The thought, prompted by a controversial development case, has been bubbling up all summer: Something with Vienna’s Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) ordinance is wrong and needs to be fixed.
Acceding to their own misgivings and those expressed by many residents in recent months, the Vienna Town Council agreed unanimously Sept. 17 to pass a moratorium on MAC cases until June 17 next year.
The action came after hundreds of residents objected to plans by Vienna Development Associates LLC to built 160 multi-family residential units and 20,136 square feet of retail at 430, 440 and 444 Maple Ave., W.
Opponents said the building was too large, had insufficient access and open space, and would place too great a burden on the town’s roads and other infrastructure.
The developer has waived the Council’s statutory decision deadline and agreed to consider possible changes to plans for the site. The Council is slated to decide on the matter Oct. 29.
The Council agreed to impose the MAC moratorium after a lengthy public hearing that once again featured comments from many residents – all of them critical. The hearing was unusual in that the town’s Planning Commission was present and temporarily took the dais to debate and issue its own recommendation on what the Council should do.
Commissioners voted 6-1 (one member was absent) in favor of the maximum 270-day delay that had been advertised. The lone dissenting vote came from Sarah Couchman, who feared unintended consequences from changing the ordinance too much.
“I believe that the process is working,” she said, citing likely upcoming changes to Vienna Development Associates’ plans.
The Town Council will have the option of passing another moratorium if sufficient progress can’t be accomplished by that deadline. Because of advertising deadlines, town officials will have to take stock of the situation in late April to determine if they need to start the extension process.
The moratorium will be imposed 10 days after the town advertises its intention to adopt, and some residents worried potential MAC projects could be submitted before that deadline and evaluated based on current standards.
One such project is a proposal by a consortium of firms to build a four-story building at 380 Maple Ave., W., that would have 7,500 square feet of ground-floor retail and 38 to 40 residential condominiums on the top three floors. That developer has made presentations at two work sessions, the most recent being on Sept. 12.
Council members on Aug. 20 also listened to a second presentation by Sunrise Senior Living about building an 80-unit senior-living facility, along with ground-floor retail, at 100-110 Maple Ave., E. This initiative would have to overcome several utility-easement issues at the site.
While the moratorium is in effect, town officials will conduct an online visual-preference survey that will allow residents, business people and property owners to weigh in on how MAC projects should look.
Over a one-month period starting in October, survey takers will rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, photos of a series of mixed-use developments from around the United States. The images will show structures up to four stories tall.
After the survey results are in, the Vienna Board of Architectural Review (BAR), an architect and town staff will draft new visual guidelines and have the public review them. Those guidelines, along with any other proposed MAC amendments, would be reviewed again by the BAR, Planning Commission and Town Council before adoption.
Discussions about long-term redevelopment of the town’s main commercial corridor have taken place since at least 2001, and town officials held a lengthy process to draft the MAC ordinance, which the Council adopted in October 2014.
The ordinance gives developers incentives on building height, parking and other factors in exchange for architectural elements and other amenities sought by the town.
In addition to the pending Vienna Development Associates proposal, the Town Council has approved only two other MAC projects since the ordinance’s adoption.
The first, approved in 2016, will build a Chick-fil-A and Flagship Carwash Center at 540 Maple Ave., W. That project is under construction, but critics say work has stopped because of problems with the water table – a factor that also might come into play at the nearby Vienna Development Associates project.
The second approved MAC initiative, the mixed-use Vienna Market project at the northeast corner of Maple Ave., W., and Pleasant Street, N.W., initially was defeated in 2016, but the Council approved a scaled-back version earlier this year.
Council members disagree on what the MAC should focus on. Member Howard Springsteen said he wants the Maple Avenue corridor to retain its commercial elements and not have too much focus on residential units.
Council member Pasha Majdi concentrated on giving the corridor a pleasing, not overly intense, visual aesthetic. Member Carey Sienicki, citing the laborious effort that went into passing the MAC ordinance, favors leaving it open to a variety of options.
“We need not to make the MAC so stringent that it becomes something by-right” if developers meet all requirements, she said.