Historic District Forum Challenges Parking Priorities

A pair of Charleston, SC, architects who champion traditional design concepts gave Leesburg’s historic district high marks during a forum for town leaders last week and offered some surprising advice on how to protect, and even expand it.

Speaking to an audience that included members of Town Council, Planning Commission, Board of Architectural Review, town staff and builders, Jenny Bevan and Christopher Liberatos, of B&L Architects, on March 4 discussed strategies promoting compatible development in historic districts. 

“This is one of the most intact historic districts we have ever been in,” Liberatos said.

They discussed the history of the Charleston Historic District, which was established in 1931 as America’s architects and developers were moving away from traditional design toward more auto-centric, suburban communities. The goal of the district was to require new development to match the historical style of its surroundings. 

They noted that it would be mostly impossible to build Charleston’s historic downtown under today’s zoning rules—an observation expressed in Leesburg many times over the years—but also pointed out that those neighborhoods are some of the most popular places to live, attracting residents from around the globe and ever-increasing property values.

During the program, Bevan questioned one policy in the draft Legacy Leesburg town plan update that calls for development outside the historic district to be distinct and not mimic design of the downtown. “We think that is crazy,” she said.

If government leaders or developers were looking to meet the demands of the market, “you would be building more places like Leesburg,” she said.

Among the major challenges to protecting historic districts, they said, was one very familiar to Leesburg leaders: parking. But the solution they suggested was the opposite of the direction the town has been taking. Demands for more parking increase the threats to downtowns rather than promotes their prosperity, they said. 

They noted that in many communities, downtown buildings are razed to make more room for parking. And unnecessarily high parking requirements result in undesirable designs for new development. While complimenting the design of the Town Hall parking garage as one of the best they’ve seen, they highlighted the development trend they called the Texas donut, in which buildings are constructed around a large parking garage. Two of downtown Leesburg’s most recently approved developments, Church & Market and the Virginia Village redevelopment, resemble that pattern. In both cases, town leaders expressed concerns that not enough parking would be provided.

Bevan and Liberatos said downtown environments shouldn’t be expected to meet the parking needs of inbound commuters. In fact, they said, communities should hope to have parking problems.

“The only places that don’t have a parking problem are dead or dying,” Liberatos said.

Bevan said excessive parking effectively has other unintended impacts, including serving as a tax on affordable housing—taking up spaces that could be put to better use. 

The program was sponsored by Fianna Investments’ Carl Gustavson, whose family owns three North King Street buildings and invested in the adaptive reuse of the Peoples Bank building to become the Lightfoot Restaurant where the event was held.

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