One thing about Vienna residents – when they care about something, they’re not shy about making their feelings known. And that’s exactly what they did during an Aug. 18 public hearing on the proposed Maple Avenue Corridor (MAC) zoning district.
A standing-room-only crowd of some 150 people packed the Town Council meeting room, while still more watched the proceedings on a TV in the hallway. And at the outset, Mayor Laurie DiRocco explained the MAC’s goals.
“The biggest concentration of commercial businesses is along Maple Avenue and our zoning ordinance dates back to the 1960s,” she said. “It’s essentially strip-mall zoning. But we’d like to add public art, energy efficiency, gathering spaces and mixed uses – none of which are in our current commercial zoning.”
“We want to enhance [Vienna], have a vibrant business district and be this gem of a town with all the services people need and want right here, now and in the future,” continued DiRocco. She said 75 percent of households responding to a recent survey asking what they wanted in their town wanted incentives given to redevelop the business community.
And a 17-person steering committee worked on the MAC two years to do just that, while preserving Vienna’s small-town feel and retaining the character of the nearby residential neighborhoods. At the public hearing, Vienna Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Matt Flis said the Council is considering a framework for Vienna’s long-term outlook.
“It’s preferable to develop under the MAC because it reinforces projects more in keeping with the Town’s vision,” he said. “Now, there’s no building-height limit; with the MAC, there is. And the MAC has tree-canopy, open-space, bike-parking and illumination requirements that currently don’t exist.”
THE EXISTING, 5-foot-wide sidewalks would be changed to a 20-foot setback for wider sidewalks, street trees and space for outdoor dining. Trees would also be required in parking lots and the whole corridor would be more bike-and pedestrian-friendly.
“Projects submitted through the MAC would go through a rigorous review process with public input,” said Flis. “Currently, there’s no requirement for public input. And the multiple curb cuts [along Maple] contribute to today’s stop-and-go traffic, so consolidating them would improve the situation.”
Furthermore, he said, “Through the MAC, [Vienna can] require developers to perform traffic studies, themselves, rather than the Town paying for them. There’d also be architectural standards. Buildings adjacent to residential can’t be higher than 35 feet; today, there’s not much we can do to limit that.”
Then a slew of residents – both for and against – spoke their minds about the proposal. Business-owner Matt Greer said the “moms-and-pops will get pushed out; we won’t be able to afford the rents or development costs anymore. It’s a great step in the right direction, but we don’t have the infrastructure to handle the vehicles and parking.”
However, DiRocco noted that “any redevelopment [under the MAC] is voluntary and will happen over time,” and certain Maple Avenue properties will never be redeveloped. But if they are, said Flis, the MAC will benefit small businesses.
PostNet owner James Cudney also favors the plan. “As a resident, I really want to see this Town grow and have more of a historic district with nice, green spaces for people to congregate and walk along Maple Avenue and dine outside there,” he said. “And as a business owner, I think the MAC is tremendous. As we create more businesses and density, I think rents will stabilize and the Town will get more revenue for services to the residents.”
Susan Stillman, chairman of Vienna’s Community Enhancement Commission, wants to protect the small businesses. “Today we have big, asphalt parking lots and can’t look into the store windows,” she said. “It’s not comfortable for walkers with large distances between businesses. I’m a cyclist and a walker and I want a safe way for kids to do that. And I’d like energy-efficiency requirements for buildings.”
Mike Gelb read a letter from Purple Onion Catering owner Margot Jones saying higher buildings will encourage more investment in the community. “I think [the MAC] will give us a chance to shape our own future in Vienna,” she wrote. “The Town will be able to negotiate conditions and proffers from developers, and it’ll be aesthetically pleasing and get people to walk. Hopefully, it’ll expand our tax base and provide housing options for people who don’t want that big house anymore.”
STEERING COMMITTEE member Laine Hyde said she’s “intensely proud” of the committee’s work and proposal. Stressing that Church Street “didn’t happen by chance,” but was created according to the Town’s planned vision,” she said, “That cements the case for adopting the MAC. People are walking, dining and shopping there at all hours.”
Michael Morey said the four-story buildings will probably be condos and apartments and wondered where all those residents would park. Flis said the developers would have to provide either structured parking or spaces behind the buildings.
John Ingram prefers Maple Avenue buildings to be three stories or less. Regarding outdoor dining, he said, “If you eat along the road there, you’ll get soot in your mouth.” And Roger Maamary said smart growth is “working with what you have and making the best of it. Invite the right businesses and reduce the traffic.”
“I don’t want Vienna to look like Tysons Corner,” said Kelly Wolf. “Nobody wants a four-story business on Maple Avenue; it will totally and completely change this community.” But Mike Cheselka said, “I don’t think four stories is too high; I’m in favor of this.”
Dennis Couture called the MAC “long overdue” and said it’ll “add life to the street and diversify the Town’s housing stock. Let’s embrace change and make sure it’s controlled and propels us forward.” Agreeing, Vienna Paint owner Carole Wolfand said, “If you don’t start planning for the future now, you won’t have the changes you want.”
But Laurie Moore worried that “traffic will increase from the additional workers, plus people coming to the new shops. Town residents pay 80 percent of the town revenue … so we need to know what new infrastructure will be required and who’ll pay for it.”
Flis said the Council will review each project’s development conditions and it’s expected that developers will pay for any infrastructure improvements. And, he added, “We’re doing a Maple Avenue traffic count and traffic-signal study now.”