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A New Downtown Covington is Closer to Reality

Downtown Covington was the big winner at Tuesday night's city commission meeting as development after development won approval, laying the groundwork for a revitalized Center City that for most of the best part of two years had been only a vision.

Soon it will be actually visible.

Plans were approved to put fourteen apartments in the mostly vacant Mutual Building and to place a property tax moratorium on the Doctors Building which is also poised to become twelve residential rental units. Bonds were approved so that Gateway Community & Technical College can redevelop the former Marx Furniture building for its technology programs, the beginning of an $80 million urban campus throughout Downtown. The next phase of the Madison Avenue street beautification project also was approved.

The lease agreement for City Hall's relocation to Pike Street was presented and approved as the City plans to vacate its current location to make way for the development of the $25 million Hotel Covington project.

An update was also provided on the Center City Action Plan, the outline developed last year to provide a framework for the revitalization of Covington's urban core.

You want a new Downtown Covington? Well, here it comes.

City Commissioner Steve Frank offered a verbal visual of the new look for the city. "We started with a new Waterfront," he said, referencing Jeff Ruby's landmark floating restaurant that will soon open again at Covington Landing. Frank then mentioned the forthcoming early work on Riverfront Commons, a riverfront recreational destination that will link all of Northern Kentucky's river cities. "As you move up, you have the convention center (which will soon be expanded, he predicted) and the IRS (also a possible redevelopment site)." Then next you come into Gateway's urban campus, Frank said, and then the new City Hall on Pike Street, and the Mutual Building.

"Things are definitely on the move up," Frank said to applause from those in attendance.

City Hall's new location to be more functional, modern

Work began in December on the negotiation of a lease agreement for City Hall's planned move to the former JC Penney building on Pike Street, most recently used as Pike Place Bingo. The lease was approved Tuesday night and the public got its first glimpse of what the new facility may look like on the inside.

"(This will be a place where) you want to get up and go to work," said Guy van Rooyen, head of the Salyers Group which owns the building as developing The Hotel Covington at the current City Hall site. 

The City will spend $20,833 per month to lease the 22,500 square foot space. The agreement is for five years but allows the City the option of exiting without penalty after three. The City will pay the utility bills while the property owners will handle the maintenance. The Salyers Group will spend $350,000 to improve the space.

"It's a good deal and I believe the Salyers Group will be good landlords for us," said Mayor Sherry Carran.

"If we were to stay in (the Coppins Building at Seventh & Madison) we were facing a $6 million repair bill," Commissioner Frank said.

Van Rooyen said the cost of rent is below market rate. "Negotiating with these guys is tough as stewards of your money," he joked.

Among the advantages of moving the city government to Pike Street, aside from making way for the hotel development, is the removal of bingo traffic from the central business district, van Rooyen said. 

"It didn't fit with the Center City Action Plan which allowed us to align our business plan with the city's plan," he said. 

Van Rooyen predicted that the new City Hall would be a showcase of adaptive reuse in Downtown Covington. The building will also be more functional for staff and citizens, alleviating the need to go to multiple floors as is the case in the current City Hall. "Now with just two floors it's going to be an incredibly efficient building for staff and citizens," he said.

The 2,200 square foot commission chambers will have improved sight lines and key departments will be accessible on the first floor. For the first time in a generation there will be the option for a reception area to greet visitors and guide them to the appropriate destination. 

A staff break room will fill the current cafe space in the front of the building. The mayor and commissioners will have new offices on the second floor. 

Van Rooyen said the seventeen-foot ceilings in the building will be left open to allow for a modern feel. Also, "We want to leverage the daylight from Pike Street and push it back through the building," he added.

City employees will work in pod-style office arrangements which would allow for more collaboration, he said.

City Hall should be ready to move within a couple of months, van Rooyen said.

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Guy van Rooyen explains the design plans for the new City Hall

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New apartments to be available soon Downtown

The mostly vacant Mutual Building will soon house fourteen market rate rental units on the second and third floors and new commercial spaces on its first floor. The city commission approved the sale of the city-owned property on Tuesday for $450,000 to the same developers who produced the posh Reserve luxury apartment building in Downtown Cincinnati.

"This is a signature building and we think we can do a fantastic job at rebuilding it," said Bill Kreutzjans of Ashley Construction which will receive $10,000 matching grants for the rehab of each residential unit.

