Leesburg Town Council approves Crescent Design District

January 13, 2013

After years of discussion and debate, the Leesburg Town Council voted Tuesday to implement the Crescent Design District — a plan that will increase commercial and residential density and bring new design regulations and a walkable streetscape to areas immediately surrounding downtown Leesburg.

The legislation was passed in a 5 to 2 vote, with Leesburg Mayor Kristen Umstattd and council member Tom Dunn voting against it, after expressing concerns that the changes would harm the town rather than help it.

For years, town leaders have worked to devise a plan to revitalize Leesburg’s Crescent District, which was established in 2006 and encompasses about 150 acres surrounding the boundaries of the historic downtown. Land use within the district varies widely and includes warehouses, industrial buildings and strip malls.

The Town Council wanted a plan that would apply new design guidelines to the district as a way to encourage redevelopment in the same aesthetic vein as the town’s downtown area.

The Crescent Design District approved by the council will increase commercial and residential density and bring new design guidelines, including taller buildings, and a walkable streetscape to the area.

During a discussion before the vote, several council members expressed reservations about the final result of their efforts and acknowledged that the legislation was a compromise, but they said it was time for the town to move forward.

Council member Kevin Wright, who made the motion to approve the legislation, called the move “a cautious leap of faith” but a necessary step for Leesburg.

Council member Marty Martinez was more ambivalent, despite his vote of support. Martinez said the proposed amendments were overly cautious and not entirely true to the original intent.

“I think, sometimes, we play it too safe, and we beat an issue like this to the ground,” he said. “But I’m willing to vote for it and support it just to move this forward and get something going.”

Vice Mayor Dave Butler said he was both excited and “a bit wary” of the plan but expressed confidence that allowing developers to add more residential and commercial units to the area would bolster the downtown economy.

The new guidelines provide “significant incentives for developers to come in and provide residential in-fill in the downtown,” he said. “It should help the downtown businesses . . . and just be generally good for the town.”

But Umstattd disagreed about the effects of heightened commercial and residential density, saying the resulting influx would overwhelm streets and provide unwanted competition to businesses in the historic district.

“When you’re going up to five stories on your buildings, you’re going to be putting a whole lot more vehicle trips than are currently there, and we’re not going to be widening the streets,” Umstattd said. “You’re bringing in new businesses that will compete with the downtown businesses. . . . I don’t think this in any way helps the downtown.”

Umstattd also said allowing five-story buildings would break with the visual charm of the historic district, where buildings are generally two or three stories tall.

“On the aesthetics area, it fails. With density and traffic gridlock, it fails,” she said. “When it comes to helping the downtown, it fails.
. . . I don’t see this being good for Leesburg.”

But Umstattd and Dunn were outweighed by a majority of council members who thought the changes were necessary, including Kelly Burk, who returned to the council last year after serving four years as the Leesburg representative on the county Board of Supervisors.

“I think we’re going to see some results that we hadn’t anticipated that we’ll have to deal with,” Burk said. “I know change is hard, but I think this is a great step forward, and the town will be better for it.”

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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