Citing Merchant Concerns, Garage Construction Delayed Until March

Changes to Leesburg Town Hall’s parking garage will now come closer to the spring.

Parking garage improvements were expected to kick off the week of the Thanksgiving holiday, in line with the start of the town’s annual free holiday parking promotion in the garage which runs through New Year’s Day. The $185,514 project will include the demolition of the existing entry ticket dispensers and exit booths; and the installation of payment kiosks throughout the interior of the garage in a move towards automation.

Town staff had chosen the project start date to avoid a negative fiscal impact to the town coffers, as there is no cost to park in the facility during the free holiday parking promotion. However, downtown merchant objections raised this week caused the town staff to take a new look at the project timeline, ultimately choosing to push back construction to closer to March, Deputy Town Manager Keith Markel confirmed Thursday.

Stilson Greene, a graphic artist who runs his business out of the Laurel Brigade, got the ball rolling this week when he posted the announcement about the upcoming parking garage construction to the Leesburg Business Forum Facebook page. He wanted to see if others, like he, agreed that the timing could be better.   

He noted that the holiday season is an extremely important time for downtown retailers and restaurateurs, and many derive a large portion of their annual revenues from the holiday shopping season. If visitors to the downtown see a disruptive construction environment, or general confusion at the parking garage, it may leave a bad taste in their mouths, he said.

“Perception is reality, especially at Christmastime,” Greene said. “We spent all this time and all this effort and money to make Leesburg this new destination. We have tons of new people coming to Leesburg; some will come for the very first time during the holidays. And the first thing they see when they pull into a parking garage is demolition and a construction zone? That’s a bad look.”

Curtis Allred, proprietor of Delirum Cafe USA on Loudoun Street, concurred, calling the original construction timeline “a tremendously stupid plan.” Kicking off garage construction during the free holiday parking promotion — “the very time we make our town’s parking embarrassment easier to deal with by making it free,” he noted — would create confusion, destruction, and distraction.

“When the town asks why they’re perceived as being unfriendly to business, this is a billboard sign-sized reason to point to,” he said. 

Vice Mayor Suzanne Fox caught wind of the scuttlebutt over the project this week, and sent an email to the rest of the council and town staff to see if the timeline could be tweaked. Fox herself is a downtown business owner, running the Weddings on Wirt Street chapel along with her own wedding planning business. 

“Even though it was a good timeline for the town it’s probably not the best timeline for businesses in the town,” she said. “This is the time of year for those merchants.” 

“We always look at these projects from the lens of how they will impact the downtown and the businesses and merchants so obviously that’s a concern of ours. We went into this with that at the forefront of our discussions,” Markel said. 

He said town staff was already planning to meet with the Historic Downtown Leesburg Association members next week to “set the stage” for the parking improvements, and ensure its members that the garage would remain open during the construction period. But, hearing the strong resistance from the downtown merchants, Markel said the town is happy to shift the project’s timeline to alleviate their concerns. 

Now the project start date is anticipated for closer to March, acknowledging that the months of January and February can be challenging from a Mother Nature standpoint. The total construction and installation period is expected to take four to six weeks, “eight at worst,” Markel says, and the new goal is to have it completed in time for the Flower & Garden Festival in mid-April. That will be a tight timeline to meet assuming an early March start, Markel acknowledges. But, even if the project is not fully completed by Flower and Garden weekend, the garage will be fully operational, he emphasized. One benefit of the delay is that it allows extra time for equipment delivery, he said, so contractors should be ready to roll in March.

The project will go before the Board of Architectural Review Nov. 20 for approval of the demolition of the existing parking booths, replacement of the concrete islands, the new installations, bollards, new lighting, and brick work on the new islands, Markel said.  The improvements envision a more seamless, modern-day way to access the garage, with the entry ticket dispensers moved closer to the garage, allowing more stacking distance to avoid cars backing up into the street. Drivers will take their tickets with them and pay at walk-up kiosks located in the breezeways and near the elevator on the first level when ready to leave. The kiosk by the elevator will be the only one to accept cash in addition to credit card payments. All other kiosks will only accept credit card payments. Drivers will be able to exit onto either Market Street or Loudoun Street and the exit kiosks will also accept credit card payments.

The improvements will allow drivers to exit and enter both from Market and Loudoun Streets, with one entry lane and two exits on either side of the garage. 

From a fiscal standpoint, the delay will hurt the town coffers a bit. Markel said the loss of garage revenue during construction is estimated at around $1,000 per week. There would have been no fiscal impact had the construction occurred when originally planned during the free holiday parking promotion. Markel said there is no additional project costs in delaying construction. 

Allred and other downtown merchants expressed satisfaction with the schedule tweak. The Delirium proprietor said he is happy that Town Manager Kaj Dentler was “receptive to the multiple comments that were made and moved the work back to a more business-friendly time.”

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