Mural debate continues in Leesburg
Early in October, in a 4-3 vote, the Leesburg Town Council voted against approving the Commission on Public Art's recommended mural, created by Denver-based artist David Ocelotl Garcia. The mural is supposed to go on the parking garage wall on Loudoun Street. Town Council members argued the depiction of Leesburg was “cartoonish.”
But a motion by Mayor Kristen Umstattd on Oct. 22 authorizing the art commission to consider other options, including a smaller mural or a vertical garden, was struck down in a 4-3 vote, leaving many town members – and the art commission – wondering what will happen with the space at all.
Umstattd's motion was supported by Vice Mayor Dave Butler and council member Kelly Burk, both staunch advocates for the public art project. But the vote displayed an incongruity among council members as to what should actually go in the space.
Councilwoman Katie Hammler proposed a park with active art, possibly including space for farmers' markets or town gatherings. Conversely, councilmen Kevin Wright and Tom Dunn are opposed to the mural, rather favoring selling the land for office or retail space.
But some council members doubt the viability of a building or even that there is sufficient interest.
“This place had been sitting blank for so long. I went to a couple of banks about building something on it and they suggested it's just not feasible. I went to a couple of Realtors and that it's just not a feasible location,” Burk said at the Oct. 22 meeting. “That's why nothing's been built on it.”
But some community members disagree with that rendition of events.
Peter Burnett, a prominent Leesburg attorney, said in the past he's tried to purchase the property with a building in mind.
After two aborted building attempts in the 90s, including a “bodacious $9 million structure,” Burnett said he hired engineers and architects to investigate a potential building.
“Lo and behold we came up with a good design that had a building,” Burnett said, explaining that in addition to a building, there was a small park area near the log cabin structure on Loudoun Street. “John Wells said he'd look into, but nothing happened.”
“Once you have an idea you can't just do nothing and say, 'hey, it failed.'”
And while some town members say businesses aren't interested, Marty Martinez and Hammler believe the town council in a closed session prohibited Wells from talking to potential businesses.
“If an offer comes in under the public-private partnership, the council would have to decide whether to entertain an offer or not,” said Betsy Fields, spokesperson for the Town of Leesburg. “It's really more of a council decision.”
“Certainly staff aren't soliciting interest in the property but if we received an unsolicited offer, the town council would be the ones that consider it,” she continued.
Regardless, Dunn feels that by discussing any permanent art in the area, council members are dissuading potential business owners from considering the spot.
“When people interested in this location go and pursue a building and find out the town is looking at art or a park, they're going to say that bridge is crossed,” Dunn said. “I think we're sending mixed messages.”
Hammler recommends the council direct Wells to hold a work session to get community input on the site.