New agreement between Fort Thomas, VA propels Tower Park homes' restoration forward

New agreement between Fort Thomas, VA propels Tower Park homes' restoration forward
Posted at 11:51 AM, Nov 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-08 11:51:01-05

FORT THOMAS, Ky. -- At the top of Alexander Circle, the small roundabout tucked away in Fort Thomas' Tower Park, sits an aging, somewhat foreboding sign.


VA homes in Tower Park in Fort Thomas. Phil Didion | WCPO

It's a strange sign for a public park, given the roundabout's trees and spacious lawn. It's the sort of place where visitors could conceivably have a picnic, toss a Frisbee or do other typical park activities.

It's also a sign that Fort Thomas City Administrative Officer Ron Dill is eager to see taken down, and the city might be one step closer toward that goal.

Finally finding a developer

The sign is there because of the 10 formerly military homes that line Alexander Circle, currently the property of the Department of Veterans Affairs. As WCPO has previously reported, the homes have been uninhabited for decades, Dill said, and have fallen into serious disrepair.

They've also been deemed a hazard to the public -- with peeling, lead paint, crumbling structures, and broken windows -- prompting the KEEP OUT signage and orange fencing to around each of the homes.

The VA homes in Tower Park sport NO TRESPASSING signs and orange fencing to prevent the public from entering. Phil Didion | WCPO

There are five single-family and five duplex units, nicknamed the "VA homes." All are large, brick structures with varying degrees of dilapidation. For more than a decade, the city and the VA went back and forth about how best to resurrect the homes so that they would be safe to inhabit.

Leaders from both governmental bodies bucked on value of the properties, timelines of property transfer, who is responsible for cleaning them out and building them back up. The city also had to wrestle with developers who were interested in the properties, but were wary of being beholden to the buildings' historical landmark status and the restrictions that adds.

The surrounding 80 acres that make up Tower Park were purchased as three land parcels through federal legislation in the early 1970s, Dill said. That included the preservation of the former military base's water tower (the park's namesake), the Armory building, and the Mess Hall, among a few other structures.

In 2015, the city's efforts surrounding the Alexander Circle homes got a big boost: They'd finally found a developer, Cincinnati-based Bloomfield/Schon, who said they were willing to abide by the historical preservation guidelines agreed upon by the city, the VA, and the Kentucky Heritage Council, which works with communities across the state to ensure preserving their historical landmarks is a pillar in community planning. The mutual agreement between the three agencies was adapted from guidelines put forth by the National Register of Historic Places, Dill said.

These include, among others, using compatible building materials and matching architectural features, Dill said. Bloomfield/Schon committed to following these guidelines, or only selling to homeowners committed to doing so, Dill said.

The VA homes remain artifacts of early 20th century architecture, and national guidelines require that style be maintained. Phil Didion | WCPO

One more major hurdle

But according to Dill, finding a preservation-friendly developer was only part of the battle. The question remained of whether the VA could release the properties to the city before removing hazardous materials and restoring damaged structures.

"It was probably the biggest issue holding up any movement on that project, the issue of abatement of the lead-based paint from the structures," Dill said.

Until last month, the VA argued just that: The city could not acquire the homes without first paying for clean-up.

That's when, Dill said, the city and the VA made a breakthrough: A small change in the contract language between the city and the VA allowed for the sale of the properties prior to the lead-paint abatement.

"This allowed us to move forward with some terms on how that could take place," Dill said, particularly in allowing the developer to research the costs of abatement, at least $510,000 of which -- also the amount the city will pay for the properties -- will be refunded to city coffers.

Dill said the city is still waiting for those final costs estimates, and then must submit them to the VA for review and approval.

"Once those are accepted, then there is a timeline that triggers to create a closing (on the sale)," Dill said.

Dill said he hopes the transfer of ownership between the city and the developer will be a swift one: "Theoretically, the city will not own the project very long," he said.

But that's not to say the city will not see long-lasting benefits from finally flipping these homes.

"It's an opportunity for us to integrate the residential aspects of that area into our park setting and uses," Dill said, pointing not only to the homes' proximity to the park's recreational facilities, but also to the potential for developing the scenic area on the eastern edge that overlooks the Ohio River.

"It lets the city fit Alexander Circle into its comprehensive planning," Dill said. "The idea is that it will provide some open, public spaces that won't take away from the residential features of the houses."

But Dill said it also provides an opportunity for the city to integrate its past and its future.

"This serves as a great opportunity to capture the historic nature of what Tower Park really was," Dill said.

Fort Thomas Mayor Eric Haas previously told WCPO media partner Fort Thomas Matters that he doesn't expect to get cost estimates back before the turn of the year.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and development for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

This story drew from some previous reporting by WCPO contributor Mark Collier. Collier is publisher of WCPO news partner Fort Thomas Matters.