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Town Meets with Community on Garage Adjustments

Changes position the town to enter an interim agreement with property owner this month

A proposed Church Street parking garage has undergone several changes based on feedback it received at public meetings last month, including a reduced height, more adjacent green space and fewer curb cuts.

Architect Paul Layer, who unveiled the changes at two community meetings last week, showed residents, business owners and town officials plans for a building that has had its height lowered 5 feet — reducing the highest part of the building above grade to 44 feet. The mixed-used building, which sits on Church Street, reaches 35 feet; the garage's elevator shaft will rise to 54 feet.

The area adjacent to the building also includes more green elements, like plants and landscaping, and will also feature eight u-shaped bicycle racks. It removes a curb cut between the cut at the alley and another at the condo building; there remains one entrance to the garage on Church Street, and one entrance to a ground-level parking area reserved for tenants of the mixed-use building and those currently located along the alley.

The changes position the town to enter an interim agreement on the structure later this month, which would not commit the town to the project, Town Manager Mercury Payton said; it would simply allow the town to do more detailed research and outline more defined costs and responsibilities.

To officially move forward on the project, the Vienna Town Council would have to approve a comprehensive agreement, a guiding document that would outline specifically how the building plans to comply with the Church Street Vision, along with civil site plans, storm water management details, and plans for ground parking and the building's footprint. It would also involve selecting a contractor for the project.

Two public hearings will also be held on the project, Planing and Zoning Director Greg Hembree said.

If approved, the town anticipates breaking ground in April 2014 with an 18-month construction phase. The garage will have 120 public parking spaces, 52 spaces on the ground, and the curb in front of the mixed-use building will make room for five spaces.

At Thursday's meetings, some residents continued to struggle with whether the town needed a garage at all.

One man offered Tysons Corner as a place where plenty of parking garages already exist.

"I just wonder if Church Street is the place to have the parkng lot ... if maybe the parking lot should be off of Maple [Avenue], that's less historic," one resident said. "I just worry that this is not appropriate for Church Street."

"We do not want to become a suburb of Tysons. We have to find our own niche of who we are and keep our identity to serve the small businesses that we have," Mayor Jane Seeman said.

Hembree said because the Church Street corridor is linear in nature, a garage there actually makes sense because "it becomes in its own right a destination," he said.

"People can park there, you cut down on vehicle trips, then they can get out and walk and truly begin to ... commit to the pedestrian zone that was created for this purpose," Hembree said.

Layer noted the plan cuts down on the number of times vehicles and pedestrians intersect — reducing the likelihood of accidents and also helping create a foot traffic flow.

Addressing some merchants' concerns, Layer said he would be meeting with business owners adjacent to the site to create a signing package, which in theory, would give the shop owners more options to make their shop visible during a long construction phase.

"I can't do anything about the fact that the building is a piece standing there but I can do things to make it more desirable," Layer said.

Tim Fricker, owner of Bikes at Vienna, said he's happy sketches of the sight lines from Maple Avenue and Church Street show the garage will appear to be masked from those streets, but it doesn't change the fact that "it's still a big building overshadowing my shop and cutting me off from what little visibility I have from the road."

Other merchants along the alley continue to have concerns about the construction phase of the problem. Layer said it's possible crews could "stage" the work, occupying one part of the building — the mixed-use building or the parking garage — at a time. But those possibilities won't be known until a contractor is in place and they gauge their liability, he said.

"The construction phase of this project is going to be very disruptive of my business, and will definitely adversely affect my income during that period. I don't see how that could be any other way," Fricker said.  

He noted the problem isn't so much customers won't be able to find the shop, but that "when faced with the prospect of going near a construction zone, people avoid it like the plague," he said.  "So the suggestion of a few ads telling people I'm here [doesn't] reassure me"

One resident said she thinks the vision for Church Street should be more car-centric, instead of one that caters to cars.

"I don't think you can eliminate cars but if there's a way to make ... try to view Church Street as car-less as possible, that will be a nice selling point," she said.

Councilwoman Carey Sienicki encouraged residents to think of the project as an investment of infrastructure "just like the water pipes that are running through the town. This is something that will provide a nexus that will allow things to go on in the future," she said. "By addressing it now, we're addressing those things so that Vienna stays current with they trends that are happening all around the country."

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