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County Building Shines in Rendering but What if Chase Law Doesn't Come?

It's a fish out of water, surrounded by many blocks of some of Covington's most stunning and historic architecture as well as the contemporary Ascent, but the 50-year old Kenton County Administration Building may soon be the belle of the ball.

A proposed rendering was presented Thursday night to the Kenton County Fiscal Court that offered a glimpse into what could be for the dated, under-utilized tower if the Salmon P. Chase College of Law departs Northern Kentucky University's Highland Heights campus and takes up residence in downtown Covington.

The image, created by Cincinnati-based SFA Architects, showed a building quite unlike the drab, 1960's brick behemoth that looms at the foot of the Roebling Suspension Bridge. At the behest of Corporex, the Covington-based developer that offered to perform a feasibility study for the county at no cost, SFA reimagined what the building would look like if it is chosen to accommodate Chase Law.

"The only guidance we gave (SFA) is that we don't want this to look like an old building we tried to rehab," said Tom Banta, managing director at Corporex. "We want something fresh and contemporary."

And that's what they got. The brick walls that wrapped the building are removed in favor of large quantities of glass windows, a new facade that boasts the NKU logo, a grand staircase that welcomes students to class. "This plan strips the building completely," Banta said. "It removes the exterior, removes the mechanicals and the elevators, and starts with the just frame and each of the floors."

The most appealing draw, perhaps, is the majestic view offered at the top of the building, something Banta said would be capitalized upon in the form of an indoor/outdoor space for all-season enjoyment, and likely open to the public for its unobstructed view of the Cincinnati skyline.

NKU has not taken a formal position on whether Chase is interested in moving to Covington and only provided the school's space needs to assist with the feasibility study. Turns out, the county building is just the right size, at 162,000 gross sq. ft., to accommodate Chase's every need. There would be community programs on the first floor, admissions, mock courtrooms, and a cafe on the second, classrooms, student areas, and learning pods on floors three through nine, and the top floor would be reserved for administrators , private events, and dining.

And that amazing viewing deck.

Rendering of view from top floor of renovated Kenton County Administration Building

The price? $42 million.

That's a significant ask for a university that fought for years to create its $97 million Health Innovation Center, currently under construction in Highland Heights.

Kenton County Judge/Executive Kris Knochelmann said the feasibility study is helpful because he said that the county and NKU now have numbers to work with within a 2-year time frame to figure out what needs to happen to the property and the government. The Kenton County Administration Building was once home to the county's detention center which has since moved to a new facility in South Covington, leaving the upper floors primarily empty. However, the jail's infrastructure remains on site and Banta estimates that it would cost $800,000 to remove it. That's more than $700,000 that Banta estimates the land is worth without the building on it. The building would cost $1 million or more to raze, he said, because of the jail and other unique elements in the construction of the facility. 

The price leaves the county with little in terms of options. If the county decides to keep the government in the building and refurbish some of the mechanics and aesthetics, it would cost roughly $26.2 million.

The building is currently fully paid for, and is in an attractive area for prospective developments. The county has been exploring opportunities to move and at one point had looked into constructing a new facility in conjunction with the City of Covington as part of the Duveneck Square project in the city, but those plans are not currently on the table. If an update to the building is desired, the work would be so extensive in terms of removing the jail, replacing the facade, and installing new elevators and HVAC equipment, that the county employees would have to relocate during construction. Banta suggested that if the county moved to the Corporex-developed RiverCenter Towers for roughly 18 months during the work, an additional $2 million would be added to the county's costs. 

By the time the county would move back into its updated building, there would still be the issue of unused space, and any idea of leasing it to other users was shot down by Banta. "You would have to figure out what to do with the rest of the space," he said. "This would not be competitive space in the private sector. I don't think you would want to lease to the marketplace." Banta cited parking concerns and suggested instead that perhaps the City of Covington could move in since it's leasing space currently and looking for a permanent home and is still considering Duveneck Square.

"It's like having the biggest house on the block and trying to sell it in a dated neighborhood," said County Commissioner Joe Nienaber. 

Tom Banta speaks as Commissioners (left to right) Joe Nienaber, Beth Sewell, and Jon Draud listen (RCN)

Commissioner Jon Draud asked whether residences would be appropriate at the site and Banta said that Corporex has 10-year old plans that converted the building into apartments and that such an arrangement would likely work well, but that such a development would have to be heavily subsidized like many of the residential projects in the urban core currently. 

"I think it's appealing to a developer, don't get me wrong," Banta said. "This location, those views, the urban site is where the market is moving. The small floor plans, it works great. The ceiling heights, everything. It works great for a good apartment development. The corners could be filled with balconies instead of floors. I think it works well for that and if you were realistic in your expectations, it's a great opportunity for an apartment developers. But if it causes a $5 million budget hole somewhere..."

Based on Thursday's presentation, the best case scenario for Kenton County is for NKU to move Chase Law to Covington.

"We look forward to receiving a copy of the report after it is released tonight," said NKU spokesperson Amanda Nageleisen. "The concept proposed by Kenton County requires extensive study and evaluation by our university administration, in consultation with our Board of Regents. Our number one focus right now is on the state budget deliberations in Frankfort so that we can secure resources that we need in order to provide a quality education to our students in our current facilities and in the Health Innovation Center, which is now under construction."

There are also political realities to consider. Campbell County Commissioner Charlie Coleman has been a vocal opponent of Chase leaving that county for Kenton County.That opposition first emerged in July and continued into last August. In December, after the Northern Kentucky Consensus Committee made the Chase move a priority request for the General Assembly, Coleman announced that he had formed a coalition of those opposed to the move. After NKU President Geoff Mearns spoke to The River City News in a podcast earlier this year, Coleman continued to rail against the proposal.

Knochelmann expects that if Chase moved to Covington, the impact would still be positive for Campbell County since many of the students, he said, would likely frequent Newport, which is just a short bridge across the Licking River away. "I'd rather partner with an organization like the law school than a for-profit entity," the judge/executive said. "If you put 400 to 500 students in this building on a daily or weekly basis, many would live nearby which includes part of Campbell County. We've got Newport three blocks away. I think there has been another mindset that if Chase came here, you've got a school building that couldn't be filled (in Highland Heights). That building would be filled up pretty quickly."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Top image: Rendering of renovated Kenton County Administration Building