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Leesburg Leaders Encouraged To Embrace Downtown Housing

© Leesburg Today - 09/30/2015

The back dining room at Palio Ristorante Italiano was packed with an overflow crowd Sept. 24 as a panel of local and regional building industry representatives offered advice on strengthening Leesburg's downtown retail market.

The conversation centered on one main suggestion: Build more housing in the area.

The panelists did offer other suggestions, including providing more-or more visible-parking options and working better to promote downtown shops. However, only additional residential development within walking distance to the downtown core will generate the high volume of foot traffic needed to sustain businesses and attract new ones, the experts said.

""We are moving because we need to be in an area where there is more walking traffic,"" Savannah's of Leesburg and Downs & Co. owner Terri Downs stated in an email. Her downtown stores are closing up shop Sept. 30 and moving to Frederick, MD. ""Frederick is booming, and I feel there is a stronger retail environment there.""

The meeting was organized by Leesburg Vice Mayor Kelly Burk and attended by most council members and a cross section of downtown business owners, many of whom expressed frustration that they were given little time to participate in the discussion. Burk said it was the first of three forums she plans. The next will feature the perspectives of town business owners, and the final one would give council members a chance to share ideas, she said.

The Sept. 24 panel included Joe Ritchey, a key developer in the Reston Town Center; architect Alan Hanson, the founder of the Loudoun County Design Cabinet and a former Arlington County Planning Commissioner; Michael W. Scott and Chelsea Rae, both of Norton Scott, which is developing Kincora in eastern Loudoun; Peter Lunt, of NVCommerical, who helped establish Market Station as a retail hub in Leesburg; and Joe Griffiths, a manager in the Loudoun County Department of Planning and Zoning who lives in the downtown area. Also on the panel were two men leading current development projects, Bob White, of Courthouse Square developer Landmark Commercial Real Estate, and Donald W. Knutson, who is developing Crescent Place.

Panelists shared the view that Leesburg's charm and ""authenticity"" made it a desirable destination for residents and businesses, and many, including the business owners in the audience, said more could be done quickly to increase foot traffic. One of those ideas was a more aggressive social media outreach effort. Also, town support for cooperative advertising of downtown businesses was suggested.

Events and public art programs also can have an impact, panelists said. It was pointed out that downtown sidewalks typically are packed with visitors during the monthly First Friday events, but are empty on most other nights.

Comments at the forum also highlighted two continuing Leesburg debates, with some panel members raising concerns about the town's narrow sidewalks and several members commenting on parking problems. The town is gearing up a project to widen the sidewalk on one block of King Street downtown, at the expense of several on-street parking spaces that will be eliminated. While there remained disagreement over whether were was a shortage of parking downtown, there was recognition that parking was an important consideration for visitors.

However, the conversation repeatedly returned to the issue of residential development.

Knutson said the experience at Crescent Place, which sold 57 homes in the past eight months, shows there is a demand for downtown living. However, increasing those opportunities will require a new mindset on the part of town leaders, he said. Not only should they embrace, rather than avoid, residential development, but they also should boost density limits to make projects feasible, particularly in the Crescent District redevelopment zone where most of the new construction will occur. White said current regulations make it too hard to add apartments downtown and suggested they be encouraged as a by-right use.

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