Fuzzy Vision for Downtown

Fuzzy Vision for Downtown

Duncan Associates presents Maple Avenue zoning study.

There was little choice but to offer several choices. The consulting firm Duncan Associates, which was contracted by the town last spring to conduct a feasibility study for zoning options on Maple Avenue, presented their findings at Monday night's Town Council work session, and the talk was more of an exploration of options than a prescription.

"We were under the impression that there was more of a clear picture of where the town saw itself 50 years from now," RJ Eldridge, director of the firm's D.C. office, had said after a community meeting last May, during which it had become apparent that there was little consensus among residents as to how much change they wanted to see in the town's commercial core.

The company was charged with the task of exploring the feasibility of implementing form-based or mixed-use zoning, creating zoning overlays, or sticking with the current zoning on Maple Avenue from Beulah Road to Lawyers Road.

At Monday's work session, Eldridge said he had gleaned a general consensus that the town wanted the area to be more pedestrian-friendly and to allow some degree of high-quality infill development while protecting residential neighborhoods. But, he said the town would need to decide whether it wanted the changes in zoning to shape changes in the commercial district or protect the status quo. "Depending on that, the town is going to take one of two very different approaches," he said.

TWO OF THE CURRENT zoning regulations that Eldridge said the town may want to consider modifying were the 15-foot setback requirement and the 35-foot/three-story height limit.

The 15-foot building setbacks, he said, create a sort of "no-man's land," separating pedestrians from the businesses along the road but not providing enough space to put to use. Some pedestrian-oriented communities, he said, require no setbacks in commercial areas, which he said could make the shops more inviting and make walkers feel safer. He also noted that the current setback could pose a major burden to small properties on side streets.

The current height limit, he noted, had raised some complaints from business owners, who felt they could not get enough return on the investment required to redevelop their sites because they could not expand any further. The practice of allowing greater height as distance from residential zones increases, he said, is "very typical to use in non-residential development. "A lot of folks, on the other hand, say, 'the three-story building, this is what characterizes Vienna,'" he said.

Eldridge said the company's study proposed raising the height limit to four or five stories in high-profile commercial intersections that were farthest from residential properties. However, he was quick to note that any recommendations were just that and would be discussed at length by town leaders and residents before being implemented.

As for the possibility of mixed-use development — combining commercial and residential uses — he noted that residential use is already allowed in up to 48 percent of most buildings on Maple. An alternative, he said, would be not to regulate use above the first floor.

He also suggested using floor-to-area ratios as a way to impose regulations or offer incentives. Floor-to-area ratio indicates the amount of floor space a building has in relation to the property on which it sits. A building that cut down its footprint by three quarters and quadrupled its height would maintain a constant floor-to-area ratio.

By being very specific, said Eldridge, zoning code could control building sizes and/or encourage design traits using floor-to-area ratios as a "trigger point." For example, if a building's floor-to-area ratio is lower than a certain number, the building can be taller than its neighbors. Or if the ratio is higher than a certain number, certain design requirements are imposed.

As for parking, he said, infill development may necessitate structured parking.

ELDRIDGE ALSO suggested that the town may want to use zoning overlays to differentiate the codes for the central commercial district and the outlying areas.

And if the town decides it wants to change its look along Maple, he said, form-based code could be useful. Form-based code regulates a building's placement on its lot, design, relationship with surrounding properties and appearance and places less emphasis on what it is used for. He added that it does not necessarily promote higher density.

Following the presentation, Councilmember George Lovelace noted that the question of height limitation may be the most important to decide first.

Councilmember Laurie Cole said she was concerned not only with the appearance of the area but also "that we continue to provide a place where our smaller businesses can thrive."

Eldridge noted that large, high-rent buildings could contain small lower-rent units and that less heavily traveled intersections would also command less rent.

Geoffrey Ferrell of Ferrell Madden Associates, which was subcontracted by Duncan Associates for the study, noted that incentives could be offered to developers for including local businesses.

Most council members agreed that the initial effort should be focused on a small area. "That inner circle is the one on which we should focus," said Councilmember Maud Robinson, indicating the central commercial area circled on a graphic.

Mayor Jane Seeman said she would eventually like to see the street from Lawyers Road to Park Street look a little more like Church Street.

It was decided that the matter would be presented to the town Planning Commission, with which the council would meet at a later date to hash out proposals before making a presentation to the public.

Eldridge emphasized that the process would be lengthy and detailed before any zoning changes should be finalized. He suggested discussing properties block by block or building by building.

Lovelace proposed another work session before the meeting with the Planning Commission. "I think we are going to have to step up to the plate and put that box around it, and we are going to have to say how high it's going to be, and we can't keep putting it off," he said. Councilmembers agreed. No specific dates, however, were set for the further discussions.