Vienna Courts development shrinks, as town council trades green energy pledge for more open space

A rendering of the duplexes proposed to replace the Vienna Courts condos (via Town of Vienna)

A plan to turn the Vienna Courts offices into duplexes has been downsized again, as the developer and town leaders try to make the complex fit in without sacrificing its viability as an alternative multifamily housing option.

After initially proposing 15 two-floor buildings with one unit on each floor in September, BFR Construction President Steve Bukont agreed on Monday (Nov. 14) to drop a building and some guest parking so the development will occupy a little less of the 1.66-acre lot at 127-133 Park Street.

The project had already been reduced by one building before getting the Vienna Planning Commission’s approval on Sept. 28, so it will now have 12 buildings with 24 units.

However, Bukont told the Vienna Town Council that the smaller footprint means he can no longer guarantee that the residences will have solar panels, geothermal heating and other energy efficiency measures as previously offered.

“The green energy thing would be a goal. We couldn’t commit to doing it, but we would certainly make every attempt to do it,” he said. “Unfortunately…the cost of construction since we started discussing this project is up by double digits, and it doesn’t look like it’s going down.”

The developer confirmed that the project will still underground power lines along Park Street Northeast and install street lights similar to those on nearby Church Street, as stated in a Nov. 1 proffer agreement.

Vienna Courts developer Steve Bukont has agreed to consolidate buildings 12 and 13 into one building (via Town of Vienna)

A lack of green space has been a sticking point for the Vienna Courts redevelopment from the start.

Intended to primarily serve older individuals and people with disabilities, the buildings will be small, with units topping out at 1,779 square feet. But the size and shape of the lot mean that most of it will be filled, raising fears about density on a site between Vienna’s commercial center and single-family residences.

“It doesn’t feel like we need density,” resident Brian Goldberg said at Monday’s public hearing, which was continued from Oct. 24. “Let Tysons have the density. Let Reston have the density. Let all these other areas that seem to have an appetite for going tall have it. Why do we need to do that in a residential area like we have?”

BFR Construction had requested a modification to let the development take up 70% of the lot, but the planning commision only approved 68%. Down to 13 buildings, the developer came to the town council this week seeking an allowance for 66.8%.

That still didn’t satisfy council members, who worried allowing that lot coverage could be a “slippery slope” in a town where only one development has exceeded 60% in the past 55 years, according to town staff.

“It frightens me, because I always keep going back to what happened with the [Maple Avenue Commercial zone] and the mistakes that came in there and spreading things out a little too much on each lot,” Councilmember Steve Potter said.

Stating that reducing the lot coverage would require tradeoffs, Bukont argued there should be flexibility for a project offering perks like undergrounding utilities and solar and geothermal energy.

“Nobody around here does that, because it’s just crazy expensive,” Bukont said. “But I really think for some of the things we’re considering, if we’re serious about climate change, some of these other things are arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Ultimately, Bukont consented to eliminating one building and providing fewer parking spots, getting the lot coverage down to 61.8%. He estimated the guest parking would need to go from 19 to six spots, though each building would still have a two-car garage for residents.

The council deferred a final vote to Dec. 5, but it’s unclear whether the project has enough support to pass. Councilmember Howard Springsteen said he’s “still not sold” but wants to see the revised site plan, while Nisha Patel noted that the changes don’t address her concern that there isn’t enough space between the buildings.

Before the plan was revised, Chuck Anderson said he would support more lot coverage in exchange for keeping the parking and green energy proposals, noting that the town’s coverage standards were written in the 1950s “to discourage multifamily housing.”

Vienna’s first comprehensive zoning code update since 1969 is underway, with a draft currently not expected until next summer.

“It would be easy to take out the green elements and maybe save some money, but I think going forward that this is important for our town,” Anderson said.