At the end of September, a longtime Covington employer, one of the largest in the city, will close, meaning the loss of about 500 jobs.
That’s the downside.
The upside is that the closing of the Internal Revenue Service processing center will present Covington with a rare opportunity to re-imagine the core of the community, create new jobs, and and reconnect residents with its urban center.
City leaders and the public are already engaged in envisioning what to make of this unique chance: more than 20 acres of developable land, on the riverfront, smack in the middle of a major metropolitan area. That’s unusual, not only in this region, but around the country.
“We’re hearing from commercial developers from the East Coast saying this is the most intriguing development opportunity between Baltimore and New Orleans,” says Covington City Manager David Johnston. “Rarely do you see a blank landscape of 23 acres in an urban environment.”
The city has engaged an architecture and design firm, Atlanta-based Cooper Carry, to create concepts for the site and in July the public had an opportunity to weigh in on the three ideas the firm has outlined.
The development process will take years and the concepts are considered “drafts” meant for further discussion and planning.
“We’re only halfway through the process,” says Cooper Carry principal Kyle Reis, its director of planning. “These concepts have been put out there to get feedback. None of them represent THE plan.”
These are the ideas on the table at the moment:
- “Green on the Levee” features a strong retail street grid oriented diagonally on the site with a gradual slope up to a massive park near the Ohio River.
- “Love the Covline” features a linear park running north-south through the site with “bridges” from building rooftops to the levee.
- “Central Green” features an elevated landscape that rises to the level of the levee in the middle of the site.
Although each is different, the three concepts have central goals in common. “Any development has to be a mixed-use development,” Johnston said.
That is, they need to have a mix of proposed uses, including office, retail, housing, and green space. Covington planners also want to create a strong physical and visual connection to the Ohio River and integrate the new development with surrounding neighborhoods and business centers.
The final plan should also contribute to creating new jobs, Johnston says.
More than 100 Covington residents and business officials attended an unveiling for the scenarios held at City Hall, with the discussion led by Cooper Carry officials.
Some of the questions that night focused on parking, which planners said will be internal to the site in all concepts. They were also asked about the height of buildings, which are conceived to be two to five stories; and the street grid, which is designed to reconnect to the surrounding streets.
The consultants were also asked about pedestrian access, and noted that all three concepts aim to make the site walkable.
Green space exists in all three scenarios, and it’s very likely that the sprawling IRS “flattop” building will eventually be demolished.
Temporary uses of the site are likely before permanent development is completed. That may include pop-up food establishments and retail shops, sporting events, and festivals.
“We want to get people used to coming to the site ... and foreshadow some of the exciting mixed uses to come,” says Tish Spearman, an associate principal with DaVinci Development Collaborative LLC, one of Cooper Carry’s team members.
The process will take some time, partly because the site is currently owned by the federal government, which must go through its process to convey the property to a new owner.
The city will need to gain development control of the site, finalize a conceptual plan for what goes on it, and then divide the project into pieces to be developed by separate companies.
Cooper Carry was selected as the design consultant partly because of its experience in working with the federal government, Johnston said.
People can still make their voices heard on the future of the site. A new online survey lets the public weigh in on the three designs.
It asks survey takers to indicate their level of support for each of the concepts and to describe specific elements of each that they like or dislike. It also asks survey takers to pick their preferred plan and for general feedback.
The 11-question survey can be found here. The survey will be available for a limited time.
“Public engagement is a critical part of the process, and it will continue to be,” Johnston says.
The design concepts were distilled after several opportunities for public feedback, including a community open house in January, 17 civic dinners hosted between January and May, two workshops hosted at The Center for Great Neighborhoods and Trinity Episcopal Church in March, a series of stakeholder interviews, and market forecasts completed by Noell Consulting Group of Atlanta.
The exact arrangements of buildings within the plans and the exact numbers proposed, such as square footage of office space, will probably change over time, Reis says. He suggested that people note which elements of the concepts they like and comment on their general look and feel.
“The marketing analysis helped create a very reasonable strategy for mixed-use development on the site,” he says. Individual buildings represent “placeholders — the plan is to have development partners come in and execute them.”
Cooper Carry will integrate the reaction and come up with what it calls “a consensus plan” to present to the Covington City Commission for approval, possibly later this year.