Post #525: Last night’s Town Council work session

My wife attended, I did not.  This write-up is based on her notes from the meeting.

The meeting lasted about 2.5 hours.   (Maybe you want to listen to the meeting for yourself, if you have the time, because at some point in this, I got tired of doing the writeup and started skipping details.)  The Town will presumably have its audio recording posted shortly.  (Right now, if you click the apparent link for audio, you get a “network error”).    In the meantime, if you want to listen to the meeting, I’ve placed a copy of my wife’s recording at this this Google Drive link.

The meeting materials are on this Town of Vienna web page.  Apparently there was also a set of comments on the new version of (what used to be called) the Citizen’s Guide to Traffic Calming, but those comments were only available to Town Council, not to the public.

The meeting had two parts:

  • Town right-of-way issues.
  • Replacement for the Citizen’s Guide to Traffic Calming.

For those who want to listen to the meeting, the traffic calming section starts about 1:05 into the recording.

Continue reading Post #525: Last night’s Town Council work session

Post #477: A Councilmember’s proposal in response to the Wawa tree destruction

Something remarkable appears to be happening in response to the mistaken removal of mature maple trees at the Wawa lot.  A Town Council member is trying to fix the system so that this doesn’t happen again.  You can download Councilman Majdi’s proposal from this Google Drive link (.pdf)  This is a rare enough event in Town of Vienna government that it’s worth writing up for that reason alone.  And, separately, because it might actually work to prevent a repeat of what happened at the Wawa.

Continue reading Post #477: A Councilmember’s proposal in response to the Wawa tree destruction

Post #471: My Wawa proposal? Look behind the Jades shopping center.

I can’t believe this story still has legs, but here’s a summary of additional news coverage.

Here’s my proposed solution.  You’d like to have something at the back of the lot that blocks sound and light to the greatest extent possible.  You’d like to have something fill that alleyway to prevent it from becoming an attractive nuisance (e.g., a place for high-school kids to hang out.)  It would be nice if the results weren’t too ugly and required no maintenance.  Environmental benefits would be a plus.

You’d get that, less the environmental benefits, by replicating the wall behind the Jades shopping center.  The masonry wall reduces parking-lot sound.  The thick stand of bamboo blocks light, and provides some modest attenuation of sound.

This example is a little scraggly owing to it being a relatively thin stand of bamboo on a north-facing wall.  At the Wawa site, with a wall facing southeast, the entire face of the bamboo grove would be greener.

As the site is under construction, they’d have the opportunity to do this right, corralling the bamboo with a “rhizome barrier” to keep it from spreading.  If Wawa is now of a mind to put up a wall, the incremental cost of a rhizome barrier around  the entire alleyway area is the cost of ditching the rest of the perimeter to 3′, plus the cost of concrete to fill the ditch.

As wildlife habitat, in this climate, my observation is that bamboo is more-or-less sterile.   It doesn’t flower, produce seeds, or produce edible foliage.  The deer won’t even eat it, for goodness sake.  It crowds out almost all competing species.  (Seldom recognized, the leaf fall is toxic to many plants.  I found this out the hard way by using bamboo stems and leaves as mulch — don’t do that.)   It’s basically a toxic invasive exotic pest.

In short, the only reason to use bamboo here is to use one pest (bamboo) to repel another pest (drunken high-school students).

In terms of carbon sequestration, the literature is fairly murky, and mostly focused on harvested bamboo plantations, not a standing grove of bamboo.  My interpretation of the literature is that, in the long run, a standing grove of bamboo of the type shown above stores vastly less carbon than hardwoods would, on the same land.  Bamboo has short-run advantage because it grows fast, but in the long run, you accumulate much more woody biomass with tall hardwoods than with bamboo.

Just a quick calculation to check that.  The largest tree taken down at Wawa was a 42′ stump diameter maple approximately 70′ tall.  Using this publication (.pdf), extrapolating from their table, and realizing that about half the weight of green wood is water, I come up with an estimate of about 6 tons of dry wood, above ground, from that one tree.  Using bamboo pole shipping weights and some guesswork, I’d put the above-ground dry weight of the average bamboo plant of the type pictured above at about 8 lbs.  That would mean it would take about 1500 bamboo plants to equal the above-ground dry wood weight of that one tree.  The entire alleyway in question is maybe 0.05 acres.  At that density, you’d have almost one bamboo culm (stem) every square foot, which I think is at the upper bounds of being plausible.  So one large tree stored as much wood above ground as an entire alleyway full of closely-packed bamboo.  Clearly, the standing hardwoods store more carbon than the standing bamboo, per acre.

Post #470, Wawa historical photos

The County’s historical aerial photos of the Wawa site are consistent with trees that were planted there as saplings around the time that building went up (1975-ish), grew about 3’/year to a mature height of around 70′ in the mid-1990s.

