Vision for IRS site to take 10 months

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A 10-month process led by a global firm to create a vision for the sprawling IRS site, in a critical part of downtown, will soon be underway.

COVINGTON, Ky. - An intensive process to assess the potential of the soon-to-be vacant 23 acres that make up the IRS site, and to set a vision for developing it, will take about 10 months and get under way in earnest right after the holidays. 

That’s the end result of a contract approved by the Covington City Commission at a special meeting tonight.
 
Covington will pay the Atlanta-based global architecture and design firm Cooper Carry $444,9000 to lead the 10-month effort.
 
“This is worth every penny,” Mayor Joe Meyer said after the meeting. “It’s a rare opportunity to be available to develop such a big piece of land right next to a major riverfront in a major metro area, and we want to do this right. For the long-term future of this City, this is the single-most important challenge we’re facing.”
 
The City Commission set aside $250,000 in General Fund money in the budget in late June for the work, and the Covington Economic Development Authority recently authorized the spending of an additional $250,000 from tax money generated by recent business growth in the urban core.
 
During tonight’s meeting, commissioners questioned City Manager David Johnston about the cost and the process before voting 4-0 to approve the contract. (Commissioner Bill Wells was absent.)
 
“I don’t want to be pennywise and pound foolish,” Commissioner Tim Downing said while acknowledging the sizable investment.
 
The Commission voted 5-0 in August to negotiate a contract with Cooper Carry, one of 11 firms to answer a request for qualifications. The firm assembled a team of highly regarded consultants, including a real estate firm with extensive experience dealing with the federal government on IRS properties.
 
Johnston noted that the City used the RFQ process instead of initially seeking bids through a request for proposals process in order to ensure that it chose the most highly qualified team, which was critical given the scope of the opportunity and its value to Covington.
 
The IRS, one of Covington’s biggest employers, announced in 2016 that it would close the processing facility next fall, given the trend toward electronic tax filing, and eliminate about 1,630 jobs. The site includes a building that sprawls over 17 acres, and about 6 acres of parking.
 
The 1960s-era “Flat Top” will likely be torn down.
 
Johnston said the 10-month process will allow the City to set the vision for what the property could and should become instead of sitting back and waiting for the real estate market to make those decisions.
 
“It allows us to be pro-active on the front end instead of being reactionary, and it equips us to talk intelligently with federal officials - both our elected delegation and the General Services Administration, the government’s landlord - as conveyance decisions regarding the property are made,” Johnston said.
 
Cooper Carry’s contract outlines a four-phase process divided into its major tasks: Investigate, Illuminate, Innovate, and Implement.
 
It will end with the City owning a “Final Strategic Master Plan” that includes conceptual drawings of road layout, general building layout, land use, parks and green space, and recommendations for land use, zoning, transportation, public facilities, public sector development sites, ideal mix of uses, building masses and heights, landscape concepts, and connectivity.
 
Johnston said the City has no preconceptions for the study other than two goals: 1) Offsetting the estimated $1.2 million in payroll tax revenue that will be lost when the IRS leaves; and 2) using the site to integrate at least five different neighborhoods that it touches.
 
The site is technically called the Covington Central Riverfront District. It is bounded by West Rivercenter Boulevard to the north and Fourth Street to the south. It’s adjacent to the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, sits a block from the Ohio River and the RiverCenter complex, is just north of the Mutter Gottes neighborhood, and is several blocks east and north of MainStrasse Village.
 
Johnston said residents should pay particular attention to two parts of the process: the work on getting development of the property conveyed to the City or its partners, and an aggressive and multi-dimensional plan to gather public input. The public engagement work includes stakeholder interviews, civic dinners, and neighborhood workshops.
 
Johnston cautioned that it will be years before the site is developed, given the long process of closing the facility, mothballing the building, transferring ownership, designing a project, and actually building it.
 
Commissioner Jordan Huizenga said it was critical for the City to create clear expectations for its citizens.
 
“Even though we’re taking proactive steps, and having all these conversations over the next 10 to 12 months - and that’s fantastic - nothing’s going to be happening with that property for the next five to 10 years,” Huizenga said.
 
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