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REJECTED: Covington Upholds Decision to Deny Demolition of Historic Brewery

The fate of the historic Bavarian Brewery building was once again the topic at Covington City Hall.

The city commission convened for a special meeting Tuesday night to hear an appeal from Columbia Sussex which bought the former brewery building in 2007. In November, the city's urban design review board (UDRB) rejected Columbia Sussex's application that requested approval to raze the sprawling nineteenth century structure.

Columbia Sussex, the Crestview Hills-based operator of hotels and casinos owned by William Yung, previously hoped to operate a casino at the location when Kentucky was weighing the possibility of expanded gambling. That never came about and now Columbia Sussex is left with a landmark property that it says it can't sell. The current price tag is over $7 million though it is only assessed at just over $1 million.

"The asking price is roughly six and a half times the agreed value of the property and that would tend to deter people from buying it," said Commissioner Chuck Eilerman, to laughter from the crowd at the city building.

Attorney Scott Thomas, representing Columbia Sussex, argued Tuesday that the high asking price is related to what the site could be worth to a developer if only the apparent hindrance of having the structure standing there were removed. Thomas argued that the UDRB reached its decision last fall arbitrarily, citing that the nine members of the board accepted as evidence the dreams and hopes for the site using examples from other cities.

Meanwhile, the company continues to work with local preservation groups and the Catalytic Fund in exploring alternatives to destruction. A meeting is scheduled for those parties later this month, Thomas said. The appeal process continued in spite of the ongoing conversations.

Scott Thomas/RCN

Points of disagreement between city officials,the UDRB, and Columbia Sussex center around language in the Bavarian Brewery Redevelopment Plan, first adopted in 1996 and then amended in 2009. That plan was developed to seek a path forward for the site. Eventually, Jillian's entertainment center opened and operated there until 2006. 

It has been vacant ever since.

A Chapter 99 plan, which is what the Bavarian Brewery plan is, relates to the removal of city blight, assistant city solicitor Bryce Rhoades said. Thomas argued that removing blight is what Columbia Sussex seeks to do in removing the historic structure. Rhoades said that the intent of the plan is clear in wanting to preserve the main structure and its tower, while accepting that some surrounding buildings could be brought down.

The plan was amended just as Columbia Sussex was taking ownership and historic preservation officer Beth Johnson said that there was no objection from the new owners about restrictions to razing the brewery.

Thomas argued that the plan lacks the word "forever", meaning that it could be revisited.

Mayor Sherry Carran said that any change to that plan would require a trip through the Kenton County Planning Commission and it would then need to be approved by the city commission.

The argument that Columbia Sussex is facing an economic hardship by being unable to unload the property was also challenged. Thomas said that his client has aggressively marketed the Bavarian Brewery building to no avail. Yung has also permitted the preservation groups to find an alternative. "He's essentially saying that if you folks think that you have access to markets or developers or buyers or funding sources that we don't and you can figure out how to develop this property and keep the structure, we'll be your biggest cheerleader," Thomas said. 

Covington City Commission/RCN

Lisa Sauer, a Covington resident and member of Progress With Preservation, reiterated her comments from the UDRB meeting (only those who testified/spoke at UDRB were permitted to participate in Tuesday's hearing, per statute cited by Assistant City Manager Frank Warnock. The city commissioners were also told by the legal department not to read letters or emails from anyone arguing one way or the other on the issue.).

"The structure has value in both its architectural and cultural contributions to our city's history," Sauer said. She asked that the commission oppose the appeal based on the site's presence on the National Register, the existence of several examples of successful adaptive reuse of similar structures, and the work that the Catalytic Fund is attempting to do.

Mark Ramler of Newport's Mansion Hill Properties which will be redeveloping a property near the Baravian Brewery building also spoke Tuesday. "The Bavarian is an icon. It's an anchor for the neighborhood and the last of its kind in Northern Kentucky. It has immeasurable historic significance," Ramler said. "Imagine driving down the Cut in the Hill and seeing an empty lot or strip mall there. What kind of image does the city want to project there?"

The city commission had to consider in this appeal whether an action by the UDRB was taken in excess of power, whether due process was offered to Columbia Sussex, and whether the rejection was supported by substantial evidence.

The city commission upheld the UDRB's decision in a 5-0 vote.

"Columbia Sussex is being given a Catch 22," Thomas argued. "One the one hand, they're being told they can't demolish the building which would enable them to get a suitor to develop the property. And on the other hand, they're being told they can't get a permit to demolish the property because they don't have that suitor yet and that's just inherently unfair."

City Commissioner Bill Wells said that his brother was chairman of the Kenton County Planning Commission when the redevelopment plan's amendment was adopted but that that had no influence on his decision. Eilerman was a member of the planning commission at that time and also said that that did not influence his decision Tuesday.

"I see no evidence from Columbia Sussex that this building would have to be torn down in order to market it," Wells said.

Thomas said that the scheduled meeting with preservation groups would go on as planned and was not certain whether Columbia Sussex would take the appeal process to the next step, the Kenton County Circuit Court.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News * Follow The River City News on Facebook, Twitter, or email us!