Photos of the alleyway behind Wawa.  Alleyway is the diagonal patch sloping upward to the right, in the center of the photo.

1976:  No tree of any size appears planted in the alleyway behind the current Wawa.  Note large tree across the street casts large shadow.  Nothing like that appears in the alleyway.  (Sun angle is about 9 o’clock, i.e., sun is shining from off to the left).

1990:  Fifteen years later, you can see the shadow of a tree.  Based on the shadow length for the Joe’s Pasta building, the maple trees in the alleyway are about 35′ tall at that time.  (Sun angle is about 4:30 o’clock).

1997, 2011, 2017:  Based on shadow lengths (relative to Joe’s Pasta building), trees reached mature height of 70′.  (Sun angle is about 4:30 o’clock).

Older, grainier photos appear to show nothing but scrub.  This is 1953 and 1960, respectively.  Note that in the 1960 photo you can see the same shadow of the large tree across the street as in the 1976 photo, but nothing comparable in the alleyway behind the current Wawa.


Post #469: Wawa again. Baloney, bureaucracy, bamboo

This is a followup to the last two posts, on the removal of some mature maple trees from the Town right-of-way behind the new Wawa.  The point of this post is to:

  • Try to be clear about what actually happened.
  • Find the root cause of this poor decision, and fix the Town’s decision-making process to reduce the chance that this occurs again, and
  • Determine what the best “fix” is for the clear-cut strip of Town land.

But my main point is that if you start of by fuzzying-up how this actually occurred, you can’t even get started on that process.  Instead, if somebody serves up a bunch of baloney, you have to start off by calling it that.  And so the three sections of this post are:

Continue reading Post #469: Wawa again. Baloney, bureaucracy, bamboo

Post #468: Wawa protest

This is just a brief followup to Post #467, regarding Wawa’s clear-cutting of the alleway right-of-way between the Wawa lot and the adjacent residential lot.  As noted in the prior post, Wawa had agreed to keep three large silver maples, but cut them down anyway.  This removed all the natural screening between the Wawa and the neighbor’s back yard.

I would say that more than 30 people showed up, at one time or another, yesterday morning, to stand in front of the Wawa and hold signs protesting the removal of those mature silver maple trees.  (I believe the organizers put the number closer to 50, but in either case, it was a crowd.)  This included a couple of Town Council members and one person from the Planning Commission.  Enough passing motorists honked in support that there seemed to be general support for the protest.

The largest tree left a stump 42″ across.  The cut was too rough to allow the tree rings to be counted.  There were rumors that the tree was more than 100 years old, but my best guess is that the tree was probably around 55 years old, based on a couple of crude formulas I found.  (That’s based on the typical ratio of diameter-breast-height to stump diameter, and then a crude formula for estimating tree age by species, for landscape trees, given on this website.)   That building on that site is about 45 years old, so arguably, my best guess is that these trees were roughly contemporaneous with that building.

The Town’s Facebook posting on this event is short.  Here is, I hope,  link to the Town’s Facebook posting on this.  According to the Town of Vienna, Wawa has reportedly agreed to plant a dozen roughly 6″ diameter trees to replace the three large silver maples that were destroyed.  This will be in addition to a solid vinyl fence and landscaping to be installed in front of that fence.

How this happened, exactly, is still not clear.  I have heard from several credible sources that some Town official gave permission to take down all the trees in the alley right-of-way.  But the Town’s official position is that this was a mistake by Wawa’s contractor.  If past experience with the Town of Vienna government is any guide, we’ll never know what the true story is.

The Town makes no mention of the developer forfeiting the tree bond for this project.  The fact that the Town does not mention that leads me to think that the builders actually did have the Town’s permission to take the trees down.  But, because the Town is great at stonewalling things like this, that’s speculation.

I doubt this will even affect the Town priding itself on being an officially-designated tree city.

My only other thought on this is that there is no longer any reason, other than cost, for Wawa not to build a masonry wall at the back of that property.  That would likely be a better barrier to sound transmission than the proposed solid vinyl fence.

Post #467: CORRECTED: Wawa what the heck?

There is a protest rally planned for 8 AM tomorrow (Saturday, 11/23/2019).  Show up at the Wawa site at that time if you wish to express your opinion about this unfortunate event.

Above:  The back of the Wawa parking lot, when it was Coldwell Banker.  The large maple trees were supposed to remain.  Wawa said that in testimony, and they included that in the landscaping plan approved by the Board of Architectural Review.

Below:  Here’s what it looked like yesterday.  The wooden fence visible in the picture belongs to the neighbors who live in the house adjacent to the Wawa lot.  Wawa basically clear-cut the alleyway right-of-way that exists between the neighbor’s lot and the Wawa lot.

