For the time being, the consulting firm Duncan Associates is navigating the perils of Maple Avenue without a rudder. After about an hour and a half of discussion with residents last Tuesday night, no clear picture emerged of the business district's future.
Following a 2005 recommendation by the Maple Avenue Vision Committee, suggesting that form-based code be used to shape future commercial development along the corridor, Duncan Associates has been contracted by the town to study zoning options for Vienna's main street.
The purpose of Tuesday's meeting, said R.J. Eldridge, director of the firm's Washington, D.C. office, was to understand what the problems are with the study area and to figure out "where are we going, and how do we get there?"
About 30 people showed up, and most were not shy about voicing their suggestions and concerns, but little consensus was reached as far as specific changes or how much change was actually desired.
The problem with Maple Avenue, said Steele Knudson, a Vienna resident who works at the Prince William County Planning Office, is that the street is the main artery between Tysons Corner and points west. "We're trying to make it our Main Street, but it can never be that because of Tysons," said Knudson. "It's not ever going to be pedestrian-friendly."
Sharon Baum, a former member of the Vision Committee, said widening the sidewalks would help make Maple Avenue a safer walk, and she suggested that if businesses were allowed to build taller structures, they could be persuaded to give up some ground space for sidewalks.
The current height limitation in Vienna is 35 feet.
Baum added that she had not given up on the idea — discussed by the Vision Committee — of tunneling the road's commuter traffic underground.
Eldridge noted that tunneling was somewhat beyond the scope of the current study, in part because the study area stretches only from Lawyers Road to Beulah Road.
The idea of limiting businesses that cater to through-traffic, such as banks, gas stations, fast food restaurants and car washes, was suggested by Blair Jenkins. "Not that we don't want that business," he said, "but it doesn't belong on our main thoroughfare."
Eldridge said limiting certain types of businesses would be possible, if the town desired to do so. Strict form-based zoning code regulates only a structure's size, shape, appearance and placement, but other stipulations can be added. Eldridge has made clear that the most viable solution would probably be a hybrid of different zoning options.
Matthew Stich said he, too, would like the tunneling option left on the table and added that he was concerned by the idea of changing only part of Maple rather than changing it all at once.
Director of Planning and Zoning Greg Hembree, however, said the mayor and Town Council had decided to focus on the area of town zoned for the highest commercial density.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING for seniors was another concern raised. Although she said she did not want to see high-rises, Deborah Brehony said she thought four to six stories would be an appropriate height for buildings along Maple Avenue. The first story, she said, could be occupied by shops and restaurants, the second and third by professional offices, and the top stories by condominiums, which could provide housing for seniors who want to sell their houses but stay in town.
She also said she wanted buildings in the area to have architectural styles that compliment each other.
Jerome Covel agreed that housing was needed for seniors, and he said he wanted to see residents sit down and cooperate on a design for the commercial district, including multi-use buildings. "We've got to get a little more vision in what we're doing here," he said. However, Covel noted that not everyone would agree on such a project. "We've heard from a group that wants to listen to change," he said, while another group in town "feels exactly the opposite."
According to Hembree, residential space is allowed above retailers on Maple Avenue under the current zoning, but heavy traffic makes the area valuable to businesses and less desirable as a place to live.
Architect Thomas Helbing, who has been working on a potential future project with property owners on the northeast corner of Maple Avenure and Pleasant Street, including the Marco Polo Restaurant, said he and the owners wanted to create a multi-use building with businesses on the ground floor and housing above it, and with parking underground. However, he said, this is all impossible under the current zoning ordinance, particularly with respect to building height. "It's certainly not feasible if we can't get the height," he said.
"Maple Avenue may not be the place to concentrate high-density housing," contended Knudson, noting the lack of a nearby Metro station and the widespread resistance to condominium housing that has been planned for construction around the Vienna Metro.
Mary Madden of Ferrell Madden Associates, a planning and design firm that specializes in form-based coding and will be working on the study with Duncan Associates, asked about the possibility of shared parking or public parking.
"Everyone in town talks about parking, but there have never been the resources to build public parking," said Alfredo Pestana, part-owner of Marco Polo.
Carole Wolfand, co-owner of Vienna Paint & Decorating, pointed out that it would be difficult for her customers to carry paint buckets any distance to a shared parking lot, just as it would not be easy for a pizza restaurant to have their pizzas carried for three blocks to be delivered. "We, as retailers, depend on drive-up-to-the-front parking," she said, noting that much of the business on Maple Avenue is auto-oriented. However, Wolfand said she liked the idea of underground parking.
"There are communities that have made the decision not to allow auto-oriented businesses," said Madden, adding that these pedestrian-friendly areas often also limit how frequently the curb can be cut for driveways and how often traffic can turn left. "That can fundamentally change the nature of a thoroughfare," she said. "But does Vienna want that?"
She also raised the idea of a limited amount of parking in front of businesses, with the majority of parking concentrated elsewhere.
SOMETHING NEEDS TO CHANGE, warned Baum, noting that some centers, such as the one housing Giant Food, are not as developed as the current code allows. A Wal-Mart or Target could be next, she said.
Withers Hurley, a young mother, said she would not mind seeing a Target move in. "I don't shop in Vienna anymore. There's nowhere I can do one-stop shopping," she said, calling for a large retailer like Target or a center with a variety of stores all within walking distance.
She lamented the lack of variety on Maple Avenue and the loss of specialty shops such as Stride Rite and the Brambled Nest. "I can't go to six different banks. I can't get my nails done 10 times a day," she said.
Susan Stich agreed, noting that she regretted having to go to Oakton recently to buy socks. "I like to keep my money in Vienna," she said.
Joanna Covel said she liked the idea of limiting where drivers can turn left, as well as situating parking behind retailers. "I feel like we look like Route 7 where all the car dealerships are," she said.
"WE WERE UNDER the impression that there was more of a clear picture of where the town saw itself 50 years from now," Eldridge later said, noting that Vienna seems to be divided into three different camps — one that wants little or no change, one that wants to actively shape the way that Maple Avenue grows, and one that expects change and wants to have options open for reacting to it.
He said his goal now is to provide a "tool kit" for each approach. "I really think that's the best guidance we can give the town right now," he said.
Once it is decided how much change is desired, further recommendations will likely need to be made regarding specific changes in zoning.
The final draft of the current study is expected to be completed by late July, followed by a formal presentation.
In the meantime, said Eldridge, he and his associates will be studying the present zoning policies and making the rounds, speaking with businesses on Maple Avenue and residents living nearby, as well as the Town Council and the Planning Commission.
He said he did think there was a consensus that there is a problem with parking on Maple and that residents would like the town to exercise some control over the design of the buildings there.
He added that no changes would be forced on existing businesses, as zoning changes are generally grandfathered into an area, imposed on new businesses or existing businesses that redevelop.
Eldridge said these businesses would probably be willing to cooperate with what changes the town decides to impose. "Vienna is lucky that in places that have relatively high land value, people are willing to invest in their property."