Kudos are in order for Milton Herd, Peter Burnett, Alan Hansen, Dieter Meyer and the other “Voices for an Amazing Place,” who recently returned to the Leesburg Town Council with the outline of a plan to transform a section of King Street in downtown Leesburg.
“Voices” is a term that actually sells them short, because they are far more than that. They are savvy, skilled professionals who donated considerable time and energy for the betterment of their hometown. As Herd said in the introduction of his presentation to the Council, they are doing this because they love Leesburg, and they want to help make it better.
Herd, who assumed the difficult challenge of facilitating this open, highly participatory process, estimated that more than a dozen local planners, architects, engineers, attorneys and other professionals have donated more than 300 hours of time, valued at more than $40,000,in developing this plan.
As a result of their efforts, he said, “You now have an amazing plan for an amazing place, created by amazing people through an amazing process.”
In a previous column, I wrote about my impressions after attending the first in a series of four public workshops. Toward the end of that session, Burnett approached me and asked how I thought it was going. Given the diversity of opinions and the strong personalities of the people involved, I told him that I thought it would be difficult to achieve consensus.
I should have known better than to doubt the consensus-building abilities of Herd, whom I first got to know more than two decades ago, when he was the county’s Planning Director. He has been doing this for a long time, and is a skilled professional.
As a result of the process he orchestrated, the Voices were able to obtain about 100 signatures on their plan, including the names of several prominent King Street business people whose support was doubtful at the beginning of the process, mostly because divergent opinions regarding street parking.
“There is [now] strong, broad support for the plan,” Herd told the Council, adding that he was not aware of any voiced opposition. “The stakeholders have resolved the most divisive issues.”
The key to the plan is the establishment of a “flex zone” for street parking on King Street, which keeps most of the current parking spaces and allow them to be converted to space for pedestrians or expanded sidewalk activities during certain times of the week (such as First Fridays or weekend nights) or for special events.
Movable bollards would be used to block off the parking spaces to provide sufficient space, for example, for sidewalk cafes. One of the appealing features of this plan is that the parking spaces could be converted only when desired, and in only a portion of the block. For example, parking spaces could remain in front of businesses such as China King that rely on street parking for take-out customers (I know, because I am one), while spaces in front of restaurants down the block could be converted for sidewalk cafes.
Sounding like someone who is wary of anything that looks too good to be true, Council Member David Butler raised a valid concern. Who will decide when and where to block off the spaces? It doesn’t really resolve conflicts over street parking if the Town Council or another panel has to repeatedly serve as the arbiter of disputes between business owners who either do or do not want the parking spaces in front of their businesses to be blocked off. This, he said, is just “kicking the can down the road.”
He also said that he would not support spending $3.5 million just to pretty up the downtown. However, he also indicated that he might support a plan that truly “transforms the space.”
I see a couple of other missing pieces. We need more good restaurants downtown. And we need more entertainment – specifically, performing arts – venues for music, film and live theatre, if sizable numbers of people are to be attracted to the downtown.
But I’m still hopeful that the good work of the Voices for an Amazing Place will help create an environment where this transformation can happen.