A proposal to redevelop a 2-acre town-owned parking lot into a complex with affordable housing for senior citizens, a performing arts center and restaurant is moving ahead, although members of the Leesburg Town Council still have lots of questions.
The council on Monday night was briefed on the single project submitted in response to its request for proposals seeking a public-private partnership to redevelop the Liberty Street parking lot property.
That proposal was from a group of companies—affordable housing developer Good Works, Petersburg-based Waukeshaw Development, Bowman Consulting Group, James G. Davis Construction Corp. and DBI Architects—led by Leesburg attorney Peter Burnett.
They propose a complex of 65 apartments for income-qualified seniors, a 450-seat performance and conference center and 4,000 square feet of restaurant space, along with a shared parking garage with 175 spaces. While the affordable housing component would be built by Good Works, the proposal envisions the town government operating the arts center and leasing out the restaurant space.
It was that last provision—along with the projected $31 million price tag—that raised the most concern among the town staff and council members. Not only does town have no plans for an arts/conference center in its long-term capital construction program, several council members said they did not expect the government to have any operational role in the development.
Burnett said there are many ways to address those concerns, with government grants and community donations likely to offset many of the costs. However, the largest unknown—and the biggest challenge—for the project lies under the surface of the parking lot.
For more than 30 years starting in the 1920s, the lot was used as a landfill for the town’s household refuse. Concerns about the potential for contamination at the dump site have long limited use of the property, with the town careful to avoid any land-disturbing activities and potential developers, the town included, hesitant to take on the risk of digging through the fill.
Burnett told council members that no bank would finance a project on the land without having the dump site excavated. He projected it would cost $5 million to $6 million to remove the waste, including an estimated $3 million expected for tipping fees to move the material to the county landfill. Those fees could be negotiated with the county government, he said. And, Burnett said, federal grant funding is available to clean up dump sites.
He noted that the town last conducted a study of the landfill property two decades ago.
Vice Mayor Marty Martinez was among the majority of council members supporting a new study of the cost of remediating the landfill. Once the landfill is cleaned up, the property would have a significantly higher value, he noted.
Town Manager Kaj Dentler said the staff would report back with a proposal to solicit a study.
Several council members also noted the decades-long effort to establish a performing arts center in town. During a public survey last fall, parking and an arts center ranked as the clear preferences for use of the property.
But the town’s role in building and operating such a facility remained a concern.
Burnett said such centers play important roles in other communities like Leesburg, raising the value of surrounding land and providing an economic anchor.
“I always thought the town would be a major player and a leader in wanting this,” Burnett said.
In addition to pushing for a new landfill study, the council agreed to continue talks with the development group to explore the concept in more detail in the months ahead.