Improving downtown’s look, feel & function

A collaborative effort is creating new public design standards for Madison Avenue and areas across downtown Covington.

COVINGTON, Ky. - The Covington City Commission tonight authorized staff to “prepare applicable legislation to effectuate the adoption of the proposed downtown streetscape and public realm design standards.”

As orders go, that one doesn’t say much. But behind that language is a critical idea: The City wants to bring order and consistency to the numerous and disparate group of elements that determine both how its downtown looks and how it functions.
Some examples provide clarity: 
  • Should Covington’s sidewalks contain planters, benches, garbage cans, and trees, and - if so - what should they look like and where should they be located? 
  • What can be done to mitigate the impact of utility infrastructure, yet encourage implementation of “smart technologies” like fiber-optic and WiFi distribution? 
  • How can public and private entities work together to invest in infrastructure that strengthens and preserves the unique identities of areas of Covington like MainStrasse Village, the riverfront, and the Roebling Point District? 
  • How can those areas of the City be better connected via way-finding infrastructure? 
The answers to questions like these collectively make up what’s called “Downtown Streetscape and Public Realm Design.”
The problem is that Covington doesn’t have an updated, comprehensive set of design standards to guide decisions, policy, and investments related to its downtown (the last comprehensive look, in 2004, was never adopted).
Tonight’s vote was part of the process in creating those standards.
“We need consistency and cohesiveness that both reflects the existing reality and fills in the holes and blanks so we don’t have to create new standards to guide decisions every time a proposed new development comes in,” Economic Development Director Tom West said. “So the goal is to create a neater, cleaner, more effective design for downtown Covington.”
For the past five months, City department heads and subject matter experts have been meeting with stakeholder groups to create standards that will both establish consistency and help the City react to new technology and trends in transportation and communication.
A week ago, on Oct. 2, the City Commission heard a presentation on a 136-page draft document from Pat Frew, executive director of the Covington Business Council, which has been shepherding the process with the help of MKSK Studios, a landscape architecture/urban design/planning firm.
The initiative is funded by the Carol Anne and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation, meetNKY, Southbank Partners, and the Business Council.
With its vote tonight, the City Commission directed the City’s economic development and legal staff to take steps to prepare legislation so that guidelines in the draft document can be adopted. This will likely take several weeks.
“All these guidelines might seem like a lot of in-the-weeds details, but they’re going to have a large impact on how the City looks going forward,” Mayor Joe Meyer said. “Plus, the collaborative process that brought together so many different groups and people just deepened the relationships we need to accelerate Covington’s momentum.”
An array of stakeholder meetings facilitated by MKSK to discuss the streetscape standards brought together dozens of people from City Hall and groups like the Catalytic Fund, bike advocacy groups, Renaissance Covington, and the Center for Great Neighborhoods, as well as property owners, developers, and business owners.
A smaller advisory committee met several times to review existing plans that affected the public streetscape, for projects as varied as the Licking River Greenway, Duveneck Square, and 501 Main. It also reviewed the physical characteristics of the existing downtown environment put together by MKSK.
The public realm
So what are all the characteristics that contribute to the public environment?
Here’s a list, and it’s longer than you’d think:
Sidewalks, decorative pavers, benches, container planters, bike infrastructure, street lights, outdoor seating, parking kiosks, overhead utilities, crosswalks and signal infrastructure, curb and sidewalk utility infrastructure (such as storm drains and access covers for telecommunications wires), right-of-way configuration, on-street service and loading areas, street trees, bio-retention planters, wayfinding and signage, and public art.
The 136-page draft lays out guidelines for these amenities, as well as standards for specific geographic areas, including some neighborhoods and streets.
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