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Morning Notes

Dense Fog Advisory for Fairfax Co. — “A Dense Fog Advisory has been issued until Noon today for portions of the region. If driving, slow down, use your headlights, and leave plenty of distance ahead of you.” [Twitter, Twitter]

State Offices, Courts Closed Today — Courts and DMV offices are closed today across Virginia for the state holiday known as Lee-Jackson Day. More closures are planned Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Vienna Ash Trees Devastated by Insect — A “Vienna Town Council agenda item on Jan. 7 revealed a harsh truth: An invasive insect called the emerald ash borer utterly has laid waste to the town’s ash trees. The insects have killed every ash tree in town, Vienna Parks and Recreation Director Leslie Herman told the Council.” [InsideNova, Tysons Reporter]

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Update 4:25 p.m. — Lynne Coan, communications and marketing manager for the Town of Vienna, said the Vienna Town Council removed pedestrian bridges and digital information board from the strategic plan and changed “get rid of planters” to “enhance streetscapes to encourage walkability”

As the Vienna Town Council begins to craft a new strategic plan, one of the largest sections of the document focuses on how to revitalize the town’s economy.

A full draft of the plan can be found in the agenda for the Jan. 15 Town Council work session. The strategic plan’s stated aim is for Vienna to serve as a “location of choice for unique, independent businesses that add to the town’s charm, attract visitors as well as residents and collectively serve to establish the town as a destination.”

So far, that’s been a challenge for Vienna. While there are new businesses, many of the largest additions are retail chains, and the western end of Maple Avenue suffers from rampant vacancies and “blight” like the burned husk of Marco Polo.

The strategic plan points to plans to update the town’s zoning code as one of the largest projects in the next year related to new economic development. The strategic plan says the aim is to start work on addressing the zoning code in spring 2019. The process is anticipated to take 18 months.

Part of the plan to make Vienna a destination also involves making it more walkable. The plan includes a series of recommendations on how to make Vienna more pedestrian friendly:

  • Make wider sidewalks a part of new Maple Avenue Commercial developments
  • Get rid of planters to allow more walking area
  • Enhance traffic-light timing to improve crossing Maple Avenue
  • Add more pedestrian-controlled signals on Maple Avenue
  • Start a local bus shuttle service to walkable destinations in Vienna

To help diversify the economy and bring in non-chain businesses, the plan recommends hiring an economic development consultant or deputy town manager to focus specifically on economic development. One of the recommendations would also loosen some of the sign ordinance restrictions, allowing businesses to get waivers allowing signs and balloons for events on Church Street, as well as additional way-finding signage.

In an effort to reduce the rampant vacancies, the plan recommends providing a link on the website to current vacant properties and opening up those spaces for pop-up arts or other short-term uses.

The plan also says that the current Town Green could be utilized more effectively as a social hub for Vienna, with recommendations for the square including bringing events with food trucks into the area.

Additional proposals in the strategic plan include:

  • Implement campaigns such as restaurant week
  • Celebrate small business week for a whole week, starting on the date of the Church Street Stroll; ask businesses to come up with deals to offer that whole week
  • Create a mobile app with an interactive business map
  • Create an app and printout for a Vienna walking tour focusing on local history and points of interest
  • Publicize where to park off-hours
  • Host more events that draw people to the commercial area
  • Create a Vienna dining and restaurant directory
  • Create a Chocolate Escape event; ask all businesses to feature a low-cost chocolate items as part of event
  • Host a Casino Night; have live music frequently
  • Encourage more dining options
  • Encourage local groups to adopt a spot and keep it clean
  • Create training centers
  • Feature a business of the week
  • Additional free events: dances, dance lessons, senior events.

Lynne Coan, communications and marketing manager for the Town of Vienna, said the strategic plan is still a work in progress with the Town Council scheduled to consider a draft of the plan in the spring.

