200 turn out for IRS site open house

Attendees at the open house for the IRS site’s future check out a map showing traffic counts around the 23-acre Covington complex.

COVINGTON, Ky. - They came dressed in high heels, hiking boots, and clerical collars, and they had plenty of ideas. 

“They” were the nearly 200 people who attended the kick-off of the public conversation that Covington has started to discuss the future of 23 acres downtown that eventually will become available after the IRS shutters its processing facility.
By the end of the night, sticky notes attached to poster boards described a wide array of suggestions as to both what should go on the site and how the site should look:
Parks and green space. ... A plaza that could serve as a town center. ... Lots of small buildings and retail shops, similar to MainStrasse Village. ... A pedestrian connection to the nearby Ohio River. ... Entertainment. ... Water features. ... Businesses that create thousands of jobs to replace those that will be lost. ... Expansion of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center.
As for appearance, the suggestions there were varied as well, with notes calling for:
Buildings no higher than four floors. ... Diverse design aesthetics. ... Buildings that complement the older architecture downtown.
The 2½-hour open house occurred at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center last Thursday. Its purpose was to explain how residents and other stakeholders can get involved over the next few months in a process that will yield a conceptual master plan for the site and a strategy for getting development control from the federal government.
The event began with a “welcome” from Covington City Manager David Johnston and a short presentation by Kyle Reis, director of planning for Atlanta-based Cooper Carry, the global architecture and design firm hired by Covington to lead the process.
Reis stressed that consultants and the City were starting from scratch.
“This is 23 acres in the middle of the City that (currently) has no vision outside of a 50-year-old IRS site,” he said. “It’s been a hole in the urban landscape for 50 years.”
He introduced the team of experts and consultants that Cooper Carry has assembled for the 10-month study and described the four, somewhat simultaneous phases of the process: Investigate. Illuminate. Innovate. Implement.
The “Illuminate” phase will include a series of opportunities for the public to get involved. Already Cooper Carry has begun interviews with businesses, public officials, organizations, and other Covington stakeholders.
Residents will also be able to participate in on-line surveys, neighborhood workshops called “charrettes,” and a series of “civic dinners,” where organizations and individuals will host small gatherings of people for thoughtful, focused, and low-key discussions about the site.
(Watch the City of Covington’s communications for more information about those future events.)
Reis answered audience questions related to the federal government’s plans for the site, the future demolition of the IRS complex, whether the site would be developed by one company or several, and other issues.
He then invited attendees of the open house to walk around and visit six stations dedicated to various issues and themes related to the IRS and the 10-month study, including transportation and the federal government’s ownership of the site. People were able to ask questions of the consultants and, at some cases, offer their opinions about the future of the site.
Both Johnston and Reis said they were impressed with the turnout but also equally hopeful that many more people would weigh in as the process continues.
“If we don’t engage people, then plans really don’t matter,” Reis said.
Attendees posted dozens of their suggestions for the site, along with “inspirational” photos from a pile of potential design looks.
About the site
The IRS, one of Covington’s biggest employers, announced in 2016 that it would close its processing facility in fall 2019 and eliminate about 1,600 jobs. The sprawling, one-story building itself takes up about 17 acres, with parking on an additional 6 acres. The complex is controlled by the federal General Services Administration.
Johnston, who said the 1960s-era “Flat Top” would likely be torn down, said the City has no preconceived notions of what should go on the irregularly shaped site, which is bound by West Third Street, West RiverCenter Boulevard and Washington Street to the north; Madison Avenue to the east; West Fourth Street to the south; and the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge ramp and Johnson Street to the west.
But it’s mindful of 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 the widely different neighborhoods and districts that it touches.
The site is adjacent to the Northern Kentucky Convention Center and sits across the street from the Ohio River floodwall. It’s also within a few blocks of numerous key Covington areas, including the RiverCenter complex, the Madison Avenue business and dining and drinking district, the hotel district near Interstate 75, MainStrasse Village tourist area, the Roebling Point Business District, and the Old Town/Mutter Gottes neighborhood.
City officials said it will take years to develop a plan and bring it to fruition.
Photos of developments and features in other cities gave attendees some “inspirational” samples to approximate what they hope the IRS site looks like one day.
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