He calls it Liberty Live, and a quick look at the current state of the town’s Liberty Street parking lot requires a significant amount of imagination.
But where many see a gravel, somewhat underutilized parking lot, local attorney Peter Burnett sees his next field of dreams. He believes, if he can get the Town of Leesburg and other investors to go in on a public-private partnership, the masses will be there to support the project upon completion.
Burnett points out that the Liberty lot is the site of a former dump, the remnants of which are currently buried under concrete. But back in the day, this area of town was a much more vibrant. It was the site of a popular restaurant called Honey’s, known for its basement billiards room, in the midst of a thriving Black community called Black Bottom. A dump was then put there in the 1920s, and Burnett said the move was not unlike filling in the former town pool with concrete instead of integrating it.
“It’s about getting the right bunch of people together and getting the right things to happen there, getting the dump down where it belongs—to the landfill—and cleaning up after our grandparents or great-grandparents,” he said. “It’s a nice gesture to the Black community that that insult be cleared off.”
Burnett believes, however, the entire community stands to benefit from his proposed public-private partnership. The town-owned Liberty Street lot is around two-and-a-half acres. His project envisions more than 100 units of age-restricted, affordable senior apartments on the majority of the lot, with each apartment around 900 square feet. An additional 20,000 square feet would be dedicated to a conference center, theater and restaurant. The property would be served by a 150-space parking structure.
The performing arts center has been a sought after amenity in Leesburg for many years, with a concerted effort in the early 2000s to form a stakeholder group to move forward on a project. Some had even envisioned the Liberty Street lot to be the perfect location. Burnett references in his report a 2009 ArtsMarket study commissioned by the Town Council. That study recommended two theaters in one phase, and a third in a second phase. Burnett’s project is less ambitious in that regard, envisioning a 300-seat theater co-located within the conference center, with a restaurant serving that property as well.
The property would be linked with a pedestrian bridge across the nearby Town Branch, providing access to the W&OD Trail, and would also be served by an ample outdoor gathering space.
The first step on the project would be removing the remaining dump remnants buried under the concrete. That alone is an ambitious, and expensive, project. In a report he has shared with the Town Council, Burnett estimated that the volume needed to be removed below the surface stands around 35,000 cubic feet. The cost of moving the dump materials to the Loudoun County landfill is estimated at $800,000 in excavating and trucking fees, and a whopping $2.2 million in tipping fees. He is hoping the county government would waive the tipping fees, as it historically has done for Leesburg and other incorporated towns.
All told, Burnett is staring down an almost $50 million project. He is hoping for some financial help from several parties to get it off the ground. In a proposed cost summary analysis, he has proposed that the Town of Leesburg contribute $11.8 million, or 24% of the project’s costs, along with $3 million from Loudoun County. The county’s contribution would include waiving the $2 million in landfill tipping fees, and a $1 million contribution from the county’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, given the project’ s commitment to providing senior affordable housing. But the brunt of the costs would be borne by private investors and donors, to the tune of $34 million.
So why embark on such an ambitious project in the midst of economic recovery from COVID-19? Burnett admits he’s a project junkie. He points to his previous projects and challenges, like moving the John Tolbert Building now at 108 Church St. SE from its original spot next to Robinson’s Barber Shop to make way for the Town Hall alley and garage in 1990. He was also a founder of the former Downtown Improvement Association, which called for a series of downtown improvements, including wider sidewalks on King Street, that eventually came to fruition.
But it is opportunity that has attracted Burnett to the Liberty lot.
“In my four-plus decades of practicing law and spending the majority of my waking hours in Leesburg, I have never seen an opportunity more packed with potential short- and long-term benefits to downtown Leesburg and the town overall. It is simply the right project, in the right place, at the right time,” he said.
The timing is also right with the ongoing review of the new Town Plan, which calls for many of the elements envisioned in Burnett’s project.
“Our objective was to get as many of the Town Plan features onto that site,” he said.
While winning financial commitment from Leesburg will be its own obstacle to overcome, Burnett said he is hopeful the Town Council will be amenable to entering a public-private partnership, something the council has discussed previously for other projects but has not moved forward with, to get the project up and running.
“It would be nice to see this project be a shining example of the town’s commitment to and competence with executing public-private partnerships,” he said. “If they want to do those, they need to get good at it and show some appeal.”
The council is expected to discuss Burnett’s project at an upcoming meeting.
Councilman Ara Bagdasarian said he was looking forward to the Town Council’s upcoming discussion on the Liberty Street lot area along with other development opportunities for the site. Bagdasarian was a vocal leader in the early effort to bring a performing arts center to Leesburg, and said he believes it could be a good use for the area.
“A performing arts center was identified as one of those areas residents in Leesburg do have a strong desire for today, as well as 10 and 20 years ago. It’s been a recurring theme in the town for residents and businesses alike. I think his proposal is a creative approach to that desire,” he said.
Bagdasarian emphasized that any action the council takes now and in the coming years needs to align with the Town Plan. He also added that arts have been a proven economic driver that could be a critical component of aiding the town as it navigates the recovery from COVID-19. Burnett’s project, if the council decides to move forward with it, is a years-long undertaking, he noted, and he said he is looking forward to the results of a soil study of the Liberty Street lot, which will important to understanding how any development on that land can move forward.