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Church Street Height Limit Debate Continues

Vienna Town Council members extend public hearing on issue for more professional, business and resident input.

Vienna Town Council members need more time and professional advice to decide whether the future of Church Street should include taller buildings or if it could thrive under current 35-foot height restrictions.

Council members extended a public hearing Monday night on a proposed ordinance that would modify the height code for the old Vienna commercial district to allow municipal parking structures up to 50 feet tall.

The potential change follows , the first pitch to come in under the town's

As it stands, the Church Street proposal would violate the town’s zoning requirements for the street.

While many council members believe more parking is needed in the area – and a 2008 planning commission parking study supports that claim – some residents said at a public hearing this week they worried the Church Street project would negatively impact the neighborhood for residents and businesses, aesthetically and in terms of traffic flow.

“We have a desire in town to have Church Street developed, and we do face a problem where if we don’t address the parking issue we’re going to choke growth,” planning commission Chairman Chuck Anderson said.

The intent of reviewing the ordinance, however, is to consider code changes independently of any specific proposal, Councilwoman Laurie Cole said.

It was difficult for those involved in Monday night’s discussion to separate one from the other.

“It’s important to remember what we’re talking about here is a general zoning revision, so it shouldn't be tied particularly to any one sketching, drawing or rendering,” Cole said. “Is 50 feet … necessary for constructing an adequate parking structure?”

Current Requirements, Possible Limits

Planning commission members didn’t think so. The draft ordinance they sent to council Monday night kept the height limit at 35 feet, but allowed for an additional 15 feet for certain necessities, including screening, guard rails, lighting and elevator enclosures.

Anderson said the commission believed builders could fit three-story garages, which would have four levels of parking counting the rooftop, into the 35-foot limit by allowing 11 feet for each story.

Planning and Zoning Director Greg Hembree didn’t agree, saying the height given those specifications would need to be at least 39 feet.

“Our ruler may have been off,” Anderson said.

Anderson noted the commission did support the specific project proposed for the empty lot on Church Street, but "from a planning standpoint, 35 feet has been standing for a long time – if we could do it in 35 feet, we should," Anderson said. 

In a written recommendation to the council, Hembree said the commission's language might "restrict the use of legitimate parking structure elements (support beams and joists, for example) above 35 feet in height and further restrict some of the flexibility that could be used to create a more attractive design."

The planning commission also recommended the council give it the authority to review and approve the site plan for all parking structures. Currently, the commission provides only recommendations to the council.

In a memo to the council, Hembree said he didn’t see a reason to change the review and approval process.

Much of the reason for extending the hearing was so council members could ask the town’s contracted engineering firm to offer professional advice on what’s feasible.

“We always challenge homeowners in town to build within the limits we set. It might always be easier to design and build a structure if you have 50 feet to work with instead of 35, but (35 feet) can be done,” Cole said.

Many residents who spoke at Monday's public hearing agreed.

“If a parking structure is built it should conform to the rest of the guidelines for the town,” said resident Howard Uman, who — like some other speakers — opposed the idea out of the belief it would increase crime and traffic in the neighborhood.

Uman also said taking on the project was not a fiscally responsible move to make, and one that would never pay for itself with the cost of ongoing maintenance.

“People aren’t going to pay to park,” said Uman, who lives on nearby Wilmar Place. “They’re going to park on my street anyway. If they’re going to be charged, it’s not going to work.”

Business Impact

Some business owners also worried how the new landscape – and construction of the specific project – would affect the street’s business district.

Councilwoman Carey Sienicki said she met with business owners this week about their concerns, which include how a building of either height would look from Maple Avenue, located downhill from Church Street. They also had concerns about what would happen to their signs and the currently empty lot both they and their customers use, Sienicki said. The new project would go on that lot.

“The visibility of the businesses on that corridor … they’re going to be dwarfed,” Sienicki said.

Many business owners, including Tim Fricker of , and Robert Williams, an owner at 101 Church St., believe some kind of parking structure on the block is inevitable.

“If we’re gong to fully develop Church Street ... you have to have parking,” Williams said.

But the location of the proposed project is a concern for many on the block.

For Bikes at Vienna and others on that strip, the "feel" of the shops would change drastically, Fricker said. It would make the area feel like an alley rather than a local business corridor where residents can browse and take in what the shops have to offer, he said. For the bike shop, that means going for test rides, getting bike advice and troubleshooting in the open-air lot.

“I don't really know how I'd be able to provide that level of service if I have to send folks (somewhere else),” Fricker said.

Construction time was another concern of businesses in the area, Sienicki and Fricker said. With a 12- to 24-month timeline for the project, owners fear access will be reduced. They recall similar construction issues on Branch Road, where the shopping center now home to Fresh Market has struggled for years to attract and retain businesses and customers.

"I have no way of knowing exactly how much it will impact my business, but I can only believe it is going to reduce how many people come to my shop, thus reducing my income significantly," Fricker said. "I don't know how long I can sustain a business if the impact is severe and prolonged."

The council will meet again May 21 with more information from engineers. Council members plan to arrange a meeting with more businesses on the street to get more input.

It’s not clear what kind of impact the delay will have on accepting the proposal on the table.

“This is an important decision to make and I don’t think there is any way we should hurry through this,” Mayor Jane Seeman said. “We want to get this right.”

This article has been updated.

Howie Uman April 19, 2012 at 02:40 PM
Council members should actively arrange a meeting with neighbors, just like they're actively arranging a meeting with businesses.
Wien April 19, 2012 at 06:21 PM
My only concern is the "build it and they will come" mentality. It seems there is already quite a bit of turnover and available buildings/spaces for rent in many sections of town, including the shopping center mentioned (with Fresh Market) that has lost some stores recently, including the BBQ place. And also there is a storefront or two on the 123 corridor that sit empty, along with the old BP station. Will a bunch of new retail space generate overall interest in Town businesses and help other storefronts get renters, or will it just add more retail square footage to the game and be zero-sum in moving businesses around within town? I would prefer they lop off one parking level and make it 35 feets, but I'm not opposed to the building. I'm just wondering who did the studies and where they're seeing all this demand for retail space as I watch other centers lose tennants.
Brian Dauernheim April 20, 2012 at 12:54 PM
I do agree that we need more parking in some spots downtown and that the Council has messed up on this in the past (the Chipotle shopping center/old Safeway parking lot). However, we should be careful about overbuilding where it's not needed, particularly if we're talking about a pay lot. Just look at what's happened in Silver Spring: http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/14210/taxpayers-foot-bill-for-parking-giveaway-in-silver-spring/ Millions of taxpayer dollars spent on a mostly empty garage that they're now leasing to Discovery for a song.

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