And, So… Here We Are, Again… MAC Redux #2

Brian Trompeter of the Sun Gazette is doing a follow-up story on the MAC ordinance with the impetus being the standing room only July 9th public hearing on the proposed 444 Maple Avenue West project. He was planning to contact all Council members, plus some other town officials and residents, to get their views on if and how the MAC ordinance needs to be modified. He provided the questions below and I have appended my full responses to him in this blog post.

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UPON VIEWING THE VIDEO OF THE MEETING (I KNOW YOU WERE ON VACATION), WERE YOU SURPRISED BY THE AMOUNT OF OPPOSITION TO THE LATEST MAC PROPOSAL? 

Given the key location in Town of the proposed development it is not surprising that our community would be engaged about the developer’s application. I have been impressed by the number of people who have prepared thoughtful comments from reviewing the application materials rather than relying on word of mouth opinion or conjecture.

DID ANY OF THE CRITICISMS OF THE PROPOSAL OR THE MAC ORDINANCE STRIKE HOME WITH YOU?

The Mayor had appointed early this spring an ad hoc committee to review the MAC code which was  already reviewing an number of different issues as the community starting expressing its opinions.  The community perspective reinforced that we were examining an appropriate set of topics that have led to proposed amendments that have been referred to the Planning Commission. These topics include further clarification to purpose and intent of MAC, housing density relative to mixed use residential/commercial development, and a number of provisions related to open space, massing, and appearance of buildings.  Additionally, staff has begun work on MAC Design Guidelines which were originally envisioned to be a companion document to be prepared contemporaneously once MAC was passed in 2014.

HOW MUCH, IF AT ALL, SHOULD INCENTIVES OFFERED TO DEVELOPERS IN THE MAC ZONE BE SCALED BACK TO PREVENT A WHOLESALE, MASSIVE TRANSFORMATION OF MAPLE AVENUE? 

The key point about the use of incentives is for the Town to get things we want in return for giving something of value to a potential developer.  With the current proposed amendments to the MAC, some of those incentives are scaled-up, for example open space from 10% to 15%. Since the MAC is viewed as living document, looking at incentives is part of the process.

Properties will transform over time along Maple Avenue whether under by-right zoning or under a MAC rezoning.  At the time MAC was developed there was a review of the potential development opportunities along Maple Avenue. Due to various condominium arrangements and restrictive lot covenants the total number of potential sites cited in the Comprehensive Plan is 67%  of the corridor over time depending on how recently a property has been updated and the intent of the property owner.  Today there are as many (if not more) by-right applications along Maple Avenue as MAC applications.

THE MAC ORDINANCE TOOK YEARS TO CRAFT. DID TOWN OFFICIALS PAY SUFFICIENT ATTENTION TO THE PUBLIC’S EXPRESSED DESIRE TO KEEP THE COMMUNITY SMALL OR TO THE POTENTIAL INFRASTRUCTURE BURDEN ON SCHOOLS, PUBLIC SAFETY, PARKS, LOCAL ROADS AND STORMWATER-MANAGEMENT FACILITIES? 

I believe that through MAC code development process we did; given the conditions at the time four to six years ago and the 21 meetings/work sessions/hearings that were open to the public (at least the work the Maple Avenue Vision Steering Committee, staff and the consulting team did).  The MAC was developed using relevant national and Virginia best practices. The steering committee was not only consisted of members of the public, business community, and various Town commissions with purview but also staff providing input on all of these issues as well as the incentives being targeted for the prospective developer to propose those items as part of their proffer package. The code section was designed from the outset to be living document to be updated periodically as conditions evolved or new information was available.

HOW MUCH MORE INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT WILL BE NEEDED IF SEVERAL MAJOR MAC PROJECTS COME ONLINE, ESPECIALLY AT THE GIANT SHOPPING CENTER PROPERTY? WILL TOWN TAXES WILL HAVE TO RISE TO MEET THAT BURDEN OR CAN MOST OR ALL OF IT BE COVERED BY DEVELOPERS’ CONTRIBUTIONS?

