THE RIVER CITY NEWS MORE COVINGTON NEWS THAN ANY OTHER SOURCE
by Michael Monks
The so-called "plan of plans" to lead Covington's urban core back down a path of revitalization has arrived at City Hall and The River City News has scored a copy just before its expected online release to the public. The Covington Center City Action Plan (CCCAP) was financed by a 2010 grant awarded to the city in 2010 by the US Department of Housing & Urban Development (42 cities nationwide were awarded the Community Challenge Planning Grant). The city selected Denver-based Progressive Urban Management Associates to lead the plan's development and over the past eight months PUMA has delved into the challenges Covington faces and how best to ignite a lightning bolt of development activity in the urban core.
The plan focuses on three key initiatives: a strong economy, an inviting public realm, and strong neighborhoods. In this first of three reports, the focus will be on the first part, a strong economy. The other two elements will be detailed in follow-up reports Thursday.
COVINGTON HAS A STRONG BASE FROM WHICH TO GROW
Throughout the planning process it was clear that Covington is not a blank canvas; in fact, the PUMA team built its plan around three strong areas in the city that could serve as a catalyst for development around them and elsewhere: Mainstrasse, the riverfront, and several blocks along the Madison Avenue corridor (which includes parts of Scott Boulevard and the Gateway College Urban Campus for the purposes of the report). PUMA notes that the NKY Convention Center sees 300,000 annual visitors, 400,000 people visit Mainstrasse each year, and the Covington branch of the Kenton County Library welcomes 390,000 people annually.
While the CCCAP focuses first on those three areas there are two other potential areas of development in the near future. PUMA envisions a cultural campus around the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption and Covington Latin School where Madison Avenue meets Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in a newly redesigned intersection. To the west on MLK Boulevard is another area where the new Saint Elizabeth Hospital has opened and where the former Jillian's site in the old Bavarian Brewery building sits vacant. The redesigned Brent Spence Bridge plans could make MLK Boulevard one of the prime gateways into the city.
The plan calls on the city to build upon the center city's niche of innovation and incubation through providing incentives, business support and technical assistance to new
and existing businesses. Those steps could include permit and regulatory help, market information, maintaining an inventory of available commercial space, business planning, and merchandising. Incentives could include providing working capital for innovative and creative business concepts, low/no interest loans and grants, funding for tenant finish, working with landlords to develop contract or lease relief for businesses that generate a certain kind or number of jobs and provide a desirable service or product, and Providing incentives for light manufacturing, creative pursuits and residential uses on upper floors of currently underutilized buildings in Center City.
PUMA suggests that there be a physical location in which all of this information is readily available.
The CCCAP suggests marketing Center City as a center of innovation to University students throughout the region including Gateway Community and Technical College, University of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky University and to strive to attract and keep young talent in Covington by promoting its quality of life, amenities and affordable real estate. The plan recommends that the city work with hotels to ensure that literature and brochure in lobbies and rooms let visitors know that they are not just in Greater Cincinnati, but specifically in Covington. The plan suggests the creation of a map identifying all that is offered within the center city.
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PUMA conducted a review of Covington's zoning codes and has returned with recommendations on how to make properties more accessible to more people and potential businesses. Those include:
- Adjust code regulations to enable implementation of mixed use buildings
- Enable conversion of existing commercial structures to mixed use or multifamily apartments by adding an adaptive reuse provision that waives transparency requirements of subsection 3.05.02 and the 30-foot required rear setback for residential floors in section 3.04.
- Allow adaptive reuse of some existing residential structures to commercial use in Mainstrasse by adding a wider range of structure types, with location restrictions, to the standard for Neighborhood Retail Sales and Service.
- Allow for more neighborhood retail and services by revising the definition and use standards.
- Rezone the ART district to CBD and consider converting ART to an incentives-based overlay.
- Add a use regulation to prevent addiction clinics being located adjacent to established single family residences
STRATEGIES FOR THRIVING RETAIL
PUMA's report suggests that Mainstrasse Village continue and bolster its reputation for up-market restaurants and bars, that the RiverCenter complex maintain worker-oriented conveniences such as quick-service food and drink, and that the blocks along Madison Avenue between 5th & 8th Streets capitalize on the presence of the Madison Theater to attract a "hipster", alternative-themed, and student crowd. In the immediate future, PUMA says, new retail space should only be added in those Center City sub-districts where justified by current and/or future tenant demand and rental dynamics. Suggested areas of focus include development sites at Main Street and 5th Street and on Madison Avenue between 3rd and 5th Streets.
Also, PUMA says, the city should strive for a retail mix in Center City that reflects and reinforces Covington’s cultural and socio-economic diversity, including the retention and upgrading of “purpose-serving” businesses geared toward serving low and
moderate income populations. Other recommendations: the city should create and maintain a retail database of current vacancies and soon-toexpire leases in Center City, for use in directing prospective tenants to available spaces; Identify and pursue established regional and local “chain-lets” which can add to the character to Center City and Covington but also provide a reassuring track record to landlords/lenders; Base parking policy in Center City on consumer expectations, as established by relevant competitors, rather than city revenue potential or
individual merchant; And work with the police department to improve safety perceptions.
ACTIVATE DEVELOPMENT POTENTIAL
In the plan, PUMA writes, "There are many parcels throughout Center City that are currently surface parking lots, drive-throughs and other auto-focused, low density uses. Vacant upper stories of buildings are prime opportunities for office, light manufacturing, service and residential uses."
- Identify underutilized parcels in Center City and prioritize those parcels that have the biggest catalytic potential to bring new vitality to Center City.
- Begin communication with property owners and developers whose collaborative efforts will be critical for redeveloping underutilized sites.
- Encourage upper floor commercial and/or residential tenancy in underutilized buildings; address code issues and other impediments to upper floor usage.
PUMA's analysis of the parking situation in Downtown Covington and Mainstrasse was presented previously during the firm's visits to town and was done concurrently with a parking survey conducted by the city. PUMA recommends several changes to Covington's parking strategies that include residential permits and the installation of parking meters in some areas:
- Evaluate time limit maximums for meters in Center City areas.
- Provide a “fifteen minute free” option on meters throughout Center City and a “first hour free” approach in City-managed lots (capturing lost revenue in the subsequent hours).
- In a collaborative effort between the City and the Mainstrasse Village Association, a strategy should include providing hang-tags for residents and employees and the installation of parking meters on Main Street between 5th & 9th Streets and from Philadelphia Street to the railroad tracks