The increasing allure of the Covington riverfront’s 23 acres

Conceptual renderings of the Covington Central Riverfront site from the City’s master plan show “Block G,” where the law school and medical school would sit. Note these are NOT renderings of the future complex.

Senate unveils $150M proposal to make former IRS site the new home of Chase law school, UK med school

COVINGTON, Ky. – One magazine cover story labeled it “Covington’s Field of Dreams.”

A regional official deemed it “gigantically important for economic development of the metro region.”

And an East Coast commercial developer simply called it one of “the most exciting land redevelopment opportunities between Baltimore and New Orleans.”

Four years ago -- during the throes of COVID – the City of Covington bought a closed IRS facility on 23 acres just south of the Ohio River with a dream of transforming the City’s future.

On Wednesday, a stunning announcement from Frankfort validated both that investment and leaders’ vision.

Proposed as part of the 2024-26 state budget passed by the Kentucky Senate, a $150 million state allocation would make a corner of Covington’s 23 acres the new home to both the Salmon P. Chase College of Law and the Northern Kentucky campus of the University of Kentucky’s four-year School of Medicine.

The proposal is a game-changer on its own. But City leaders say it will also dramatically catalyze development of the rest of the site, whose many pieces are starting to come together:

  • The proposed law school-medical school complex would sit on Block G, as seen on this Central Riverfront subdivided map.
  • On Tuesday evening, the Covington Board of Commissioners will begin considering a development agreement with a builder for 16 townhomes fronting Fourth Street on the site’s “Block B.”
  • For Block O, the site’s biggest at over 2.5 acres, the City hopes to unveil a proposed commercial user in the coming weeks.
  • Also Tuesday, Commissioners will discuss an agreement with a contractor to build Phase 1 of the public infrastructure for the site, which includes about $15 million in streets, sidewalks, sewer lines, and utilities.
  • And the City is in the early stages of negotiations for uses for Blocks A, M, and N.

“We’ve been working steadily and strategically to lay the foundation for a vibrant multi-use neighborhood that will transform Covington’s future, and the arrival of Chase law school and UK’s medical school would mesh perfectly with our vision,” said Mayor Joe Meyer. “Chase was on our wish list even before we controlled the site, and we’ve been talking with officials behind the scenes for years. Thanks to the leadership of state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who led the charge for this proposal, we have a better chance of making that move happen.”

Site prep

The 23-acre site, located just west of Madison Avenue and north of Fourth Street, was home to a sprawling one-story IRS tax-processing facility for more than five decades. The facility was decommissioned in 2019, the City bought the site in 2020, and the building was demolished by O’Rourke Wrecking in 2022.

During that time, the City worked with the public and Atlanta-based consultant Cooper Carry to create a conceptual master plan for a mixed-use site seamlessly integrated into the surrounding commercial and residential districts. It also worked to address environmental concerns and with an engineering and architectural team led by KZF Design to design the so-called horizontal infrastructure of the site.

Next up: infrastructure

This winter, trucks began moving to the site some 27,000 cubic yards of fill dirt that will be used to raise the profile of the site to the height of the Ohio River floodwall.

  • Phase 1 of the horizontal infrastructure includes importing an additional 30,000 cubic yards of fill soil; laying new (separated) sanitary and storm sewer lines under the entire 23 acres; laying gas, electric, water, and communications lines; restoring the street grid between Third and Fourth streets; and building the median/public plaza space near a new Russell Street promenade.
  • Phase 2, which will be publicly bid down the line, includes the rest of the underground utilities; a parking garage below the development; a public park with views from the top of the levee; sidewalks and other “finish” amenities.
  • Phase 3 will focus on the north side of the levee wall, connecting the CCR development to the new multi-mile Riverfront Commons walk/bike trail and extending the park platform north from the levee, further improving the Ohio River views. 

To learn about the site’s history and the City’s vision and to see site plans, artist renderings, and an animated fly-through video of the neighborhood in concept, see Central Covington Riverfront.

Innovative approach

The City’s strategic approach has been innovative for several reasons, Economic Development Director Tom West said. Rather than selling the entirety of the property to one developer, the City is subdividing the site and is contracting with an array of developers to tackle the parcels.

“One of our development objectives is to create opportunities in this neighborhood for local smaller, minority, and women developers,” West said. “Their projects over the past seven or eight years have made Covington the talent attraction darling of the region. It is our hope that this announcement will give them and their funders the confidence and access to capital needed to be a part of this.”

The City wants to replace what was once a fenced-off concrete island with a connected neighborhood, said Elizabeth Wetzel, Director of Special Projects and Intergovernmental Affairs. 

“The City, along with community planning partners, has developed a site plan that accommodates and encourages development like this joint education and research facility,” Wetzel said. “We’re fostering an environment where people in our region will choose to spend time – where they easily park once, then walk or roll throughout Covington and neighboring communities on both sides of the Ohio and Licking rivers.” 

Chase College of Law and UK’s School of Medicine would bring both tangibles (jobs and people) and intangibles (energy, intellectual capital, innovation, and entrepreneurship) to the new neighborhood, West said.

“It will also help the City market the surrounding uses, whether they be more offices, commercial ventures, or housing,” he said.

Covington Vice Mayor Ron Washington, a former law enforcement officer who started a second career as an entrepreneur, during which he started and then sold a successful business, said Wednesday’s announcement gives the Covington plans instant credibility of high magnitude.

“From the standpoint of investors and entrepreneurs, this takes out the guesswork – the site is not only going to be occupied but is going to be occupied by people with high-paying jobs and expendable incomes,” Washington said. “This will attract more interest and more investment. This is a win-win for all the taxpayers of Covington, creating more resources for everyone.”

A catalyst

Kenton County’s news release about the $150 million proposal noted that it would complement the life sciences wet lab being built nearby and would build off Covington’s “emerging cluster of life sciences companies led by CTI Clinical Trial and Consulting Services, Gravity Diagnostics, and Bexion Pharmaceuticals.”

It also noted that the complex, “with nearly 600 graduate students, faculty and staff, will contribute significantly to making the city of Covington a powerhouse for entrepreneurship and innovation.”

Chase’s College of Law is currently in Highland Heights, but the new Covington location would place it within 2 miles of Greater Cincinnati’s 25 largest law firms and five federal and state courthouses.

UK’s medical school, which opened on NKU’s campus in 2019 and graduated its first class in May 2023, is a full-fledged four-year medical school with classes taught by faculty at NKU, livestreamed from UK’s Lexington campus, and taught by physicians from St. Elizabeth Healthcare.

In the wake of the Frankfort announcement, City officials stressed both that the Senate’s proposal has to survive several more steps in the legislative process and that the new complex would take time to plan and build.

“A lot of steps still need to be taken, not only for the Chase and UK School of Medicine complex but also for the entire IRS site,” City Manager Ken Smith said. “But there is no doubt that this exciting announcement would be a huge move forward.”

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