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Radical Changes Envisioned for Maple Avenue

Vision Committee advocates a form-based zoning code.

The question is how to keep Vienna’s "small town" feel. The answer, according to the Maple Avenue Vision Committee, is to draw up the streetscape that the citizens want, and let developers build it.

To do that, the town must restructure its zoning ordinance, said the committee. "Our present form of zoning does not work or there would be no need for a Maple Avenue Vision Committee," said Jerry Covel, chair of the committee at the Town Council’s work session on March 14. "Form-based code is the answer we found."

The kind of zoning that most people are accustomed to is generally known as Euclidian Zoning (the name comes from the town of Euclid, Ohio, which pioneered the practice, not the mathematician). Under Euclidian zoning, the localities decided the type and density for a piece of land. For example, an area might be zoned for residential use at one house per acre, or for office use of up to a certain density.

The way the building looks is generally up to the property owner, so long as the owner remains within the established code. This also follows the traditional architectural mantra, form follows function.

Form based code is something that localities across the country are turning to to guide their land use, typically in more urban areas. Under form-based code, the locality turns the mantra on its head. Planners design what they want their streetscape to look like, setting the building height in number of stories, and potentially even down to such details as the shapes of the various windows.

Once the building’s size, shape and design is in line with what the code allows, certain uses will naturally gravitate to certain buildings, according to the theory, and market forces will end up dictating which area end up as retail, office or residential.

This type of code was used in the Kentlands in Montgomery County, Md., and is currently being employed in Arlington County along the Columbia Pike.

THE CURRENT zoning along Maple Avenue could allow huge boxes with underground parking, said Steve Bukont, vice-chair of the committee. He showed how, under the town’s current zoning law, a developer could take some of the existing areas along Maple Avenue and turn them into Tysons Corner-style big-box retail stores.

The current retail model, of a store surrounded by a moat of parking will not be feasible much longer. As land prices climb, the cost of not putting something on the parking lot would become prohibitive, Bukont pointed out.

Developers have already started to put underground parking at many retail establishments, he said. "Once the average consumer has accepted structured parking, those big box retailers will be coming to Vienna," Bukont said. Currently, Bukont told the Vienna Town Council, land prices are going so high, that it is just a matter of time before underground parking and a big store on top become the most cost efficient.

The sacrifice that would be needed from the town, Bukont said, was height. The committee proposed allowing buildings of up to five-six stories along some parts, but not the length, of Maple Avenue.

Those councilmembers who spoke were generally skeptical of the plan. Councilmember Maud Robinson said that one of the biggest problems she saw was the height. "A high skyline is not compatible with a small town," she said. This type of zoning is typically used in urban areas, which she does not want Vienna to become. "What you are talking about will not retain [Vienna]’s present character," Robinson said. Additionally, she said the new code might constitute a "take."

If a property owner can use his or her land in a way that generates a certain amount of money, and through the act of a government, that amount is decreased, a lawsuit is likely to follow.

To get around this, Bukont explained, two elements are necessary, the extra height and choices. First, make the program voluntary. Bukont suggested that the town might employ a variety of incentives to make the form-based code more attractive.

For example, developers might be permitted, under the form-based option, to build taller buildings. Currently, the code allows buildings of 35 feet. By allowing developers to go higher, they may be able to not only recoup their loss, but make more.

If a property could generate $15 million under the traditional zone, and $16 million under the form-based, Bukont reasoned, most developers would choose the form-based option. "Find a plan that we want and make it slightly more valuable," Bukont said. "The trick is to find the balance."

That balance would be difficult to achieve. The code would need to be developed block-by-block and would need to respect the use of adjacent property. For example, in areas where the block backs to residential neighborhoods, the required form would likely encourage the construction of residential units.

IN THE BLOCK between Maple Avenue and Church Street, where commercial use exists on all sides, the taller buildings might be more appropriate, Bukont said.

If the town were to move to such a code, a professional would be needed to draft the proposed regulations, Bukont said.

Robinson suggested that the committee actually design a block, so that the council could better grasp what it is that is being proposed. "Do a rendering before we waste money on a consultant," she said.

Bukont and the rest of the committee balked at the offer at first. Form-based codes, they said, require large amounts of public participation. Many citizens and groups must be engaged in designing what their town will look like. Anything the committee comes up with would only represent the ideas of a handful of people.

The council decided to take the matter under advisement. "I think you have brought some ideas that I haven’t thought about," said Councilmember George Lovelace.

AT MONDAY'S work session, the council also heard a report from the Transportation Safety Committee about how the town might make Church Street more pedestrian friendly. The committee reported on ideas in November 2004 and has been developing cost estimates.

The cost estimated by the town Department of Public Works to complete the proposals identified by the committee as high priority is about $26,000. The town begins its budget deliberations in April and some, if not all of the recommendations could be included in the budget.

The council also heard a proposal to restructure the police department. The proposal will create some new positions and eliminate some others. Chief Robert Carlisle estimated an increase of about $1,600 in payroll costs associated with the restructuring. Currently, the department’s payroll is approximately $2.86 million.

The council decided to go ahead with a pipe-style drainage ditch near Westbriar Court, N.E., and leave the current parking restrictions in place near Louise Archer Elementary school.