City Commissioner Chuck Eilerman noted the history of the early twentieth century structure. It was once the home of the Covington Industrial Club, a precursor to the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Eilerman also said that the early planning for the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport also happened at the site and suggested that some sort of plaque be placed to commemorate that.

Meanwhile, one block east, the structure commonly referred to as the Doctors Building won a property tax moratorium as the Salyers Group prepares to renovate its long vacant upper two floors into a dozen apartments. The City presented the plan as a move to allow for repairs and improvements, to help eliminate blight, and to contribute to the beautification of Covington.

"This is a tremendous project," Eilerman said.

"This is another sign of real positive progress in Covington," Frank said.

"It's an amazing building," Mayor Carran said. "I'm glad it's in good hands."

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The proposed style of the redeveloped Mutual Building

College's urban campus set to expand

Gateway Community & Technical College will be making headway on the redevelopment of the first of its several buildings that will encompass its sprawling urban campus in Downtown Covington.

The city commission approved the issuance of industrial building revenue bonds in an amount not to exceed $4.4 million for the Gateway Foundation to begin work on the former Marx Furniture building. The college has approved the renderings for the architecture work required, said the school's president & CEO Dr. Ed Hughes.

"We anticipate that you will see hammers swinging and debris falling from that building within the next month," Hughes said. Students will begin taking courses there by next August.

"I'm really happy," Mayor Carran said. "That building has been vacant for some time. It's a good building, it's a solid building and I can see you guys thriving there."

The Gateway Technology & Design Center, which still has naming rights available for benevolent donors, will use all local contractors for the work.

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Artist's rendering of the Marx Building after its redevelopment

More beautification for Madison Avenue

The third phase of the Madison Avenue streetscape project will soon get underway, too.

The city commission awarded a contract worth $633,498 to Hendy, Inc. to perform the work that includes new sidewalks and curbs, brick pavers, underground utilities, decorative lighting, benches, and refuse containers. Eighty-percent of the price will be covered by federal community development block grant funds and the remainder will be covered by the city.

City engineer Mike Yeager explained that the beautification efforts will later expand all the way to Eleventh Street.

A plan in action

When the City of Covington was awarded a highly competitive grant from the Department of Housing & Urban Development to create a revitalization plan for its urban core, there were growns from the public and concern from elected officials about yet another such plan being developed.

The Center City Action Plan would be the twentieth such effort in a span of time that barely stretches beyond a decade.

However, in an attempt to boost enthusiasm over the work, the CCAP was lovingly referred to as "the plan of plans" by Denver-based Progressive Urban Management Associates which spearheaded the work that took several months to complete in 2012.

Presented in its final draft last autumn, the CCAP laid out a roadmap to bring life back to Downtown Covington. The recommendations included better use of existing infrastructure (such as placing a large, lighted Covington sign atop a railroad bridge near the Ohio River), sprucing up the city's gateways (like making the intersection of Fifth & Bakewell Streets more attractive), and boosting connectivity between blocks (putting better infill buildings between the convention center and the city's traditional Downtown blocks, for example).

Those points were reiterated Tuesday night by planning consultant Sukirti Gosh of firm MKSK. An update on progress of the plan was then presented by Assistant City Manager Larisa Sims.

"(The CCAP brought) together a lot of fragmented plans and a sense of clarity on where do we go from here," Sims said. "It identified metrics that will be important to monitor our goals."

She pointed to efforts the City has undertaken or will undertake, inspired by the CCAP or through other means. Those include more strategic recruitment and retention of businesses, filling vacant storefronts, fostering a positive business environment, improving communication and marketing efforts of the City, developing an arts initiative, improving neighborhoods through stronger code enforcement, laying out a housing strategy, implementing the community investment plan that will repair streets and sidewalks, and moving forward with Riverfront Commons and the Devou Park master plan.

"The CCAP has been, in my mind, one of our more important public plans we've put together because it is an action plan," Mayor Carran said. "It has stirred the excitement we have now. When people want to invest in the city they have an idea of what's going to be happening here."

"A Covington sign on the bridge," Commissioner Michelle Williams said, "I definitely like that."

Developers and businesses also like what they see. The city commission alluded to many more positive announcements for the urban core to be forthcoming soon.

The City of Covington will turn two hundred years old in 2015 and the candles on that birthday cake could illuminate a most exciting path into this river city's third century.

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

Photo: Streetscape work on Madison Avenue near the Mutual Building in Downtown Covington/RCN file

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