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Ft. Mitchell Will Again Weigh Whether Apartments are Best Use for Site

A more than-twelve-acre site on Grandview Drive in Ft. Mitchell is once again targeted for a type of development that the city officially does not want.

Woda Cooper Development hopes to construct a four-story building with 88 units of senior housing on land that more than a decade was hoped to be home to commercial space, a second phase of the existing office use nearby.

But Mike Kegley, whose 260 Grandview Drive company developed that first phase, has watched the Great Recession and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic, disrupt demand for such use.

The 12.19-acre site east of Beechwood Road is zoned as single-family residential and professional office. 

Woda Cooper and Kegley are seeking a map amendment to change the site to multi-family residential zoning.

By a vote of 13 to 1, the Kenton County Planning Commission adopted a favorable recommendation.

Now the issue is headed to the Ft. Mitchell city council for official consideration, but when is uncertain.

"We are in full budget mode right now and we usually have our two budget readings in the June meetings. So I’m not sure if it will be in June or after," City Administrator Edwin King told RCN in an email.

Site was targeted for apartment development in 2019

The site is familiar to city council.

In 2019, following an 11-2 favorable recommendation from the planning commission, city council unanimously rejected a proposal from developers Paul Darpel and David Noll to construct more than 100 market-rate 1- and 2-bedroom units.

The plan received sustained pushback from Beechwood Independent Schools families who feared that the new housing would lead to an influx of potential new students in a district that they contend is already overcrowded.

Unlike two years ago, though, this time around members of the planning commission spoke even more passionately in favor of the current proposal for senior housing, citing lessons learned during the pandemic, which forced so many people to work from home, and companies to reconsider their commercial space usage.

"I think the pandemic is a major change of physical and social nature," said planning commission member Gailen Bridges during the commission's meeting earlier in May. The meeting was held virtually. "Office space is dying. If you do any reading, urban areas, they are going to convert office towers into condos. What percentage of people who are working from home will continue to work from home? Office space is going to be shrinking and definitely not expanding.

"To have someone unable to sell office space in the last ten years, they are not going to sell it now."

But the city so far has remained optimistic that commercial opportunities will emerge for the site. The city, like others in Kenton County, is working to update its zoning code as part of the Z21 Modernization developed at Planning & Development Services of Kenton Co. (PDS).

"I will say that in our plans, thus far we do not have that zoned as residential as part of the Z21 modernization," King, the city administrator, said during the planning commission meeting.

Cliff Ashburner, an attorney at Dinsmore who is representing Woda Cooper, challenged the city.

"There is a glut of office space in the area at this point," Ashburner said. "What does the city have planned to go ahead an utilize some of that office space as opposed to it just sitting right now?

"We already have a business interested in moving into Ft. Mitchell and that will bring office jobs in the city," King responded, likely referencing a prospective office user that so far has been anonymous as it courts tax incentives in the city and in Ohio. 

Ashburner said that that was speculative and not very defined.

He said that Kegley, the current owner of the land, offered an argument "backed up with hard evidence with office vacancy."

Kegley's office condo park was finished in 2008 with twelve units, three of which have been sold and nine of which have been leased.

"I never received any indication a need for more," he said. "The remaining land has been up for sale for ten years.

"The big shift to remote working has made ghost towns out of office buildings, making office owners worried about upcoming lease renewals."

Kegley said that there is more than 240,000 square feet of office space available within two-and-a-half miles of the site.

"That number doesn't even include the construction eventually going to occur at the Drawbridge property," Kegley said, referencing the former hotel site that is set to be developed. Specific plans about what that might look like remain unknown.

Ashburner, the attorney, also offered an argument that was presented by the previous prospective developers in 2019: the site has poor visibility and is not a good commercial location.

"Mr. Kegley developed the first building in 2008 and the second building never happened, a 13-year window that didn't have anything to do with COVID," Ashburner said. "The problem had to do more with visibility of the property.

"The market has spoken and indicated that office is not appropriate."

Mitchell's Crossing would fill a need in community, developer says

Ashburner argued that his client, Woda Cooper, would, if awarded the zone change, be able to use the development to act as a transition between zoning uses: multifamily to the north, office and commercial to the south.

"Having another slightly different form of multifamily in that mix, I think, is an appropriate land use in keeping with the type of buildings and types of uses of the surrounding subject properties," he said.

The project is called Mitchell's Crossing and would include 2-bedroom units under 900 square feet and 1-bedroom units under 700 square feet.

"We have had really good success with this design," said Dan Grimm, a Louisville-based architect working with Woda Cooper.

The project would include a number of amenities, he said, including an on-site rental office, laundry, a craft room, exercise room, a community room with a kitchenette, and would be designed with exterior brick and a cast stone veneer. 

The site would be surrounded by trees with walking trails and include 152 off-street parking spaces.

Tammy Stansbury, vice president of development at Woda Cooper, which has seventeen projects across Kentucky, including in Walton and Hebron, said that the company would be applying for housing credits to support the project.

She said that with those tax credits, should they be awarded by the Kentucky Housing Corporation, would mandate that the apartments be restricted as senior housing for thirty years.

The company owns more than 350 properties across the country, 83 of which are senior housing, she said.

The tax credits help keep the rental costs lower for the targeted senior tenants, Stansbury said.

The one-bedroom units would rent for $740 per month while the two-bedroom would be $880, she said. Stansbury said that market rents for such units not restricted to seniors would go for $962 and $1,154.

"You can see that a senior individual living on a pension, Social Security, or maybe working part-time, that's not a lot of money for them to pay just to live in a facility," she said. 

Stansbury noted that there are no senior housing opportunities in Ft. Mitchell with most local residential options located in Florence or Covington.

"So, individuals who no longer have means to maintain their home, or they don't want to, they would have to move to Covington or Florence," Stansbury argued. "(Mitchell's Crossing) allows them to maintain their residence in Ft. Mitchell, close to their family and their grandchildren and the community they've grown up with."

The argument resonated with some on the planning commission.

"I do personally know of several people, older people, that have left the City of Ft. Mitchell because they couldn't take care of their homes and there is absolutely no senior housing in Ft. Mitchell to speak of," said commissioner Jeff Bethell, an appointee to the commission by the City of Ft. Mitchell. "Those people regretted leaving almost a lifetime resident of this city. They just couldn't find any place to live in the City of Ft. Mitchell that took older people.

"I think the idea of senior housing, as long as it is kept up very well, and this is senior housing for the thirty years anyway, I think that there have been some changes of an economic and social nature to cause us to think of the (current office) zoning as inappropriate at this time. If the city disagrees, they will certainly let that be known."

Planning commissioner Todd Berling agreed. "This is a good fit for the shape of the lot and affordable housing," he said. "Senior housing is a much needed element in our community."

While PDS staff recommended disapproval of the map amendment, the planning commission approved it 13-1 with member Margo Baumgardner as the lone dissenter. 

Paul Darpel, who was part of the team that proposed a market-rate apartment development in 2019, is chairman of the planning commission, but recused himself from the meeting due to his previous connection to the site in question.

The planning commission is simply a recommending body for cities in the county. Local governments, in most cases, take final action on proposed zoning changes.

-Michael Monks, editor & publisher

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