I won’t speculate on what nature of each individual prospective Maple Avenue development might be or what specific impact it could hypothetically create.  Will there be needs to be addressed, likely. Part of the goal with engaging with prospective developers about proffers is to identify resources to address impacts of site development.  Additionally, the Town does have an existing robust Capital Improvement Program funded bonds supported thru the 3% meals tax. I do not foresee, at this point, a change to our approach to the program as more modern, upgraded systems will be a benefit to both residential and business development in the future.

WHAT STEPS SHOULD TOWN OFFICIALS TAKE IF THE GOAL IS TO GAIN MORE PUBLIC BUY-IN ON THE MAC ORDINANCE WHILE STILL ENCOURAGING PROPERTY OWNERS TO REDEVELOP?

All Town Meetings for proposed actions are open, the public is always welcome to present information at public hearings before the Planning Commission, Board of Architectural Review and Town Council.  And, as always, community members are always welcome to engage with their elected and appointed representatives to the these bodies.

Another important point with developments that proposed under MAC is that there IS NECESSARILY public engagement and public hearings before three government bodies.  On the other hand, a commercial three story by-right development that conforms to all site plan and stormwater management requirements would be approved as an administrative action by staff with no requirement public input.

WHAT, IF ANYTHING, WILL HAPPEN TO THE TOWN IF MAC REDEVELOPMENTS ARE SCALED WAY BACK OR NOT DONE AT ALL? 

If we, as a community, think 1960’s/1970’s style auto-centric strip commercial buildings define a wonderful small town…then the short answer is…nothing.  But…what, really, does that lead to?  Stagnation…failure…loss…  There are plenty of examples and none of us want that!

Do we want Maple Avenue to be a vibrant pedestrian-oriented place that is a destination rather than a cut thru? Do we want to create opportunities for new businesses, new housing options, public spaces, leading environmental design, safe and barrier free places?  Do we want to be a small-town as a distinctive place in Northern Virginia in face of development in Falls Church, Mosaic and Tysons Corner?  To do those things requires informed strategies for smart growth and development, that is the goal and aspiration of the MAC code…and as we have learned some of the technical wording may need to be improved, but what we heard through the Maple Avenue Vision process that the steering committee shepherded was what is stated in the purpose and intent statement of the MAC:

The purpose of the Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) Zone is to encourage compact, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use development and redevelopment along the Maple Avenue corridor to reinforce Maple Avenue’s role as the Town’s main street. The zone is intended to ensure that development along the corridor promotes Vienna’s small-town character and does not compromise the character of residential neighborhoods abutting the corridor. More specifically, the MAC Zone is intended to:

  1. Encourage compact, pedestrian-oriented development along Maple Avenue East and West that collectively accommodates residents, visitors, and businesses;
  2. Encourage a pedestrian-friendly, human-scale design of streets, buildings, and open spaces;
  3. Foster mixed-use and destination-style retail development along Maple Avenue East and West;
  4. Promote a variety of housing options in the Town;
  5. Enhance the Town’s economic vitality by promoting the preservation and creation a variety of business establishments, including restaurants, services, small and locally-owned businesses, and other uses which contribute to the vitality of Maple Avenue East and West;
  6. Maintain and promote eclectic character and visual interest of building design and site configuration by encouraging a variety of building heights, density, and building mass consistent with Vienna’s small-town character and compatible with surrounding residential neighborhoods;
  7. Provide for a high quality of development along Maple Avenue East and West; and
  8. Improve environmental quality and promote responsible development practices along Maple Avenue East and West;
  9. Encourage the creation of publicly-accessible community gathering spaces, such as parks, plazas, and other open spaces;
  10. Encourage the incorporation of art in sites and buildings through a variety of design elements, natural features, installations and displays in highly visible and publicly accessible locations;
  11. Foster a built environment that is comfortable, safe, accessible, barrier-free and convenient to residents and visitors of all ages and abilities.