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City Shoots Down 72-Unit Ludlow Yards Development

Of the Northern Kentucky riverfront cities of Covington, Newport, Bellevue, Dayton, and Ludlow, only one is without one or more major apartment projects underway.

After a unanimous vote by the city council, Ludlow will remain the sole river city without such a project, with public mood and the vote of council indicating that something better and worth waiting for could come down the road.

With only Mayor Ken Wynn, who only votes to break ties among the council, in support, the long-discussed Ludlow Yards project was unanimously voted down during a special meeting Monday night.

"We didn't give this a fair shake. It's unfortunate it happened this way," Wynn said after the meeting. "We should have gone through the process. I don't think we will attract another developer. Who will want to work with us down here?"

There had appeared to be at least some support for the project on council but after a second meeting at the city building in which the feedback was nearly all in opposition, with the only support tepid at best, members of council voiced why they voted against it.

"I came in here tonight thinking I knew how I was going to vote, in support of the agreement," said Councilman Jordan Scheid, "but I think we as council people have to put our opinion on a project aside when it's evident the community at large is against a project."

"This has been pushed forward quickly due to restrictions on financing," said Councilman Bill Whiteley. "Some of the financing they need is based on the size or density or non-market value of the apartments. I cannot honestly say I agree with the size or type of apartments that are going to be put in."

Philadelphia-based Pennrose was seeking approval of a needed developer agreement with the city in order to move forward with its plans for the $13 million, 72-unit, 3-story mixed-use project. While its much criticized modern design was negotiable, the company faced deadlines to pursue financing obligations, particularly as they relate to affordable housing tax credits.

Roughly 70 percent of the units would be reserved for tenants with income limitations.

The contemporary aesthetic, the 30-year term for the affordable housing requirements, and concerns about parking dominated the comments from opponents of the project.

At a meeting a week and a half ago, the project was met with a chilly reception from the public.

On Monday, Pennrose representatives did not speak before the vote was taken, though members of the public reiterated their distaste for Ludlow Yards as presented.

The panning of the project was echoed by members of council.

"My real concern is, do we need a 72-unit affordable housing project at the gateway to the city? And my answer to that is, no, we don't," said Councilman Tom Amann. "I don't think a 72-unit low-income housing project is going to attract people to Ludlow."

Amann also questioned why a traffic study had not been conducted for Elm Street since the proposed site is filled with cars during rush hour, suggesting that it would be difficult to make left turns from the new complex on to Elm Street at such times, also causing problems for pedestrians who would be parked in the municipal lot across the street.

Councilman Matt Williams said that his shop, Folk School Coffee Parlor, saw an influx of customers in recent days wanting to discuss the project, with nearly all in opposition. He cited the scope of the proposed project, parking issues, and limited engagement of city officials and the public as among the most frequently expressed concerns.

"I've not heard one person say they love the project," Williams said.

Councilman Josh Boone applauded the community for engaging on design issues. But a bigger issue, he said, would be the restricted units.

"The larger concern should be the restricted rent. The majority of the units are going to be restricted for thirty years," Boone said. "That would be my concern with it."

After the meeting, Lasserre Bradley, the Cincinnati-based regional vice president of Midwest development for Pennrose, said that he respects the process. 
"We feel like the community came out and spoke and I think the council members listened to their constituents and that's the way the process is supposed to work," Bradley said. "I wish we could have maybe had a little more opportunity to have more community engagement and we were up against some deadlines relative to the funding strategy we were working towards, and so we were trying to really get to the starting gate in a sense."
Ludlow Yards was first conceived as an opportunity for the large, empty city-owned lot on Elm Street across from the city building and municipal lot, and the new train viewing station that was installed there, in October of 2016. A sprawling brick building with a nod to Ludlow's industrial historic past was released with the news, drawn up by Covington-based Hub + Weber architects, who were not involved in the Pennrose development. Though that rendering was mostly well-received, Bradley explained at an earlier meeting that a fully brick building would have been cost-prohibitive.
The Philadelphia-based firm was selected as the preferred developer following a special committee's recommendation nearly a year ago. 
Prior to Monday's meeting, Mayor Wynn and City Administrator Elishia Chamberlin distributed packets of information about the process and the project, hoping to correct what Wynn called "misconceptions" about the project, and to illustrate a timeline of events.
Bradley said that the "vision rendering" created by Hub + Weber served its purpose. "I think the challenge was going to be to translate from something that was very visionary to something that was practical and able to be implemented," Bradley said.
He added that the project may not be completely dead.
"In all honesty, I feel premature to say it's the end. I'd like to regroup with my team and see what our options are," Bradley said. "It definitely puts us off track regarding a couple of applications we were working on."
The Catalytic Fund, which has been involved in the financial structuring for many high-profile residential and commercial developments in the Northern Kentucky river cities, was also involved in helping Ludlow select Pennrose. Its president and CEO, Jeanne Schroer, attended Monday's meeting.
"We are here to help execute projects that the community wants, so that's our goal. It's got to be something that the community supports," Schroer said. "Our involvement was simply to run a process to attract various developers and this particular developer was the one chosen by the committee.
"If this were something to go forward, we would have wanted to be involved in its execution."
But for now, there is nothing to go forward. Some members of council and the public instead asked for a greater focus on projects already underway and an improvement on other city services such as code enforcement and street cleanliness as methods to attract growth.
"Council has the ultimate decision on this," Wynn said. "I still think the concept is good. We've talked about this, we've engaged about this, we discussed this at numerous council meetings where no one ever came. We hired the Catalytic Fund, we went through the process, had a committee formed, and then picked a developer. I understand your concerns, but I'm just saying this has been up to the board, everyone has been informed, and I respect council's decision. They have the ultimate say.
"I still think this could have encouraged more development in our community and I just think this is going to hinder our growth in the future."
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher