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Envisioning the Future of Maple Avenue – Mason Student and Local Architect Collaborate to Create Ideas and Images

karen cohenAs the Town of Vienna renews its decade-long effort to create a vision for redevelopment along its primary commercial corridor, Maple Avenue, Town resident and recent graduate of George Mason University's Master of Real Estate Development program, Karen Cohen, hopes her graduate work – a financial feasibility analysis and design concept for a mixed-use project on the site of the Marco Polo restaurant – will help the Town's effort. Cohen, who holds an undergraduate degree in architecture from the University of Virginia, has been a practicing attorney for the past 16 years and Town resident for 15 years.

For over a decade, the Town of Vienna has been exploring whether and how to change its zoning ordinance to promote redevelopment of the Maple Avenue Corridor. After an initial visioning effort in 2001 and subsequent work with a consultant to explore regulatory options in 2006, the visioning effort stalled. Now, it appears to be back on track.

Prior to a Town Council Work Session in November, the Town Council reviewed photo renderings prepared by engineering firm Wiley Wilson depicting various Vienna intersections as they might look with building heights of 35 feet (the Town's current height limit), and 50 or 54 feet (the height limits under consideration), at alternative setbacks of 15 or 30 feet. At the Work Session, Council members generally agreed on a 15 foot setback from the Maple Avenue right of way and a maximum building height of 54 feet, but the work of creating a vision and drafting a revised zoning ordinance is just beginning.

When Cohen saw the photo renderings, she decided to do a project that would present new images for the Town and its residents to consider. "Having a background in architecture, I understood that the Wiley Wilson photo renderings were meant to show simple building massing to give an idea of what various building heights would look like. I knew the pictures were not intended to convey any architectural elements or particular style. But, I was concerned that these images were the ones being presented to the public. I felt the images would generate a negative reaction."

Residents responding to the photo renderings in a recent online Vienna Patch report did indeed view the photo renderings as images of what their Town might become. Their comments reflected a concern that changes to the zoning would result in unimaginative, "boxy" buildings.

"I wanted to get a more meaningful conversation started about the vision for Maple Avenue by presenting a well-thought-out idea of what good development actually could look like," said Cohen. So, I selected a well-known site to create a Demonstration Project for the Town. Not only did I want to provide some new visuals, but I also wanted to give the Town an open assessment of how a developer would approach the development decision."

Developers presenting projects for regulatory approval typically do not share their financial analysis of the project, but, Cohen's report contains a detailed financial analysis of the Demonstration Project and several alternative concepts. "I wanted this to be an open book for everyone involved in the process," said Cohen. "I think the Town's visioning effort will be more productive if regulators and citizens understand the developer's analytical processes, and vice versa; developers need to understand regulator's concerns and constraints in order to work well within a particular jurisdiction and create places that benefit the community."

rendering cohen

Above, a rendering of Cohen's design concept for redevelopment of the Marco Polo restaurant site in Vienna. Cohen collaborated on the design with local architect, Bill Sutton, who also prepared the renderings.

Cohen said that the primary goal of the Demonstration Project was to create a design that incorporated key concepts identified in past visioning efforts and the November Town Council Work Session as areas of consensus, including making Maple Avenue more pedestrian-friendly, protecting the character of existing residential neighborhoods, having sufficient parking for commercial establishments, ensuring that development projects will be high quality, and preserving Vienna's "small town" character.

The Demonstration Project is a 127,000 square foot mixed-use project with base level retail with office and 48 residential units above. No part of the project exceeds four stories. some building components are three stories, and other parts are single story with high ceilings, such as the restaurant and the bank.

The design places buildings around an open plaza, which could be a gathering place for community activities. Seventeen traditional neighborhood style townhomes front Church Street, where the site transitions to residential neighborhoods. In addition to the variety and texture on the site created by the different building components, the building façades have staggered setbacks, openings, and promenade areas inviting pedestrians to stroll from Maple Avenue throughout the site.

The Demonstration Project provides 400 parking spaces, mostly within a parking structure. The buildings wrap around three sides of the parking garage (referred to as a partial "donut"), so that the garage is entirely screened from view, with the exception of the entry side, which faces the side-wall of the adjacent Rite-Aid.

Cohen credits local architect, Bill Sutton, with transforming her initial rough sketches into a realistic design. "Achieving good design that also provides sufficient parking is a huge challenge," Cohen said, "but, here, it was possible because I had the benefit of Bill's expertise."

Cohen said that working with an experienced architect ensured that the project was not just some "pie in the sky" idea. "Not only was Bill attuned to what was important in terms of scale and aesthetics in a town like Vienna, but he was rigorous in his attention to important details such as circulation from the parking structure to the buildings, site ingress and egress, and design considerations involving the topography of the site," said Cohen.

Sutton, who teaches classes at Catholic University and will begin teaching a design management class in Mason's real estate program this spring, said that working on the project was "fun and enlightening for me. I urge other architects to give their time to work with real estate development students on projects such as this because it lets students experience how developers and architects collaborate in the real world."

Cohen and Sutton said that doing this particular project in an academic context without compensation for their work provided an opportunity to learn from each other and discover how well their skills complemented one another. Now that Cohen has completed the masters program, she and Sutton plan to collaborate on other feasibility and conceptual design projects for area developers.

Cohen says she hopes the Demonstration Project will help sharpen the focus of the Town's visioning process. On December 12, the Town's Department of Planning and Zoning obtained approval from the Mayor and Town Council to issue a Request for Proposal to hire a consultant to work with the Town to create a vision and update the zoning ordinance to provide a regulatory framework to support that vision.

Cohen's project lays some of the groundwork for the Town and their consultant. "The Town of Vienna is fortunate for Karen to have chosen this particular site for her project," said Mark Hassinger, President of WestDulles Properties Inc. and Chairman of Mason's Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship (CREE) advisory board. "Karen was one of our top students in the real estate development program and now, Vienna is the recipient of an extremely thorough and professional report. Of course, this is one of the intended consequences of the program – interaction among the development community, local jurisdictions and students in the program illustrates a classic win/win situation."

Director of Mason's graduate real estate development program and interim CREE director, Dr. John Crockett, agreed. "Mason is part of the broader community and we want our students to solve problems and contribute their ideas to the community," said Crockett. "We are very proud of Karen's academic success and the way in which she brought Mason's real estate development program into her community."

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