As new buildings dot the Northern Ky. hillsides, developers hope to avoid mistakes of Ohio neighbors

'It's very specialized'

COVINGTON, Ky. -- Living among Cincinnati's sprawling seven hills, it's easy to forget that jaw-dropping views of the skyline and river valley aren't something you can find just anywhere.

Neighborhoods like Mount Adams and East Walnut Hills have long capitalized on our region's vista-friendly geography, and that trend that has crossed the river in recent decades. Hillside developments now dot each of Northern Kentucky's six riverfront cities.

Now, forthcoming projects will venture south to include a new Planet Fitness on the hilltop land overlooking Walmart and KY 17 in Fort Wright, as well as plans to develop the former Gateway Community & Technical College hillside property on the border between Park Hills and Covington.

Brian Miller, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Northern Kentucky.

"We do have a unique opportunity here to offer residents a chance to enjoy great views," said Brian Miller, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Northern Kentucky, which represents more than 700 companies and employs over 10,000 people locally. "If you go down to Jefferson County, you don't really see these hillsides overlooking the city. Nothing like what we have here."

But although hillside development is enjoying its day in the sun, it's still a building option reserved for those residents who can afford it.

"It's very specialized and it's not inexpensive," said Miller, who explained that perching a home on the side of a hill involves "tiering," or drilling metal shafts down into the hillside, as well as additional materials to ensure structural stability.

In managing this growing trend, Northern Kentucky planning officials have long relied on advice from neighbors to the north, particularly Cincinnati's Hillside Trust, whose stated mission is "accomplished through research and education, land conservation, and advocacy of responsible land use serving Cincinnati and Hamilton County, along with the surrounding counties of Clermont, Campbell, Kenton, and Boone," according to the agency's website.

Hillside Trust executive director Eric Russo.

"Cincinnati has learned from a lot of mistakes in hillside development over the last several decades," said Hillside Trust executive director Eric Russo, citing the city's more than 25 miles of hillside retaining walls as evidence of efforts to rectify infrastructural missteps made in generations past.

"As a prime example, when Columbia Road was converted to Columbia Parkway back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the conventional wisdom at that time was to cut into the hillside and dump the cut material downhill," said Russo. "That's a mistake we're still paying the price for almost a century later. At the time, we didn't realize that it would have long-term implications."

Russo said the Hillside Trust maintains good relationships with several Northern Kentucky planning commissions and in the late 1990s even received special advisory status to weigh in on matters regarding hillside developments in Kenton County.

"We have oftentimes suggested a project be scaled back because of the sheer volume, or that they make some adjustments or modifications to a certain plan," said Russo. "They know we're trying to work with them so they can ensure a safer development."

Andy Videkovich of Planning and Development Services of Kenton County cited a countywide comprehensive plan, called Direction 2030, in outlining recent and ongoing developments to hillside areas of Covington and beyond.

"The county's position is not necessarily to prevent hillside development, but it's also not necessarily to encourage developing every possible hillside either," said Videkovich. "Right now, regulations in most, if not all, Northern Kentucky cities state that if you're going to build on a hillside, you have to do more research and geotechnical engineering than you would for a normal project."

With regard to the for-sale Gateway site, Videkovich said, "We don't know who is going to buy it or what their plans are, but we've been talking with both (Park Hills and Covington), looking at the conditions of the site. That's definitely, I would say, a prominent hillside overlooking Northern Kentucky."

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