A downtown property owner is seeking to convert some of his nonresidential buildings into multi-family residential units ideal for middle-class income earners, but the Leesburg Town Council has reservations.
The proposal by Mike McLister went before the council during its work session Monday night. According to a staff report, McLister has proposed to convert his two commercial buildings at 109 South King St. and 2 Royal St., to residential use, allowing for the development of around nine multi-family dwelling units. Non-residential space would remain on the first floor of the South King Street building for commercial tenants, according to Planning and Zoning Department Director Susan Berry-Hill. The two buildings are about 60 feet apart, and an addition would be built on the Royal Street property to allow for construction of some of the dwelling units.
In a report to the council, McLister notes that both of the existing commercial buildings are almost entirely vacant, and that creating affordable residential units downtown would meet several objectives voiced by both council members the Town Plan. He also pointed to the changing working whims of the public in the midst of the pandemic, with many leaving office space to work from home, and referred to his projects as live-work units.
McLister is also proposing the development of a 14-unit residential building on a vacant 4,000-square-foot lot along Wirt Street.
On both projects, he pointed to the additional tax revenues the town could realize during a particularly challenging fiscal time.
Both proposals could come with their own sets of challenges, however. On the South King and Royal Street project, McLister would need to secure a Zoning Ordinance text amendment to reduce the minimum lot area requirement for residential uses from 10,000 square feet to something less, according to a staff report. Subdividing the property as McLister envisions would also trigger the requirement for frontage improvements, like curb, gutter and sidewalk, which McLister has maintained makes the project not financially viable. The town’s Capital Improvements Program already envisions a capital project of that ilk in 2023 and 2024.
On the Wirt Street project, McLister is not proposing to provide any parking on site, and instead is asking the town to consider allowing the use of currently metered parking spaces at the town-owned Liberty Street parking lot. The Wirt Street property is the location of parking spaces required for 107 W. Loudoun St., via an off-site parking agreement approved by the Planning Commission in 2016. Per the staff report, McLister would have the option of paying a payment in lieu fee of $6,920 per parking space, but has expressed opposition to this option. Another option would be to provide an alternate location for the current parking spaces.
Council members Monday, however, seemed more fixated on the process for considering the projects, than the proposals themselves.
Mayor Kelly Burk cited several concerns she had with different facets of the projects, but said her utmost worry lies with how McLister’s proposals were circumventing the usual process that a developer would follow.
“Whether this is a good project or not is completely irrelevant. This is the wrong process,” she said. “To bring this forward at this point … is an activity that is useless. It’s useless to Mr. Mclister, it’s useless to us. If this is an honest to God project it needs to go through the process of the [Board of Architectural Review] and Planning Commission, rather than come through with generalities. Is this the way we’re going to do business? All developers come directly to council? That’s what’s happened here and that concerns me.”
McLister did not have an opportunity to speak during Monday night’s work session, with only Councilman Ron Campbell voicing support to allow him to do so. Campbell chided his council colleagues for not giving the proposals a fair vetting, and also pointed out that a majority of them had supported placing the matter on a work session agenda.
“This was raised because of looking at unmet housing needs and affordable housing. This wasn’t just an application for housing for any other particular purpose,” he said. “This was a timely proposal to deal with issues that we have today. I’m a little disappointed that we’re not willing to give this a fair hearing and an open process.”
Reached Tuesday, McLister, who noted he has won multiple awards for his McLister Enterprises business, including several commendations for his refurbished buildings, expressed disappointment that the council did not give him an opportunity to explain his concept Monday night. He said he hoped the new Town Council taking its seats Jan. 1 would be more open to exploring ideas “that provide comprehensive financial benefits to our town, small businesses, shops and help mid to lower income brackets.”
“We all know that our home is our office with corporations encouraging employees and teachers to work from home in a safe, efficient and cost-effective manner. In the midst of a pandemic, what a fantastic idea that we could be a beacon of light in the state to discuss, and possibly implement, areas of town revenue growth, business growth and helping mid to lower income tiers all at the same time. We can do this. The Town Council voted to invite me to the Oct. 26 work session for what I thought was to put the topic of repurposing spaces, revenue increases for the town and adaptation to our business climate. Unfortunately, I was disallowed to speak and explain how repurposing properties returns businesses and citizens with the beneficiaries being the significant revenue growth for Leesburg and the surrounding restaurants and shops. It was a shame the concept of live-work units, adaptation and revenue growth were never even discussed.”