Eastern Corridor efforts win national praise

Officials from the City of Covington and The Center for Great Neighborhoods, who are partnering on the Eastern Corridor Initiative, pose with the award from the American Planning Association. The picture was taken at Covington Yard during the recent awards ceremony at which the City unveiled its new branding message and marketing vision for its economic development efforts.

APA award salutes community engagement in work to activate four neighborhoods

COVINGTON, Ky. – Efforts to “activate” four eastern neighborhoods in Covington by engaging the community have caught the attention of the nation’s largest organization of professional urban planners.

Last month in San Diego, the American Planning Association gave its 2021 Best Practices in Economic Development Award to the ongoing Eastern Corridor Initiative, a grassroots effort by the City of Covington and The Center for Great Neighborhoods (CGN) to bring new jobs, businesses, and building rehabs to the area.

The award represents independent and high-level approval of an effort built on various neighborhood plans over the last decade. Recently, the area has seen momentum, with the arrival of a new business headquarters, the redevelopment of a vacant corner business, the awarding of a national grant, and community engagement events held to promote opportunities and investment.

“To receive this type of recognition by your peers is truly humbling,” said Covington Economic Development Director Tom West. “Given that the award is from the American Planning Association, we were not sure how our idea to start implementing ideas from a variety of existing plans to achieve economic success would be viewed.”

West, who received the award on behalf of the City and CGN at the APA conference in California, said that what resonated with the APA was not only tangible successes – like the arrival of M&M Service Station Equipment Specialist headquarters to the corridor and the redevelopment of an historic shell into Bean Haus II – but also how the City is working with the community instead of forcing changes on it.

“I think they also appreciated our neighborhood engagement and approach to upgrading the neighborhoods for existing residents versus gentrifying the area for new residents,” West said.

Engaged for activation

Last summer and fall, West and members of his team and CGN engaged residents in a series of community events – family picnics, movie nights, in-person discussions and surveys – as part of an activation plan.

The goal was to invite thoughtful conversations within the community about the best ways to bring energy, jobs, and opportunities to the Eastern Corridor. The area includes all or part of four neighborhoods – Austinburg, Eastside, Helentown, and Wallace Woods – and is loosely bordered by Bush Street to the north, 21st Street to the south, Madison Avenue to the west, and the Licking River to the east.

Parts of the area have long struggled to overcome challenges related to poverty, low property values, low rates of home ownership, vacant commercial buildings, and high demand for police service. A new zoning ordinance that was adopted in 2020 became the impetus for addressing those issues and spur impactful changes to the neighborhoods.

Zoned for impact

For decades, the City’s approach to land use employed a rigid zoning ordinance that failed to appreciate and actually negated the importance of these corner hubs. The ordinance separated the city into parcels of land based on a single, allowed “use.” Falling within what’s called a Euclidean-based code, the old zoning prohibited commercial use in such areas as the Eastern Corridor, stripping away what West has said makes neighborhoods great. The result was that once-vibrant buildings on neighborhood street corners were shuttered.

In 2020, the City replaced that rigid zoning ordinance with a much more flexible and user-friendly Neighborhood Development Code, or NDC. The NDC guides proposed development by considering the “look” and “feel” of surrounding buildings and incorporating historic preservation principles to pay tribute to the unique character of each of Covington’s neighborhoods. Architects, developers, and rehabbers have praised the new code’s ease, efficiency, and innovation.

Revitalizing the old St. E

In May, CGN and the City received a $100,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment of the Arts for the Eastern Arts and Creative Enterprise Project. It’s one of only 51 grants nationwide that the NEA approved in that category, which is designed to integrate arts, culture, and design into local efforts that strengthen communities.

The grant will be used to reimagine and activate some of the outdoor area and exterior of the parking garage of the former St. Elizabeth Hospital on East 20th Street. The complex, the largest commercial building in the Eastern Corridor area, was once a busy and vital part of that community but now is largely vacant. CGN will hire local artists to work alongside residents and businesses to reimagine future uses for the historic building while also creating interest in how this building could be developed.

“This building is important to the community on many levels, both physically and emotionally – a lot of people were born there, so they care about what happens to it,” Sarah Allan, the City’s Assistant Director of Economic Development. “Art can elicit creative responses, and we want to look at this building with new eyes, both to discover what it could look like and what it could be. We don’t want to box ourselves in with just one specific use. It’s big enough to be many things.”

CGN will lead the project, while the City will provide staff support.

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