Convertible lane could allow sidewalk dining on Leesburg’s King Street

The Leesburg Town Council is preparing to take another look Monday at a plan to stimulate night life in the downtown area. The council is considering a proposal to add sidewalk space for pedestrian traffic and outdoor dining along a two-block stretch of King Street, between Cornwall and Loudoun streets.

Proposed by a loosely organized group of professionals with an interest in downtown revitalization, the plan is an attempt to resolve a roadblock that has stymied previous revitalization efforts: how to widen sidewalks while keeping traffic flowing and without sacrificing street parking.

The plan hinges on an innovative suggestion: creating a convertible lane that could be used for pedestrian traffic and sidewalk dining on weekend nights and for street parking at other times.

At a council meeting in November, Leesburg lawyer Peter Burnett demonstrated a convertible curb he invented. He proposed that the curb be installed along King Street between the parking lane and the southbound traffic lane. When sidewalk dining is desired, the curb would be raised six inches to block off the parking lane, and a sectioned fence would be moved across the lane to create an additional barrier between vehicles and the sidewalk. At closing time, the curb would be lowered and the fence moved back.

Council members expressed interest in the concept and asked town staff members to evaluate the feasibility and expense of the plan. Staff members are expected to report their findings at the council’s work session Monday.

“What I like about the convertible curb is that it’s grass-roots- driven,” architect Alan Hanson said. “It gives everybody what they like.”

Hanson and Burnett are part of a group that calls itself the Voices for an Amazing Place. It includes lawyers, architects, designers and business owners. The group came together after previous downtown revitalization efforts stalled.

Burnett said business owners have been discussing the need to revitalize downtown Leesburg for 30 years.

“It was all born of the merchants along King Street principally, but along the side streets as well, wanting to see more foot traffic downtown to combat the growing existence and use of shopping centers that encircle the town,” he said. “At every business gathering . . . the merchants have all said the same thing: ‘We need more people downtown.’ ”

Leesburg is in the midst of a $3.7 million downtown improvement program that includes an array of capital projects, some of which have been completed. As part of the revitalization program, the Town Council in 2010 endorsed a plan to widen the sidewalks along King Street and to add benches, planters and pedestrian crosswalks. Under that plan, most street parking would have been removed.

Milton Herd, owner of a Leesburg planning and design firm, said the council backed away from the plan for King Street after some merchants objected to the loss of parking spaces. Herd then facilitated a series of meetings in 2011 to gather public input about downtown revitalization and to try to find consensus.

“I think it’s getting close,” Herd said.

“Merchants liked the idea of sidewalks being wider, perhaps having [sidewalk] dining at night, but they also wanted the parking during the day,” Burnett said.

Burnett said there is widespread enthusiasm for sidewalk dining, as long as traffic and parking issues can be worked out. Outdoor dining is part of a broader vision that includes shopping and entertainment at places such as the Tally Ho, a former movie theater that recently reopened as a live entertainment center, he said.

“We’re trying to create a culture of downtown,” Burnett said, adding that outdoor dining “has been so popular that it seems like a sure way to create the image and substance of life on the street.”

“It’s a chance for folks who are busy commuting and doing all the other things that we do in modern life to come back to the slower pace of a small, old, human-scale, authentic downtown and see their neighbors and see their friends, and feel a sense of place and root in downtown Leesburg,” he said.

Herd said he is optimistic about the plan’s prospects.

“I haven’t heard any negatives,” he said. “It’s a matter of working out the details and getting comfortable with actually being able to build it and implement it.”

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