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Visions for Covington's IRS Site Revealed

The process of figuring out the best possible use for the soon-to-be vacant Internal Revenue Service site in Covington is at a halfway point, with the reveal of three potential development plans on Thursday night at City Hall.

The concepts were derived after months of public meetings and gatherings where citizens and stakeholders offered feedback on ideas for best uses.

Atlanta-based Cooper Carry was contracted by the City of Covington to facilitate the process which is complicated by the fact that the city does not have control of the site yet. It is still owned by the federal government.

The IRS is vacating the site in September after nearly fifty years of operation there.

Nearly 2,000 workers were employed at the site when the announcement was made in 2016. It is unclear how many jobs will ultimately be lost, with the number varying from the hundreds to more than a thousand. Some workers will be relocated to the Gateway building across Madison Avenue from the IRS's so-called flat-top building, which along with its parking lots sprawls across twenty-three acres. Others will be moved to a Florence office.

The city is hopeful of gaining control of the site to open it up to development.

"It's an exciting time for Covington and I think you will be amazed with the ideas that you have shared and how the consultants have taken it and put it through their machinations and came out with visual ideas for discussion," City Manager David Johnston said to start the public presentation on Thursday. "We are half way through the process. There is more to come, but this is an important time to show how ideas become visual statements for further discussion and maybe awaken more imagination in all of you."

Kyle Reis, the director of planning at Cooper Carry, said that the plans were derived from "the realities of the market." He explained that the goals were to develop a "viable conveyance plan for the site", in addition to creating a plan that sparks job creation and increased revenue in a diversified economy for the city. Further, the consultants focused on mixed-use developments with offices, commercial spaces, and residential units, combined with outdoor spaces that better connect the site to the street grid and the riverfront.

Reis noted that through the public feedback portion of the preparations, walking was revealed to be the preferred mode to get to and around the site. Green space, parks, connections, retail, and access to the riverfront were also prioritized by the public that participated.

"What we are seeing from the community, connection to green space became important," said Nicole Robinson, a senior associate at Cooper Carry. "This helped inform what became the guiding principles: connect, stimulate, and activate."

The choices

Reis presented the three options created for Thursday's presentation, each with its own name. A sub-contractor, Noell Consulting Group, performed an economic analysis of the site and found that through 2027, the site could support 175,000 square feet in office space, 200 to 225 hotel rooms, 70 to 80,000 suare feet in retail space, 650 apartment units, and 30 to 50 homes for purchase.

"Those numbers are a very reasonable development for a mixed-use strategy on this specific site," Reis said.

With that in mind, the first option presented was dubbed "Green on the Levee".

This rendering emphasized a physical connection through the site from Mainstrasse Village to the central business district. Currently, the IRS site cuts off Third Street and a metal fence prevents walk-throughs by non-employees.

The option presents the largest amount of greenspace, and connects Rivercenter Boulevard to Johnson Street, and Third Street to Russell Street. It leaves open the possibility of a new City Hall for Covington, which is looking for a permanent home. It currently rents its building on Pike Street.

90,000 square feet of retail space could be accommodated along with 82,000 square feet for offices, 316 hotel rooms, 308 residential units, and a 14,000-sq. ft. City Hall.

Reis said that with plans for an expansion of the nearby convention center, the site could also support a new hotel with this plan.

"Love the Covline" was the second option presented.

This space would also reconnect Third Street, offer an opportunity for a new City Hall, and create a riverfront park.

 

It would accommodate 98,000 square feet of retail, 76,500 square feet of office space, 313 hotel rooms, 431 residential units, and a 9,000-sq. ft. City Hall.

"Central Green", the third option, places green space more in the central part of the possible development. It proposes a park and plaza on the riverfront. 

This option would fit 92.000 square feet of retail, 108,000 square feet for offices, 290 hotel rooms, and 297 residential units.

John Wiley, a project manager for transportation projects at Woolpert Engineering, said that reconnecting the grid is the best way to accommodate vehicular traffic and other modes of transportation.

"We heard (from the public), don't have adjacent neighborhoods act as parking for this site," Wiley said. "We try to keep parking and traffic on site."

He explained that currently, there is mainly heavy traffic during arrival and departure of IRS workers but with a mixed-use development that traffic volume would be steadier throughout the day. He said a more connected site from within would improve traffic circulation and offer more options for travelers in cars, on bikes, or on foot.

While Cooper Carry continues its work and the city maintains its effort to land control of the site, Tish Spearman, an associate principal with DaVinci Development Collaborative, also out of Atlanta, said there are opportunities to draw crowds and interest to the IRS site even before or as construction begins.

She said there was a chance to "introduce a community to this site as somewhere special" through "temporary uses that can connect the site, activate it, and stimulate it."

"Easy and low-hanging fruits are festivals or sporting events or fairs or Cirque du Soleil," she said. "What a way to get people used to coming to the site and generate excitement. You've got such a great and vibrant culture of wonderful restaurants and breweries and wonderful retailers." She suggested pop-up retail or food trucks, too.

"This will draw people to the site as a destination and foreshadow some of the exciting mixed uses to come."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher