vienna residents (still the only one that has ever been done on this topic), overwhelmingly, what they wanted to see out of MAC zoning was more open space and more green space.  As shown above.

But open space costs money, for the foregone profits you could have had from building on it.  In the end, rather than trying to obtain that via more-or-less a taking of private property, maybe the Town would be better served in finding more land for open space, at lower total cost, near Maple and across Vienna.  Near as I can tell, that seems to be the plan at present.

Post #1138: 100 dwelling units per acre, up and down Maple Avenue

Now that the election is over, the Town has posted the first detailed look at its economic development study.  (Download it from this link, ,pdf).

Per the Town’s consultant, we need to put 2400 apartment on Maple merely to “catch up” with “competing” areas.  And we must stack those in at 100 dwelling units per acre, to be economically viable.
Continue reading Post #1138: 100 dwelling units per acre, up and down Maple Avenue

Post #1123: Town of Vienna, the one question I’d like a clear answer to, from Town Council candidates.

How tall would they allow buildings to be, in the revised Town of Vienna zoning?  That’s really the only question I’d like a clear answer on, from our various Town Council candidates.

At the end of this post, I list a number of aspects of the revised Vienna zoning that I don’t think are in doubt, or that I never want to have to hear about again.  They just don’t matter.

To me, it all boils down to building height.  Continue reading Post #1123: Town of Vienna, the one question I’d like a clear answer to, from Town Council candidates.

Post #705: Meanwhile, back in the Town of Vienna, plus ça change?


This post is about tonight’s Vienna Town Council meeting.  With the key question being, will there be any fundamental change in the Town’s plans for redeveloping Maple Avenue, once the new Town Council is seated?  Or, really, will there be any fundamental change in how it goes about meandering through various decisions?

In any case, tonight’s proximate issue is MAC zoning.  Meeting materials are here, and you can find instructions for watching it live here.  (For me, streaming only works with Chrome, FWIW).

The options on the table are to extend the current moratorium, or to kill MAC zoning entirely.  Best guess, based on what went on at the corresponding Planning Commission meeting, they’ll vote to kill it.  (It was almost-but-not-quite funny to look at the tape of the Planning Commission meeting, and see that the pro-MAC members there really would not pick up on the very strong hints that killing MAC is the what the Powers that Be want now.  Clear the decks, so that they can rewrite the commercial zoning to allow MAC-like buildings by right.  Even I understand the game plan, and I’m not exactly privy to their thinking.)  We can only trust and hope that they will do that in a fashion that doesn’t allow a few developers to slip in proposals after the June 30 end of the current moratorium.  (You’d think I wouldn’t have to say that but … somehow two proposals made it under the wire the last time.)

But the longer-term issue is whether or not things will change with the seating of the new Town Council in July.  As I see it — and predicted it — the pro-development Mayor-Elect won because candidates Majdi and Springsteen split the moderate-development vote.  (My January 2020 prediction was off by a bit, but not much (Post #697).  With the Mayor-Elect as the last remaining member of the original solidly pro-MAC faction that once controlled Town Council, what’s going to happen next?  Are they actually going to moderate plans for development along Maple?  Or do they figure they’re just one election away from regaining control?

(And will they please, please, please let Ed Somers run the meetings.  In case you missed it, he was the other person on the Colbert/Somers non-slate.  The one who got the exact same number of votes as Mayoral candidate Colbert.  But it wasn’t a slate.  Nuh-uh, no way, only evil carpetbaggers need to run as a slate.  Anyway, based on what I saw at the Transportation Safety Commission, he really knows how to run a meeting, and that’s a talent that Town Council ought to make use of.)

Anyway, beats me whether we’ll see change or not.  I’ve just been asked to write one more blog entry about Town of Vienna government and the path ahead.  So here it is.  Think of this as my contractual obligation posting for the week.