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Morning Notes

‘Historic’ Tysons Apple Store May Move — “When Apple opened its first two retail spaces just hours apart at Tysons Corner Center and Glendale Galleria on May 19, 2001, nobody predicted the cultural impact and broad success Apple stores would have across the world. Now, that same success may cause Apple to leave the space that sparked a revolution in retail.” [9to5Mac]

New Tysons Chamber Chair Focusing on Growth — “‘When I look around Tysons, I can’t help but notice that we have one of the biggest darned fishing poles in the state of Virginia,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot of opportunity out there. All you have to do is look out these windows and see the construction, traffic and development.'” [InsideNova]

County Grappling with Government Shutdown — “One couple that contacted [Rep. Jennifer] Wexton had to return Christmas presents. Since they work for the same federal agency and are now both furloughed, they are now worried that they will not be able to pay their mortgage or the cost of their son’s preschool.” [Fairfax Times]

Vienna Council Squabbles Over Proclamations — “The Vienna Town Council on Jan. 7 approved, if a tad irritably, approved a pair of proclamations regarding social issues beyond its usual scope of duties… Council member Carey Sienicki, while not disputing the Council’s good intentions in signing off on the proclamations, wondered if those actions weren’t a little far afield.” [InsideNova]

Hedge Fund Gunning for Gannett — Tysons-based newspaper giant Gannett is considering a takeover offer from “a hedge-fund-backed media group known for buying up struggling local papers and cutting costs.” [Wall Street Journal]

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There’s a handful of design options for the new Vienna police station, but all of the plans being considered by town leaders will double the size of the existing building.

The Vienna Town Council plans to review three proposals for the project from Dewberry Architects Inc. at a meeting on Monday (Jan. 14).

The current station is 11,800 square-feet, while all of the new designs are over 28,400 square feet.

All of the designs extend the station southwest along Locust Street away from Center Street. In addition to new rooms for roll call, interviews,and other daily police-work uses, the new station designs feature a large “community room” and public lobby.

Two of the designs are very similar, both featuring the same distinctive curved meeting room at the Center Street end of the building, but with different parking layouts at the far side of the station.

Price estimates for the project range from $13 million to $15 million, with an estimated construction start date in fall 2020.

The project’s approval was not without some controversy, however. At a Town Council meeting earlier this week, Councilmember Pasha Majdi opposed awarding a contract for project management, saying there were better projects that could be funded instead.

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Months after a large fire leveled the restaurant, Marco Polo still stands as a burnt out husk on Maple Avenue.

The building had been long vacant and was set to be demolished, even before two teens allegedly set fire to the building as part of a small crime spree.

The site is owned by a limited-liability corporation, Vienna Vision LLC, and was planned to be redeveloped as 8,200 square feet of retail space and 44 townhouse condominiums. The development was approved in 2017.

Town of Vienna staff say a letter has been sent out to representatives of the property’s owners with questions regarding the property and condition, urging them to do something about the building’s “blighted condition.”

After Vienna staff sent a letter requiring action within 30 days, Doug D’Alexander, the property’s developer, applied for a demolition permit on Dec. 16. Additional information about the demolition was requested and no response has been offered by D’Alexander.

Tysons Reporter attempted to contact D’Alexander but has not received any response.

“As part of the development process, the site plan was approved in early December,” said Lynne Coan, communications and marketing manager for the Town of Vienna. “Next steps as part of the [Maple Avenue Commercial] process would be for the project to go before the Board of Architectural Review and for the developer to apply for building permits.”

If no progress is made, the town government could move forward with blight proceedings, where the town would demolish the building and charge the expenses to the property owner.

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After a series of noise complaints, Bey Lounge’s live-entertainment permits could once again be on the chopping block.

Bey Lounge, a bar and restaurant at 303 Mill Street with Lebanese cuisine, hookahs, and live music, currently has four pending noise violation charges for incidents across the last several months. Town Attorney Steve Briglia said the most recent violation was this past Saturday (Jan. 5) night.

Briglia said the first case is scheduled to go to court this Monday (Jan. 14), with more court appearances planned for early February.

If the lounge is found guilty of the noise violations, Briglia said his office is planning to present a motion to revoke the site’s conditional use permit to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA).

“It’s clearly audible,” said Briglia. “Officers are able to hear it on [nearby] streets and across residential lines.”

This isn’t the first time the lounge has gotten into trouble over noise levels. In 2017, the BZA voted unanimously to renew Bey Lounge’s conditional-use permit for live entertainment but required that between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, the noise cannot exceed 51 decibels at the property line.

“We did that once before and there had been some better behavior by Bey Lounge,” said Briglia. “But I think things have changed.”

Discussion at the Vienna Town Council meeting on Monday (Jan. 7) showed that many in the city’s leadership are fed up with the noise violations.

