Leesburg sidewalk-widening plan approved despite concerns on loss of street parking

October 12, 2013

After three hours of impassioned testimony from the public and nearly two hours of deliberation, the Leesburg Town Council again approved a downtown revitalization plan that would replace some street parking along King Street with wider sidewalks. The final vote, on Wedneday at 12:30 a.m., came about an hour after the council had voted to rescind its previous votes approving an almost identical plan.

The council voted in May to approve the sidewalk-widening plan, known as Plan A, as a way to attract more people downtown for dining, arts and entertainment. In July, the council modified the plan by voting to keep two parking spaces in front of Lightfoot Restaurant as a passenger drop-off and loading zone. The council rescinded both of those votes Tuesday before ultimately adopting Plan A again, with a slight modification that would keep street parking in front of the Downtown Saloon on North King Street.

The council approved a similar plan in 2010 and rescinded it soon afterward, after some downtown businesses objected to the loss of parking spaces.

“You’re getting whupped economically,” said Vice Mayor David S. Butler, addressing downtown business owners. “Over the last five years, [Reston Town Center and Village at Leesburg] have grown substantially. Downtown has not. Downtown, compared to some of these places, is not thriving.

“Reston Town Center is a destination,” Butler said. “That’s what we’re trying to build. We’re trying to build someplace where people come downtown. They take in all of the sights and the activities, and they stay and they shop. . . . We’re trying to increase the number of people on the street by three and four times.”

Butler, who made the motion to approve the modified Plan A, called it a 50-50 compromise, pointing out that it would preserve more than half the parking spaces in the two-block segment of King Street. Scott Parker, assistant town manager, said that 11 of the 24 parking spaces along King Street between Cornwall and Loudoun streets would be removed under Plan A, including eight spaces in the south block. Keeping street parking in front of the Downtown Saloon would add one or two more spaces, he said.

Butler was joined by council members Kelly Burk, Fernando “Marty” Martinez and Katie Sheldon Hammler in voting for the modified Plan A, which passed 4 to 3.

An overflow crowd, including many owners of downtown businesses, packed the council chambers for the meeting. Unlike the May meeting, when the council adopted Plan A after hearing mostly from supporters of the plan, the majority of speakers Tuesday opposed removing street parking along King Street.

“My business needs on-street parking,” said Mike Carroll, owner of the Leesburg Vintner. “Without on-street parking, I might have to close up. I could take a big, big financial hit. And I’m scared.”

“We’re holding a royal flush, because everything is working, and [you] want to gamble that on something that may not work,” said Stilson Greene, owner of a downtown graphic design business. “It’s time for us to fall back into love with a beautiful, historic downtown that has worked for a quarter of a century.”

But other business owners said downtown is not thriving. Sola Pallotta, owner of Very Virginia and the Pink Shop on King Street, said more than 30 downtown businesses have closed during the seven years she has been in business, and foot traffic has been declining. “For people to say that what we have now is working is not true,” she said.

“It’s more than just widening sidewalks. . . .It’s the whole vision of the lights and the trees and the on-street dining,” Pallotta said. “We’ve got to do stuff to bring people downtown. I truly think that losing eight parking spots [on South King Street] is not going to kill downtown.”

After the public comments, Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd moved to rescind the council’s May and July votes to approve and amend Plan A. The motion carried when Hammler joined Umstattd, Kevin D. Wright and Thomas S. Dunn II, opponents of Plan A, in the vote to rescind. Wright, who was out of town, participated in the meeting by phone.

Hammler said she was still wrestling with the issue, and that the vote to rescind would give the council the opportunity to consider alternatives for compromise.

“Half of the businesses fundamentally believe that they cannot survive with anything other than retaining all of the parking,” she said. “And the other half fundamentally believe that we need to embrace the transformative change in Plan A. . . . There’s no clear consensus.”

Opponents of Plan A then proposed several variations of Plan B, each of which would have preserved more street parking but would not have widened the sidewalks for on-street dining. Those motions failed.

Hammler then joined Butler, Burk and Martinez in supporting the modified version of Plan A.

The on-again, off-again plan to widen the sidewalks was on again.

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