But if I had to guess, my guess would be, as the French put it, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  Which I translate loosely as “you can put new butts in those chairs, but chances are they’ll generate the same crap.”  I make some predictions about the Patrick Henry Parking Garage, below, to illustrate what I think I’m talking about.

Things have changed a bit recently.

To be clear, given the ongoing global pandemic …

Source:  That’s my best guess.  The only hard fact is that, as of today, just under 1% of the Fairfax County population has been diagnosed with COVID-19 (per the Virginia Department of Health website).  The actual fraction who have been infected is not known, but can be guessed at based on various studies using various biased samples-of-convenience of various populations showing antibodies to COVID-19 using various tests with different false-positive rates.  If you don’t understand what can go wrong there — particularly the bias in using samples of convenience (e.g., grocery shoppers), and in particular if you don’t understand why even a small false-positive rate for an antibody test skews the results of such a test for this purpose, then you probably shouldn’t opine on what the “true” infection rate is.  (E.g., if nobody was infected, but the false positive rate for a test is 1.7%, then the test is going to show 1.7% infected.  If you think that’s just an academic exercise, search “Literally every single one could be a false positive” in this article to see why this matters so much, when you are trying to identify a disease with a relatively low prevalence in the population.  The upshot is that  most of what you’ve read in the popular press (and a fortiori on right-wing blogs trying to convince you that some huge fraction of the population has already been infected) is wrong.  If forced to guess, I’d guess that at most 5 percent of the Fairfax County population has been infected with COVID-19, based mainly on studies of California cities, on a study of consensus of opinion among a random sample of US physicians, and on a high-quality study of Spain showing that, despite a severe epidemic, only 5% of the Spanish population has antibodies for COVID-19.  I would be surprised if our true prevalence were higher than that of Spain.  For what it’s worth, the CDC is gearing up to do a systematic study of this issue.   Maybe a year from now they’ll be able to give us a really accurate estimate of what the true prevalence was.  Finally, if you don’t know what “case fatality rate” means, as opposed to “infection mortality rate”, then you also should not opine about how the mortality rate of COVID-19 compares to the mortality rate of influenza, because the flu data are case fatality rate data,   As with COVID-19, if you got the flu, but not badly enough to see a physician and be diagnosed, you weren’t counted in the denominator of the widely-cited case fatality rate statistics for flu.  The apples-to-apples comparison of COVID-19 and (e.g.) swine flu is COVID-19 deaths divided by diagnosed individuals (either via PCR test, or based on symptoms as presented to a health care provider.)

The potential for a global economic recession or depression …

Reduction in demand that hits the mix of small business on Maple Avenue particularly hard, with its heavy reliance on restaurants and personal services  …

Source:  See Post #201 for details on methods and underlying data.

With a retail vacancy rate that was average, but may or may not stay that way.

Source:  See this post for details.

But will Town Council change how it does business?  My litmus test.

I don’t  mean the current Town Council.  They’ve been set on full-speed-ahead, almost without exception.  Nothing would deter them from continuing as they have started.

And, near as I can tell, their answer to any question regarding buildings is “the biggest one that will fit on the lot”.  Example:  What is the optimal size for the new police station?  What is the best choice for a Maple Avenue parking garage.  And repeat.

No, to me the question is whether the new Town Council, seated in July, will do business any differently.  In particular, if there’s going to be any rethinking of schedule and purpose given this backdrop of some fairly large uncertainties.

E.g., if this has permanently damaged the local restaurant industry, then the face of Maple Avenue retail moving foward might look quite different from the past.  You’d then think that your planning would change accordingly.  And you might think that, maybe, you’d slow down your decisionmaking until you could get more of a sense of how this will all shake out.

But put the issue of the commercial zoning rewrite aside for now.  There’s a simpler, more straightforward test that doesn’t depend on what the Town’s consult tells the Town it needs, for new commercial zoning.

There’s a much simpler way to take the measure of the new Town Council.  Let’s see what (if anything) they do with the Patrick Henry Parking Garage (and library). 