Correction:  As of now, this is officially being blamed on Wawa’s contractor.  Apparently there was “confusion” as to which trees were to be taken down.  (This seems kind of astonishing to me, as in, you’d think that somebody would have said something like “not all of them”.) But the official story is that this was an unfortunate mistake, Wawa accepts responsibility for it, and they’re going to plant replacement trees with about a week.

So, despite what I said in an earlier version of this, I cannot say that Wawa got permission from the Town to remove those trees from the alley right-of-way.  That part of it has to be dismissed as rumor.  Officially, this was due to a contractor’s mistake.

Continue reading Post #467: CORRECTED: Wawa what the heck?

Post #343: Where’s Wawa, MODIFIED 8/15/2019

EDIT/ADDENDUM:  After I wrote this, a colleague directed me to look at the Fairfax FIDO website.  There, you can look up the status of all Fairfax County building permits, for any building in the Town of Vienna.  Based on that, the Wawa application for a permit to operate a food service establishment is still active.  (In fact, now that I look closely, they have half-a-dozen permits, everything from signs to electrical work to interior remodeling).  As of now, based on that, it definitely appears that Wawa is coming to Vienna.  Despite the prominent “for rent” sign that remains up at that property.

Original posting follows:

As noted in this earlier post, and continuing to Post #241, earlier this year, Wawa sought and obtained approval to remake the Coldwell Banker building (corner of Nutley and Maple) into a Wawa convenience store.  

Meanwhile, yet a different entity sought permission to revive the dead gas station at Maple and Park, and add a full-sized convenience store. 

This led me to speculate that we were going to end up with more full-sized convenience stores than the Town of Vienna could support.  At least based on the history of 7-11s in Vienna (outlined in this post).  If all this planned development occurred, we’d have four full-sized convenience stores, plus mini-marts at some of the gas stations.  Whereas the Town did not appear to be able to support three 7-11s.  (The third Vienna 7-11 was located at Maple and Courthouse.)

Anyway, a colleague pointed out that the property-for-rent sign has not come down at the Coldwell Banker building.  To the contrary, it looks like they put up a brand new and more prominent sign.

So that’s a bit of a puzzler.  And a bit of a worry.  For the following reasons:

  1.  One corner of that intersection is already slated to be covered by a big MAC building (444 Maple West/Tequila Grande).  You have to wonder whether somebody will want to build its twin right across the street.
  2. The building next door to Coldwell Banker is also vacant (the former Joe’s Pasta), and is being offered for rent by the same company handling the former Coldwell Banker building.
  3. In a prior Town Council session, one Town Council member let slip that it would be OK to lengthen the left-turn-lane on Nutley, at that intersection, because the buildings across the street would be combined anyway (and so would still have a viable entrance on Maple).  So, apparently, almost a year ago, something may or may not have been in the works regarding those properties.
  4. For these narrow, deep lots, erasing a lot line (combining lots) is hugely profitable under MAC, because it allows much more building to be built on the same acreage, assuming that individual buildings on individual lots would sit five or ten feet off the common lot line.
  5. But, isn’t the Town going to extend the moratorium on new MAC buildings?  That seems to be the common assumption, but so far there has been no discussion and no progress on that.  And time is short, as noted in Post #323 and Post #325.
  6. And maybe they don’t need MAC.  It sure looks like 901 Glyndon may have set a precedent of unquestioned by-right construction of two floors of housing over one floor of retail, merely by the Town declaring that such a building is “primarily occupied” for commercial use.  In other words, it looks like Town staff can simply declare that three-story mixed-use construction (two floors of housing over one floor of retail) is now OK, by right, under Vienna’s standard commercial zoning.

Maybe that new sign is just a harmless bit of theater.  It might be there just to help reinforce the narrative that Maple Avenue retail is in crisis.  Then again, maybe it means that Wawa changed its mind.  All told, I think I’ll feel more comfortable when I see Wawa get started on making over the Coldwell Banker building.

Post #245: The 4/18/2019 Board of Architectural Review meeting

Let me boil down last night’s Board of Architectural Review (BAR) meeting regarding the Marco Polo development to two words/two pictures and one question:

Bait: What they told the BAR they were building. This is what the BAR approved.  Georgetown-like red-brick/ironwork turn-of-the-last-century architecture.

Switch:  What they are actually proposing to build.  Chicago alleyway, complete with bricked-in windows.  (Who in their right mind includes bricked-in windows as a design feature in a new building?)

Looking on the bright side, at least the cars were the same.  Even if the building was not.

(In the drawing above, ignore the portion of the building fading off into the distance.  All of the new “switch” building matches what you see facing you.  The parts fading off into the distance are parts of the old “bait” building that they either didn’t bother to, or intentionally failed to, erase.)