“I fully support revoking the permit,” said Councilmember Pasha Majdi. “It’s not strike three, it’s strike fifteen.”

Photo via Google Maps

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Morning Notes

Metro Eying Redevelopment of WFC Site — “Metro may soon seek developers to remake a 24-acre site by its West Falls Church rail station that could potentially be combined, or at least coordinated, with two adjacent projects in the works by the city of Falls Church and Virginia Tech.” [Washington Business Journal]

Progress on Vienna Police Station Project — “The Vienna Town Council on Jan. 7 approved an up-to-$318,950 contract with Downey & Scott LLC of Warrenton to provide project-management services for the upcoming renovation and expansion of Vienna Police Headquarters. Too small when it opened in 1994, the police station, located at 215 Center St., S. has remained open 24 hours per day ever since and badly needs upgrades and more room, police leaders have been saying for years.” [InsideNova]

Innovative Tysons Co. Keeps Low Profile — “From the exterior, Evans Federal Solutions’ first-floor office on Spring Hill Road in Tysons Corner is completely unassuming. A visitor needs to venture inside to appreciate Evans’ futuristic world of command-and-control centers, with high-resolution monitors, LED images and maps that jump off the screen in a semi-darkened showplace.” [FCEDA]

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A killer is stalking Vienna’s streets, leaving at least 30 of the town’s Norway maples dead at an alarming rate.

“We’ve noticed a lot of dead and dying Norway maples,” said Town Arborist Gary Lawrence. “These deaths are not slow. They’re sudden and in groups.”

Leslie Herman, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, said the mysterious deaths of Norway maples comes on the heels of the emerald ash borer completely wiping out the town’s supply of ash trees.

Lawrence said the Norway maple deaths aren’t anywhere near the magnitude of the ash tree deaths — that became a nationwide epidemic that started in Detroit and has since spread nationwide, killing millions of ash trees. But Lawrence said the spate of ash tree deaths did initially obscure the impact on the local maples.

At first, Lawrence said he made the assumption that the clumps of dead foliage were ash trees. The two share some visual similarities. While most trees have alternating branches, like steps up the tree, ash trees and maple trees are among the few trees with opposite branches. But on closer look, Lawrence realized the trees were maples and didn’t have the telltale signs of ash borer infestation — holes where the bugs emerged from the trees and stripped bark from woodpeckers in a feeding frenzy.

After realizing the dead trees were maples, Lawrence said he began to see more of them around the town. So far, whatever is killing the trees has targeted only the Norway maples, leaving others — like the town’s red maples — untouched. There was a group of six Norway maples that were healthy and strong last year, but Lawrence said when he returned to them this year they were all dead.

“There’s still plenty of healthy Norway maples, but I’m concerned by how quickly [this is happening],” said Lawrence. “There’s a pattern here. It’s not random.”

One of the most confusing aspects is that the phenomena seems isolated to Vienna so far. Lawrence said he’s been keeping his ear to the ground for buzz about Norway maples being killed in other parts of the country, but hasn’t heard anything.

So far, Lawrence said his suspicions about what’s causing the deaths are still a hypothesis.

“I have no answer for the maples,” said Lawrence. “A wild guess is that it’s some kind of soil-borne disease. I’m guessing it’s soil-borne because it seems to affect the root system, because of the quickness of death. Usually insects, other than the ash borer, are a secondary problem.”

The topic came up during last night’s Vienna Town Council meeting during a request to increase funding for tree removal as a result of the ash tree epidemic. Lawrence said the ash trees were scattered in small batches throughout the town and native, rather than town-planted.

“It’s a substantial amount of trees,” said Lawrence. “It is a major impact to the budget. The trees die quickly, and because of the quickness of their death they become brittle and fall apart quickly.”

In addition to the beetles and mysterious maple killer, Lawrence said the record-high rainfall has also made it a difficult year for local trees.

Photo via Flickr/F.D. Richards

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Vienna is working on updating its 50-year-old zoning code, but at last night’s Vienna Town Council meeting, the prospect of the code overhaul raised concerns that updating those ordinances could open a new path for a higher density Vienna.

The Town Council voted in favor of a resolution requesting funds from Fairfax County’s Economic Development Support Fund to update Vienna’s zoning and subdivision ordinances.