That’s the illustration at the top of this post.  And the question is, will the new Town Council rethink any of what had gotten us that design, at this point?

Let me start off by listing a few of the many things I hate about the proposed design for the Patrick Henry Parking Garage (and library).

First, we’re trying to con somebody else into paying for it, based on the outright lie that this new garage will be a commuter garage.  (We’re not dumb enough to say that in the Town’s own documents.  There, we refer to it for what it is — shopper/diner parking to serve the nearby Maple Avenue merchants.  It’s only in trying to sell it to the local traffic-relief authority that we make up a story about commuters driving into the heart of Vienna, in rush hour, so that they can park in this garage and take the once-per-half-hour bus to Vienna Metro.)

We should call that — obtaining money under false pretenses — exactly what it is — fraud.  (See Post #515, with a better explanation in Post #446).

Everybody on the current Town Council understands just how ludicrous this story is.  Commuters, in large numbers, are not going to drive into Vienna, park, and take the occasional bus to the Vienna metro.  Yet every one of them was willing to support the use of that story in order to con the funding out of a local transportation congestion-relief funding authority.

Will the new Town Council be any different?  Will even one new Town Council member object to obtaining tax funding based on the lie that our shopper/diner parking is actually a commuter parking garage?  Will anyone object to our describing it for what it is, in Town of Vienna documents (shopper/diner parking), then trying to sell it to funders based on a completely different and totally fictional description?  That will be interesting to see, but my guess is, no. 

Second, how big a garage does Vienna need there?  BRRRT.  Wrong question.  The answer is “”the biggest one that will fit on the lot”.  So, as I understand it, the Town will do some sort of parking demand study — long after they’ve made the commitment to go for the garage as planned.  So, the extent of “thoughtful” planning is to go for the biggest garage that will fit on the lot.  Full stop.  Then justify that after-the-fact.

At some point, I’d have argued for getting the order of operations reversed there.  Figure out what you need, then build, instead of vice-versa.  But after seeing the Town’s last traffic study, I’m not convinced that any consultant study overseen by Town staff can produce an unbiased estimate of anything.  It’s more akin to commercial research (support the product line) than it is to academic research (determine what’s true).  So now my feeling is, given that any such study is just a fig leaf for whatever decision has already been made, let’s just skip it and save the money.  The idea of making the commitment to the building, then funding the analysis of how much parking is needed, is just stupid and wasteful.  If they are going to do it in that order, at least have the good sense to kill the after-the-fact parking study.

Even absent a formal parking study, won’t anybody question the “small town” feel of making a big parking garage literally the centerpiece of the town? Because I sure haven’t heard that from anyone in power so far.  I guess, with all the open parking lots, this will fit right in?

Does anybody even care that this locks Maple in to the current (circa 1961) configuration, pretty much for eternity?  We’ve seen what it would take to get traffic flowing on Maple, and per Fairfax County, it would take more lanes.  Will that ever even get on the table as a topic of discussion, or has it Already Been Decided, and no discussion is allowed?

Won’t anybody even question the legitimacy of having taxpayer pay for the parking, so that Town Staff can reduce the amount of zoning-required parking in any new construction in that area?  Is this really little more than taxpayer subsidy to local businesses?

So, will the next Town Council be able to step back and ask, how big does it really need to be?  That would be nice to see, but my guess is, no.  It’s going to be the biggest building they can squeeze onto the lot.

Third, can we at least change the design so that the library isn’t underneath the parking garage?  I think that’s a really horrendous mistake, if you are looking for a library that is a pleasant center for community-based activity.  And, for sure, I looked, and you cannot find a single suburban library in the DC area that’s built into the first floor of a parking garage.  The fact that nobody else builds a library like this really ought to be a red flag, if anyone is paying attention.

Weirdly, will anybody on Town Council even realize that the design looks the way it looks because it had to fit in with MAC zoning?  Yeah, the same MAC zoning that they are about to get rid of.  That’s why it looks like a 15′ glass-fronted shopping mall on the bottom floor.  Because that’s what MAC zoning mandated.  So the look of the proposed library is a remnant of the zoning that they are in the process of killing.

