The Leesburg Town Council meeting room was packed Oct. 7 with supporters and opponents of Plan A, the $1.2 million renovation project of King Street in Leesburg, pouring into the hallway.
But three hours of public comment and one hour of debate and voting ultimately led to next to no changes, with the Leesburg Town Council voting to rescind Plan A, only to reinstate it later in a 4-3 vote.
Vice Mayor Dave Butler and council members Kelly Burk, Marty Martinez and Katie Hammler voted for Plan A, despite Hammler voting to rescind the plan for the purpose of compromise hours earlier. Mayor Kristen Umstattd and council members Tom Dunn and Kevin Wright voted in opposition.
The Plan A that passed was modified slightly with an amendment from Butler that eliminates one “bump-out,” preserving one to two parking spaces.
Umstattd announced at a council meeting last month she would seek to rescind Plan A amid waves of complaints from residents and business owners. In addition to new crosswalks, street lights and street trees, the widened sidewalks would eliminate eight of the 12 parking spaces on King Street between Loudoun and Market streets and five of the 12 on King Street in between Market and Cornwall streets. Business owners, most vocally China King, argued that the elimination of on-street parking would adversely affect their businesses.
Plan A was rescinded by the council in 2010, and several modified plans were proposed, including one to allow barriers to convert spaces from parking to sidewalk dining. But the newer proposals came with hefty price tags, some up to $2 million dollars. Because of the cost of the alternatives, Plan A was approved by the council again in May of this year.
While more opponents attended the meeting, both sides were vocal, with close to 50 people taking to the podium. The speakers ranged from the young to old, with 17-year-old Jack Minchew, son of Del. Randy Minchew, and 21-year-old Darius Saeidi speaking against and for Plan A, respectively, and 88-year-old Stanley Caulkins simply imploring people to stop being divisive.
Many who spoke implored on the verge of tears.
“My business needs on-street parking. Without on-street parking, we might have to close up shop. I know my customers, I know my business,” said Mike Carroll, owner of Leesburg Vintner, which celebrates its 25th anniversary Oct. 18. “I'm scared. I really, really think this is going to hurt my business.”
Owners from China King and Downtown Saloon both presented petitions with close to 2,000 signatures against the changes.
Others, like Sola Pallota, who owns the Very Virginia Store, argued that King Street needs to be revitalized for businesses to be successful.
“For people to say what we have is working -it isn't working,” Pallota said. “It's more than just widening sidewalks. It's a whole vision of improving downtown.”
For some, that vision was the problem.
“Nobody comes to Leesburg for the sidewalks. Nobody comes to Leesburg for the parking. They come here for the town,” Mike Rich said. “If we destroy what makes Leesburg Leesburg, we're making a huge mistake.”
After Hammler voted to rescind Plan A in the interest of compromise, Umstattd proposed several versions on Plan B. All failed 4-3, with Hammler providing the swing vote, including Plan B-3, which would have replaced curb, gutter and brick and installed lights. Butler argued that none of the alternative plans would increase traffic.
"Downtown, compared to other places, is not thriving and that's why we're here," Butler said. "We're trying to increase the number of people on sidewalks by three and four times."
After all three alternative Plan Bs failed, Butler motioned for Plan A with one less bump out.
As the crowd dispersed once Plan A was reinstated, Dunn reiterated something he stated earlier.
“I hope wider sidewalks are a big enough draw to send business through the roof,” he said.
Tuesday's vote almost didn't take place, as Burk, Butler and Martinez originally voted Oct. 7 against allowing Wright to participate electronically, when he would be out of town on a business trip. Under state law, five votes are required for the advanced approval of the request.
In addition to signs against the King Street renovations, signs reading "Let Kevin vote" filled the town council room Oct. 8, and the council voted unanimously to allow Wright to participate.
Following the vote on the King Street renovations, the council also voted 6-1 to initiate an amendment to allow tents as temporary structures to access restaurants in the B-1 district, something the businesses may need to utilize during the construction process. Dunn was the lone dissenter.