This was, apparently, the first time the BAR had been asked to look at the revised plans. They were not pleased.

Church Street, in particular, is more-or-less treated as an alleyway.  Here I have crudely removed the buildings in the background, so you can see the face of this development, as it sits on Church.

It’s no exaggeration to say that if you added a couple of rusty fire escapes and a dumpster, you would not be able to tell it from any alleyway in a large Midwestern city.  My wife’s observation is that “it looks just like the subsidized housing in the City of Alexandria.”

I believe that was not lost on the BAR.   And this is on Church Street — you know, the one where the Town mostly got the redevelopment right.  Until now.

So here’s the question:  Who in our Town government is going to be held responsible for this?  Is anyone going to be held responsible for this?  And what’s to stop this from happening again? 

OK, that’s three questions.  But my bet is, they all have more-or-less the same answer:  Nobody, no, and nothing.

Interestingly, the original developer — the person who managed to achieve the passage of this — just recently sold it to a new developer.  In one of those strange coincidences, yesterday morning was the public announcement that the Marco Polo project had been sold to new owners.  Before this, the sale had merely been a rumor.  You certainly have to applaud his sense of timing.

The new owners clearly did not expect the reaction they got from the BAR. The new owners walked in with samples of bricks and other materials, for the BAR’s approval, so that they could start construction.  But the BAR more-or-less cancelled that.  The BAR deferred approval of anything until this could be straightened out.

I have a lot more to say about this, but I’ll just end by noting who was there, and who was not, to see this through.  For this item, the citizen audience consisted of a half-dozen people.  It was Vienna Citizens for Responsible Development (VCRD) and a handful of their friends.  They were there because they had done their homework.  John Pott — a founding member of VCRD — got up and asked for an investigation — why was this wholesale change only being brought to light now?  Chuck Anderson had spent the last two days compiling the complete history of how this occurred, along with clear “before-and-after” pictures.  On net, the BAR seemed appreciative of the information and clear presentation.

But in the end, it was the BAR itself that caught this.  They knew that what they were seeing was not the building they approved.  And, unsaid but pretty clear from the comments, had this “Chicago back alley” been the building they were shown, it would not have been approved.

At this point, I’m just going to clean up my audio recording and post it, so that you can hear the discussion for yourself, if you choose to do so.  I’ll have the link to that in a separate post.

But the long and short of it is that the building that the BAR passed had almost nothing to do with the building that the Town Council may-or-may-not-have passed.  The BAR was shown plans for a building that evoked turn-of-the-century Georgetown — red brick, ironwork, rounded facades, detailed windows, stone lintels.  It respected the adjacent streets by presenting a house-like facade.  And it would have been expensive as all get-out to build.

But what the Town Council appears to have passed — it’s not clear right now exactly what they were looking at — can best be described as Chicago back alley.  But as they were looking at that, they were also shown pictures of the original, Georgetown-like building.

Apparently both sets of plans — Georgetown turn-of-the-century and Chicago back alley — were presented, in pieces, simultaneously.  This is something I find hard to believe, because when the Planning Commission (PC) was explicitly faced with two sets of plans this year, for 380 Maple West, they literally didn’t know how to deal with it (Post #213).  They had not, within living memory, dealt with two different proposals simultaneously.

The Chair of the BAR rightly rejected any part of the discussion that dealt with how this came to pass, or what other parts of the Town of Vienna government did.  The BAR is not an investigative body.  He focused on what the BAR’s mission is, which is to review the architecture of buildings proposed for the Town of Vienna.

The bottom line is that the BAR deferred any decision on the Marco Polo/Vienna Market development.  They will have a work session to sort out how best to deal with the new plans that have been handed to them.  But it is not their job to ask how this mess came about.

Completely separately, and not to be forgotten, the BAR accepted Wawa’s gracious offer to build a solid vinyl fence at the back of their property.  If you want the back-story, read, in chronological order:  This post, then this post, then Post 241.   As one BAR member put it, Wawa met them more than halfway.



Post #241: Wawa comes through.

I know what convenience store I’m going to use, henceforth, in the Town of Vienna.  I’m a Wawa convert. 

Read the back story in this post, and this one.

Briefly, thanks to an odd 1974 ruling by the Town of Vienna, there’s no masonry wall at the back of the Coldwell Banker property (corner of Maple and Nutley), where it adjoins the residential neighborhood.  This is now a problem for the family living behind that property, because the sleepy little Coldwell Banker training facility is going to be replaced by what may well be a very busy Wawa convenience store.

And, although they were under no legal obligation, Wawa has now proposed to put up a 6′ vinyl privacy fence, at the back of the lot.  Just to be a good neighbor.  And they’ll put it up in such as way as to spare the large silver maples currently on or near the lot line. Continue reading Post #241: Wawa comes through.