My own suggestion to all of this (Post #371 and earlier) was to put the parking underground, pay extra for doing that, and use the free space at ground level for a one-third acre park, adjacent to the new, airy, spacious library.  In effect, you get to buy park land, along Maple, for at or below the current market-clearing rate of about $6M/acre.

More generally, is there any chance that the new Town Council will, I don’t know, maybe ask current library users what they think of the basement-of-the-parking-garage design?  Maybe crowd-source a design by having a contest for local citizens?  Or reconsider the current library-as-afterthought design in any significant way?

Otherwise, I think the current course for the Patrick Henry Parking Garage pretty much sums up what I disliked about decision-making by current and prior Town Councils.  The funding is based on a lie.  And everybody just winks at that.  The design was done that way for a reason that no longer matters (i.e., to match MAC zoning).  Yet the design appears locked in.  The true public purpose here, a library to serve as a center for the community, is subservient what the local commercial interests want to see that land used for (more parking to feed their businesses, and then to allow relaxed on-site parking requirements moving forward).  To the point where the proposed design — library-under-parking-garage — is something that nobody else in the DC area has chosen to build.  For good reason.

Oh, and we’ll do the study to see how much parking we need, after we’ve decided how much we’ll build.  I don’t know about you, but something tells  me that study is going to tell Town Council that they made the exact right decision.  And that’s exactly the wrong way to go about getting good decisions made.


Post #697: Town elections, see Post #508

See Post #508, from January 9, 2020 and earlier, on splitting the vote and political suicide.  My numbers were a little off.  But not much.

Votes Percent
Colbert 1545 43%
Majdi 1172 33%
Springsteen 869 24%
Total 3586 100%

Post #383: It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future

I’m going to attribute the title of this post to Yogi Berra.  And while my last post was a lament for the things I think the Town ought to ask, this one is my prediction of what they’re actually going to do.

The point of this post is to predict what the zoning will look like for Maple Avenue, once the Town Council’s deliberations are finished five months from now, in February 2020.  (Or at least, scheduled to finish.)  And, by inference, what Maple will look like in the long run.

This post is just a plain statement of what I think we’ll get.  A subsequent post will explain why I think we’re going to get that.

Anyway, let’s face the facts.  Allowing just five months to redo the zoning, within a cumbersome legal and governmental framework, strongly limits what you can do and what you can consider.  Thus, once you’ve set that at the goal, you have a good idea of where this is going to end up.  That’s based on what’s on the table now, recent history, and some understand of the players.

Just as a hint, the original title of my last post was “why I despair”.  So if you expect something chipper and upbeat here, you’ve come to the wrong place.

But first, one more for the obits

I have one more item to add to the obits of the prior post.  Of all the things I could have added to that last posting, but forgot to, I want to mention “produce a drawing of what one whole block of Maple would look like, under MAC redevelopment”.  That came up at one of the recent meetings.  Staff were going to look into doing that.  But some Town Council members didn’t want anyone to do that.  So staff didn’t bother.  And it was forgotten.

The bottom line is that they Town is not going to commission any drawing of what the MAC build-out might look like.  Which is not a surprise, as that is just one more in the list of incredibly reasonable questions the Town might try to answer before plowing ahead.  But won’t.   Most of which I listed in my just-prior “obits” post.

A few pictures of a block-level build-out would be useful, if for no other reason than to see what it will look like when two abutting MAC developments are built  just off the common lot line, as the law allows.  But it’s obvious by now that this request — “may we please have even one image of what Maple might look like” — ain’t gonna happen.

As an economist, I believe in “revealed preference”.  That is, what you do reveals what you actually prefer.   So in this case, I infer that Town Council would rather buy a pig in a poke than let anyone have any image whatsoever of what they are actually voting for.  Fully admitting that (see post title), I just shake my head about that whenever I think about it.  The full extent of our forward-looking planning is going to be, more or less, “oh, just surprise us.”

