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Walgreen's Project in Limbo Again; Historic Home Could Still Go

An unusually lengthy meeting of Covington's urban design review board (UDRB) ended after more than ninety minutes of debate and with a local developer clearly upset with the outcome. A piece of property across Martin Luther King Bouelvard from the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption is poised to host a new Walgreen's as developed by Covington-based Anchor Properties. On the land currently is a sprawling nineteenth century home commonly referred to as the Bishop's Mansion owned by the Diocese of Covington which wants to sell to Walgreen's. The home is vulnerable to demolition because it does not sit in one of Covington's historic preservation overlay zones but rather in what is known in the zoning code as "mixed use commercial overlay", or MUCO. The urban design review board has no authority on the issue of whether the building should still stand and all its members can vote on is the proposed design. But the fate of the Bishop's mansion was referred to as the "elephant in the room" on multiple occasions during Monday afternoon's UDRB meeting.
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"I will have a very difficult time voting to tear down that building," said UDRB member Jack Gore, a sentiment openly echoed by member Emily Wolff. Charles King, serving as chair of the board for this meeting, reminded its members that only the design waivers sought by the Walgreen's could be considered. The developer sought ten waivers for elements of the store that would typically not be allowed in the MUCO zone. When the first issue came up, no member would make a motion for a vote to approve the request. Instead, the members were more comfortable in making a motion to disapprove the request involving transparent windows. It was disapproved by a vote of 4 - 2. 
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The developer knew he could be facing a disappointing meeting. "I understand the concern for the building," said Michael Ricke, addressing the board. "(But) we're not aware of any buildings int he area that would meet these guidelines. I'm sitting here scratching my head, wondering as a developer how you expect us to propose plans to redevelop this property when there are no other buildings that meet these standards. I feel like we're being held to a different standard." Ricke referenced a vacant auto dealer, the Duro Bag building, Kroger, Health Point, and convenience stores as examples. King explained that the UDRB considers only future plans, not previous ones.
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Ricke and his team spent the past several months working with preservation activists on achieving a design that would be complimentary to the Cathedral and even offered to allow the Bishop's Mansion to be moved if someone would fork up the several hundred thousand dollars necessary to do so. The team added windows, lengthened walls, and put in elaborate landscaping in an effort to make the project attractive to more people. "I don't want anyone on this board to think for a second that we took this project for granted," Ricke said.
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Fritz Kuhlman, a Covington resident, spoke on behalf of Progress With Preservation, the group with which Ricke and his team consistently met. "In our view, Covington's economic development is best served by celebrating and leveraging what makes us unique as a city and therefor attractive to residents, businesses, and visitors," Kulhman said. "Consistent with our position several months ago, Progress With Preservation believes that tearing down the Bishop's House and replacing it with a Walgreen's, which will be visible when looking at the Cathedral, will detract from the character of the Cathedral. We believe a better plan for the property would be adaptive re-use of the existing building into housing or offices."
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The piece of land could be important in setting the tone for what future developments are to come along the newly expanded Martin Luther King Boulevard, particularly around the area of the Cathedral, arguably Covington's most recognized landmark. It was on those grounds that the cards started to fall against Anchor Properties Plans. Board members Chris Meyer and Jim Guthrie, both architects, began to question whether the proposed Walgreen's is the type of development this potentially significant corner needs. Meyer argued against the proposal's emphasis on a parking lot and what he saw as anti-pedestrian design. He argued that the MUCO zoning area aims to emphasize and increase pedestrians not vehicular traffic.
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Then one after the other the various waivers sought by Anchor Properties and the Diocese for the Walgreen's were met with votes of disapproval. Only four won approval. Chairman King explained that the developers could appeal to the Covington City Commission, something Ricke refused to comment on after the meeting. Ricke also would not say whether he would take his plans as scheduled to the Covington Board of Adjustments on Wednesday where he was to seek zoning variances. In the meantime, the Bishop's Mansion still stands for now on a corner coveted by Walgreen's, a company focusing its expansion efforts on corners and a company that just a few years ago was looking to pull its store off Madison Avenue before deciding to build a new structure.
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As for the building, it could be torn down at any time since it is not protected as a landmark, something the City Commission would have to change in order to protect the building from demolition.  
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PHOTO: Bishop's Mansion/RCN File

Comments

If Mr. Ricke had listened to his consultant, he would have realized that development standards are increased over time to get better developments as a community changes, not to negatively affect future developers. Unless he's just flat out lying.

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