Just in time for the holiday shopping season, downtown Leesburg merchants, residents, and visitors will be able to say goodbye to the construction cones and hello to a new and improved sidewalk network.
Construction on sidewalk enhancements to segments of Loudoun and King streets are in their final weeks and are expected to be completed by the end of the fall season. The projects represent the third and final phase of the downtown improvement capital project which endured a long and, at times, contentious public input process that began in earnest more than four years ago.
The projects were introduced as a way to spur reinvestment in the downtown area, which at the height of the economic recession had seen a decrease in foot traffic and a difficulty in retaining high-quality retail and restaurant tenants. Council members who supported the project hoped that by the town investing in the downtown area business owners and landlords would follow suit, and the public would find the downtown area a more inviting place to fulfill their shopping, dining and entertainment needs.
There have been many new faces appearing in the downtown area since the public input process began. New restaurants have sprung up to accommodate a variety of palates, not to mention a slew of new establishments that seek out lovers of craft beer and local wines. Popular long-standing businesses like the Leesburg Vintner, Photoworks and China King have maintained their place in the downtown streetscape as fixtures of retail and restaurant success. However, one thing that did not change was the far-ranging opinions on whether wider sidewalks and the overall improvements were really needed in the first place.
Leesburg Vintner owner Mike Carroll was one of many downtown business owners not sold on the change. In particular, the concern of many was that eliminating on-street parking to accommodate the wider sidewalks would take away the convenience factor of downtown shopping and dining for local residents and visitors and send them elsewhere.
Carroll said he still has his doubts that the high price tag of the projects – estimated at $1 million for all phases – was worth it in the end. However, he did note that construction on King Street has not been the hindrance many feared, with the majority of construction happening in the overnight hours so as not to impede local shop owners.
The three-phase improvements project began in the summer of 2012 with enhancements to the walkways linking King Street to the Town Hall parking garage, and improvements to the East End Triangle by Mom’s Apple Pie. Those projects wrapped up in the spring of 2013.
Ongoing still are the sidewalk projects along Loudoun Street (between South King and East Market streets) and King Street (between North and Royal streets). While the sidewalks themselves will be finished shortly, final paving, street printing of crosswalks and the installation of street lights will be completed by spring 2016. Town Manager Kaj Dentler said Tuesday that the goal of staff and contractors working on the project is to wrap up the King Street sidewalk prior to Thanksgiving, and he is hopeful that paving can be completed by year’s end as well.
Vice Mayor Kelly Burk has been a supporter of the project since being re-elected to the council in a special election in April 2012. She said she is thrilled with how the upgrades have turned out and the pedestrian-friendly elements it has brought to the downtown area.
“It was a risk,” she said of the vote to fund the improvements, but she is confident that business owners and landlords will make the best use of the new amenities downtown to accommodate on-street dining and other features. She also said that down the road the council could focus a discussion on how to incentivize investment in downtown properties by the property owners themselves.
“I know these businesses can make the best of everything. This can only help,” she said of the projects.