So, because we won’t hire a professional to try to give you a picture of the future, I figure, what the hey, I might as well give it a shot — let me tell you what I think we’re going to get, to be decided by our Town staff Council over the next five months.  Let me first outline what, then why.

Continue reading Post #383: It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future

Post #382: An obituary for questions that will not be answered.

How is the Town going about rewriting its zoning laws, including MAC zoning?  Is this process likely to have a good outcome?

I’ve written four throwaway pieces on issues that I thought needed to be addressed as the Town moves forward on Maple Avenue redevelopment.  But at this point, I fully realize that I’m just talking to myself.  The Town is scheduled to rewrite its entire commercial zoning code, including MAC, finishing about five months from now, in February 2020.  So, more-or-less none of what I’m going to write below is going to be addressed.  That said, I’m going to roll up everything of value from the prior posts, listed below.  And then, at that point, I don’t think I have anything left to say.

  • Post #304, Where do we go from here, Part I.
  • Post #306, Where do we go from here, Part II, Falls Church
  • Post #322:  Moving forward (where do we go from here, Part 3).
  • Post #327:  Some basic questions to ask before modifying MAC zoning.

In effect, this posting is my obituary for all the questions that aren’t going to be answered, and all the things that aren’t going to be done.  As the Town proceeds to rewrite its entire commercial zoning code.

Now, that’s kind of a cheap shot — “Here’s what needs to be asked” — except for the fact that I’ve already given my best answer for what to do.  That answer aimed to address what I measured or perceive to be the main concerns of Vienna citizens.  As outlines in Post 322 above, my solution would be:

  1. Three story buildings.
  2. True open space requirements.
  3. Concrete, quantifiable changes to offset increased traffic.

Great.  Opinions are like bellybuttons, as the clean version of that phrase goes.   Or maybe, “that and $0.50 will get you a phone call.”   It’s great to toss out some sketchy off-the-cuff answer.  But the real questions are, what is the Town government capable of doing?  And then, what is the Town actually going to do? Continue reading Post #382: An obituary for questions that will not be answered.

Post #381: Illegal meetings by Town of Vienna officials — withdrawn

I have been advised by Councilman Noble that meetings of the MAC Ad Hoc committee were,  in fact, duly advertised and open to the public in some manner.  I just missed that.  I apologize to the Town of Vienna for this posting.  I was wrong.

Usually, when I make a mistake, I just strike through the original text.  In this case, let me just erase it.  So the story is that I accused the Town of violating FOIA because they did not hold open public meetings for the committee that drafted the amendments to MAC.  The Town posted notice, on its calendar, for exactly two meetings of this Ad Hoc Committee.  I’ll assume that’s all there were and leave it at that.  I was incorrect and I apologize.





Post #346: The 901 Glyndon precedent needs Town Council attention

As noted in Post #333 and Post #339, the project at 901 Glyndon proceeded as an unquestioned by-right development.

That lot was zoned as commercial property.   In theory — or, at least, historically — commercial zoning meant that at least half the building had to be occupied for commercial purposes.   I.e., any housing had to occupy less than half of the building.  That’s more-or-less the point of commercial zoning — you want to restrict an area to be primarily for commercial use.

Yet, in the case of 901 Glyndon, more than two-thirds of the occupied space is housing.  It’s two floors of condos over first-floor retail space/parking ramp.

We have yet another building proposed in Vienna, 145 Church Street (across from the U.S. Post Office), in a commercial zone, where, again, more than two-thirds of the occupied space appears to be housing.  Same model:  two floors of housing over some retail.   The only information I can find is from a flyer circulated to the neighbors.  Rumor has it that the Town of Vienna will buy parking spaces in this proposed new building.  If true, then presumably the Town of Vienna is on board with it.

