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Plans for New Townhouse Stall Amid Concerns from Neighbors, Board

From the design and the materials to where the city hearing notice sign was placed, a planned townhouse to be constructed in Covington's Licking Riverside Historic District was the topic of a near 90-minute debate at Covington City Hall on Monday afternoon.

The city's urban design review board heard Todd McMurty's plans for a three-story townhouse to be constructed on the 600 block of Garrard Street directly behind the house his father Stephen McMurtry has owned and lived in for decades. The property would be divided into two parcels.

"When I was eight-years old, my family moved into that neighborhood and began the process of restoring property in that area," the younger McMurty said. "My family played a significant part of wherever we are today. The investment we want to make in that property, we're willing to come in and build a very nice home. That's why we hired a very good architect, and how odd would it be to try to recreate the house at 621 Garrard? How odd would it be to try to do that?"

McMurtry's comments followed questions from the board about the modern design of the planned home, the materials that would be used, the placement of the windows, and the placement of the structure on the property line. Some UDRB members and a pair of neighbors questioned why the design could not look more like the rest of the historic homes.

"I understand the need for differentiating infill housing and although I don't agree with it personally, I accept it and there is a lot of infill housing done in this city which blends," said neighbor Virginia Kerst. "The windows don't even nod to any of the windows on the block. The materials are not found present on the block. There is no wood siding or clapboard anywhere on the block."

"I just would ask that you carefully consider this design in this very important neighborhood."

Another concern Kerst raised was that the issue was being considered while the city is without a historic preservation officer since a replacement for Beth Johnson, who took a similar position in Austin, Texas, has not been named. 

Neighbor Everett Dameron concurred. "This is a very significant event in this neighborhood," he said. "It's one of the top neighborhoods in the country and changes should not be done in hazardous ways and since we do not have a staff preservation officer, I might suggest that you table this until such a time that it can be reviewed by someone with that kind of training or background."

Zoning administrator Andy Juengling is serving as an interim fill-in for the preservation position until someone is hired full-time. The UDRB ultimately decided to table the issue, requesting more information from the architect, after a motion by member Chris Meyer to approve the schematic design on the condition that when materials are finalized, the architect return to the board for approval, failed to receive a second.

"I'm not going to argue with the fact that it doesn't look like the buildings that are around it. I know that's not the case," said architect Andrew Piaskowy. "I'm not going to argue that a contemporary townhouse in the right proportion and scale with even new materials will be compatible with those structures. In fact, I object to an approach taken where you try to mimic a lot of the details done in the 1880s. It cheapens the construction, number one, and we don't have the craftsmen. It degrades a neighborhood rather than enhances a neighborhood."

Piaskowy also took exception to board members' displeasure with the placement of the windows. The architect's design creates a series of windows that touch one another rather than be separated by brick on the exterior as was done historically. 

"The beauty of the space is not just from the exterior but from the interior," Piaskowy said. "It's a very attractive look that is a feature of that room. It is compromised if I start to break them in. The windows become part of the wall. In 1888, the fenestration was done where you punctured through the wall. This is a different approach. I attempt to think three-dimensionally. (The windows) afford a view to the neighborhood on the street which I think is really going to be an incredible sequence of views as you experience the building."

A change to the windows would compromise the building's design, he said.

Meyer urged the board to consider the design of the proposed townhouse based on the entire district, as mandated by the guidelines, and not the immediate block. The board insisted on tabling the issue.

"Take another look at the guidelines," member Brandi Bresser said, "and if you feel those things meet the context of the neighborhood, then bring us pictures, relevant documents, and show us."

The item is expected to be considered again at next month's UDRB meeting.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News