Zoning: The Key to Vienna’s Commercial Redevelopment

Vienna commercial redevelopment
WHEN AUTOMOBILES FIRST APPEARED on Vienna’s streets around 1904, the speed limit in town was set at 12 mph. For today’s commuters attempting to navigate Maple Avenue – Vienna’s main thoroughfare – during morning and evening rush hours, 12 mph would be a considerable improvement.

"Most growth over the next 30 years will happen in strip commercial redevelopments."   - Christopher Leinberger, George Washington University School of Business
The first shopping center opened on Maple Avenue in 1954 to provide commuters with convenient places to stop and shop as they drove to and from their suburban homes. Since then, the street has been transformed from a maple-lined country road rolling through Vienna’s bucolic downtown into a four- lane thoroughfare navigating a maze of asphalt parking lots and retail centers.

Zoning is one of a community’s strongest tools to control property development, particularly the type of development and where it will be allowed. In Vienna, development has largely been the result of a zoning ordinance adopted in 1969 when many of today’s suburban baby boomers were still being driven from place to place in their parents’ station wagons.

In 2014, exactly 60 years since the first shopping center opened its doors, Vienna’s Town Council approved a more flexible revised zoning ordinance known as the Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) zone in an attempt to attract development that would recapture Vienna’s small-town identity.

According to Vienna’s Maple Avenue Vision statement, “MAC reinforces Maple Avenue’s role as the town’s main street.” It encourages developers to design their plans around “pedestrian friendly mixed-use projects,” rather than the automobile-oriented strip mall development that currently dominates Maple Avenue.

Vienna’s interest in rethinking its downtown comes as suburban communities throughout Northern Virginia react to residents and developers seeking to transform existing retail outlets into more modern lifestyle community centers featuring restaurants and entertainment.

The nearby Mosaic District is a good example. With better access to the Vienna/Dunn Loring Metro stop than downtown Vienna, Mosaic has become a highly successful center in the past few years. With multifamily housing, boutique shopping, dining, a hotel and a movie theater, Mosaic welcomes those eager to shop, eat, be entertained or just meet their neighbors.

Mosiac was developed and is owned and operated by Edens, a company that proclaims on its website that its work is “bigger than real estate,” and its purpose is to “enrich community through human engagement.”

Christopher Leinberger, professor of urban real estate at the George Washington University School of Business, is one of the country’s leading proponents of the notion that the future will be one of “walkable neighborhoods.”

“The postwar era of automobile- oriented ‘drivable suburbanism’ is over,” he predicted six years ago in a report entitled “DC: The WalkUP Wake-Up Call.”

“Most growth over the next 30 years will happen in strip commercial redevelopments,” Leinberger predicted. While he had Tysons in mind when he wrote the report, his observations may also apply on a smaller scale to recent developments in communities like Vienna.

A change in Vienna’s commercial development is already underway with the Town Council’s approval last fall of the 444 Maple West project, which covers nearly three downtown acres and will allow the demolition of an existing three-story hotel with 179 rooms and a stand-alone restaurant at the corner of West Maple and Nutley Streets.

In its place a four-story mixed-use development will be constructed, with 151 multifamily residential units atop 20,000 square feet of commercial retail and restaurant space.

A report in 2002 sponsored by the National Association of Realtors® and produced by the Local Government Commission entitled “Creating Great Neighborhoods: Density in Your Community,” observed, “To create great communities, neighborhoods must combine density with great design.”

Pointing to Arlington County as an example, the report noted the growing public realization that “adding density in appropriate locations can create great places to live.”

Increasingly, people understand that to achieve their community goals and create a vibrant place to live, the community needs different types of development – different types of density. “[The community] cannot thrive over the long-term with only one development choice,” the NAR- commissioned report concluded.

As Northern Virginia continues its rapid commercial transformation, Realtors® should be looking beyond the current well-publicized developments in Tysons, Reston or Arlington County, to expanded opportunities in the commercial redevelopment occurring in older, more established communities such as Vienna.

Frank Dillow is a past chair of NVAR’s Realtor® Commercial Council and is a senior commercial broker in Long & Foster‘s Commercial Division. He can be reached at
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