For 145 Church Street, that’s within the Church Street zoning district (C1-B), so many special rules apply.  Maybe that’s by-right development, maybe not.  I’m not really sure this counts as an example of by-right construction of a building that is mostly housing, with some retail, in a commercial zone.  But it certainly counts as evidence that this type of construction appears to be profitable in downtown Vienna.

So here are my questions.

First, am I correct in thinking that, historically, the Town of Vienna required that at least 51% of the occupied space in any commercial building be used for commercial purposes?  That seems to be the plain reading of the statute, where “principally occupied and used” for commercial purposes is written into the law.  I certainly recall having heard that this is one reason we needed MAC zoning — to allow mixed-use buildings that would not be otherwise be feasible due to the existing commercial zoning requirement that buildings be used primarily for commercial (not housing) purposes.  (The idea being that second-floor retail space commands such low rents that it makes a building uneconomic.  And you’d have to have half the second floor be retail or office to meet the “principally occupied” clause.)

Second, what changed, exactly, to allow primarily residential buildings to be built, by right, in the commercial zone?  Is there some legal fiction involved (e.g., they now count the parking places along with the actual occupied area, and the retail space with the associated parking is half the building?)  Or does Planning and Zoning simply ignore the “principally used” clause, as long as their is some retail space on the first floor?

Third, is this the intent of the law?  At some point in the distant past, Vienna Town Council passed the zoning regulations as they now stand.  Presumably, the intent of that portion of the law was to make sure that Vienna’s commercial districts were used for commerce.  But now, with no public discussion, the interpretation of that law appears to have changed materially.  Now, apparently, if a building has some of the occupied space devoted to commercial activity, Town staff interpret that as satisfying the regulations for by-right construction in the Town of Vienna commercial zone.

This is now an important point, because the 145 Church Street proposal makes it seem that construction of this type may be profitable within the Town of Vienna commercial zone.  In other words, the change in Town staff’s interpretation of the law may actually result in new buildings being built, based on that new interpretation.

I’m neither for nor against this new interpretation of the Town’s commercial zoning.  If we’re going to have mixed-use buildings, I’d rather have three-story 35′ (plus parapets and decorations) than 62′ (including parapets and decorations).

But I do think that the Town Council ought to step back and ask, in public, is this what we want?  Is by-right housing, with some retail, on Maple Avenue, what the Town of Vienna wants as its future?  (Rather than simply stumble into it, as a side-effect of Town staff’s interpretation of statute.)

And here, I am specifically calling on all those people who made a big deal about MAC protecting the Town of Vienna, because those mandatory review processes in MAC were supposed to guarantee a quality outcome.  About how awful and dreadful it would be to allow by-right construction in place of MAC construction.  All of you people — and here, I think our Department of Planning and Zoning requires a specific mention — all of you should have some public discussion as to what you make of the 901 Glyndon precedent and the proposed 145 Church building.  Because if Town staff’s interpretation of the law now provides a back-door approach to profitable by-right construction of housing on Maple, that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with in a rational fashion.  Not just ignored until the next big building goes up on Maple Avenue.

If this is the new normal for by-right construction along Maple, then, among other things, that shifts the balance of power between developers and the Town when bargaining over MAC proposals.  For example, the Director of Planning and Zoning briefly mentioned the option to change MAC to a three-floor limit at the ends of Maple (two floors of housing over some retail) and reserve four-floor construction for the core of the town.  From the standpoint of economics, that would not seem to be feasible if two-floors-of-housing-over-some-retail is a by-right option.

Post #207: The last half hour of the 3/20/2019 joint work session

I attended last week’s joint work session of the Town Council, Planning Commission, and Board of Architectural Review.  But I only caught the first few hours of it, and left around 11:45.  As it turns out, the last half hour or so was probably the best part.  I downloaded the Town’s audio, and here’s a minute-by-minute summary of what happened in the last half hour of that meeting. Continue reading Post #207: The last half hour of the 3/20/2019 joint work session