While new urban areas with comparatively lax zoning codes have sprung up in Tysons and Merrifield, Vienna is still working with ordinances put together in 1969, and many of those relics of earlier zoning codes written in the 1950s. Staff joked that some zoning ordinances are kept in notebooks in a management office.

Councilmember Carey Sienicki, who announced earlier that meeting that she would not be running for reelection later this year, compared the code to an old station wagon.

“We keep replacing parts and fixing the station wagon from the 1960s, but in reality, there’s a lot of cars out there that work without all of the little patches. We have to take a holistic approach to this and I think this is going to be a benefit to the town in the long run.”

But while the majority of the Council approved exploring new zoning codes, Councilmembers Pasha Majdi and Howard Springsteen, who have both frequently opposed higher density developments, voted against the request.

“When we say we’re not changing the zoning, that’s missing the issue,” said Majdi. “We have ordinances that are woefully out of date. OK, but what is the effect of bringing them up to date? Bringing them up to date means a potential developer has the ability to develop on that land financially viable project.”

Majdi said that rather than being a detriment, the town’s arcane zoning ordinances are a source of strength, forcing developers to work closely with Vienna staff if they want to get a development approved.

“I would bet my entire salary, $10,000, that the recommendation is going to result in higher density, which I oppose,” said Majdi. “When you update the code, you get higher density. If you want higher density, you got Tysons. This is a niche market for homebuyers with a niche appeal. It’s brought a lot of success to our town. We don’t have to be everything to everybody.”

But other members of the Council called Majdi’s bet. Councilmember Douglas Noble said he’d match Majdi’s $10,000 that updating zoning codes wouldn’t automatically result in higher levels of density unless that was something specifically sought out by the Town Council.

“We’re not going to be Tysons,” said Mayor Laurie DiRocco. “We’re not going to be Arlington. We’re going to update the code in a way that’s more understandable to residents, developers and everyone… so it’s all written down and not just in a booklet in a manager’s office.”

Majdi and Springsteen voted against the request, but the resolution was approved on a 5-2 vote.

File photo

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The Town of Vienna’s last major zoning code changes occurred in 1969, the year man first walked on the moon and the Beatles released “Abbey Road.”

Now, 50 years later, Vienna is gearing up for another zoning change. At the Vienna Town Council meeting on Monday, Jan. 7, the council is scheduled to vote on a $120,000 funding request to the Fairfax County’s Economic Development Support Fund to support updates to Vienna’s zoning and subdivision ordinances.

According to the staff report, one of the largest benefits of updating the zoning code would be a “reduction in the amount of time and money required by the private sector to gather information about development rights and zoning regulations.”

“By more closely aligning the zoning and subdivision ordinances to the comprehensive plan, the town will be more likely to attract the type of development so desired here,” according to the staff report, “i.e., more mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development, rather than automobile-oriented, strip-mall development that currently dominates the Maple Avenue corridor.”

The funding is half the total cost, $240,000, of retaining a planning consultant. The remaining $120,000 would be paid by the Town of Vienna in the FY 2019 and FY 2020 budget.

There have been zoning changes for specific areas of the town, like the Church Street Commercial Zone in 1999 and the Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) Zone in 2014, but according to the staff report much of the town’s zoning code outside of those streets is “outdated and cumbersome.”

Those zoning changes haven’t occurred without significant pushback, however. A controversial four-story development was approved in October amid outcry from nearby citizens that the building was too big for Maple Avenue. Some of the side-streets off Maple Avenue still feature green yard signs opposing the scale of the new development.

“This results in uncertainty for citizens, elected officials and the development community,” according to the staff report. “The current zoning and subdivision ordinances need to be comprehensively updated so the regulations are logically organized and easier to understand and navigate through the use of clear language, charts, tables and illustrations.”

There is also a legal component for the push, as the staff report notes that parts of the zoning code are inconsistent with state law and recent Supreme Court decisions with regards to sign regulations, changes that recently forced Fairfax to adjust its sign ordinance.

“An updated zoning code would incorporate contemporary zoning and best practices, providing more opportunity for redevelopment,” the report said.

Changes to the Vienna zoning code were first broached in 2015 as part of a recommendation to update the town’s comprehensive plan. An update to the town’s zoning code is estimated to take between one and two years.

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