With IRS leaving, Covington is making plans for riverfront site
Much depends on feds, cohesiveness of plan
Vickie Ashwill | WCPO contributor
7:00 AM, Sep 14, 2017
7:36 PM, Sep 14, 2017
COVINGTON, Ky. -- When Covington’s IRS building on Fourth Street shuts its doors in 2019, not only will 1,800 people lose their jobs, but a 23-acre parcel of land will sit empty near the heart of the city’s downtown.
So city officials, convention center leaders and others have started piecing together a vision on how to use the space. Ideas include an expanded convention center and mixed-use retail and residential that would serve as a connector to other parts of the city, including downtown and MainStrasse Village.
Mayor Joe Meyer said there are no dollar figures tied to it at this point, but the city is in the rudimentary stage of looking at this prime real estate location.
What the city doesn’t want is a long-term empty location. Meyer said the city wants to avoid trying to redevelop the site with one project, something he compares to the delay of the nearly 20-acre, $1 billion Ovation site in Newport that has sat empty for a decade.
“The views are unbeatable,” said city commissioner Jordan Huizenga. “There’s no better location in Greater Cincinnati, and probably the Midwest.”
Like any vision, there are potential roadblocks. Nothing’s going to happen quickly and it will depend on not-yet-created public and private partnerships -- that is, lots of money, say officials. And no one knows how long it will take the federal government to sell the building, if it does. Not to mention finding a replacement for the income tax revenue from 1,800 jobs so that it all makes financial sense for the city.
So, what’s the vision?
Picture Covington with coordinated directions and signage that take residents and visitors into different sections of the city -- MainStrasse Village or the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, for example. Signage, destination information, charming sidewalk routes and transportation are all part of the big picture.
“The IRS building will become a whole new district, an eco district that is a mixed-use redevelopment of the space, said Chris Manning, principal and landscape architect for Human Nature Inc.
It would include an expansion of the convention center and a major new park, and it connects with Riverfront Commons, MainStrasse and downtown, he added.
Millennials and empty nesters want spaces that provide for an active lifestyle with amenities, Manning said. “The Riverfront Commons helps provide that.”
The goal is to take the city’s existing assets and create a “network that ties it all together in an exciting way,” he said.
It’s important to step back and look at the big picture, Manning said, much like Cincinnati did in creating The Banks.
It takes years, said Manning. “It’s not something the city can do alone. It takes partnerships and multiple investors.”
It’s not about the details right now, said Manning. “It’s about creating a cohesive vision that would break into phases over time. It depends on the private partners that come on board."
There is potential for property tax revenue in the future since the IRS didn’t pay any on the site, assessed at $26.5 million by the Kenton County Property Valuation Administration. Of course, tax abatements would likely be a part of any new project, delaying property taxes for many years.
Convention Center expansion
It’s a promising space for expansion of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center.
“We need to expand our convention center,” said Eric Summe, president of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s certainly within the realm of consideration as a space for expansion.”
The recently approved 1 percent hotel tax in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties is for future growth of the center, Summe said. “While we wait for the IRS property to do whatever it’s going to do, we know we’re going to need some seed money to do it," he said.
The convention center is used for local meetings as well as regional and national ones, with conventions booked out three years. It has 204,000 square feet with 110,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space, and it's the latter that needs expansion.
Any new plans would include discussions on technology that is needed to draw conventions. But having a bigger vision and a plan is important, he said.
“Tourism is one thing, but when you’re talking about conventions, you want to have as many amenities as you can. We need walkability, way finding … so that visitors are lured into exploring the destination,” said Summe.
“Conventions come here and like it,” Summe said. “Then they outgrow us. We want them to come back.
How soon can this happen?
One roadblock could be the federal government since it is notoriously slow to dispose of empty or abandoned properties. According to a 2015 report by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., the government has upward of 70,000 empty or partially used buildings across the U.S. that need to be consolidated, sold or torn down.
The Fourth Street building, where paper tax returns are handled, isn’t architecturally significant -- a huge nondescript building and parking lot.
In March, the General Services Administration (GSA) presented a report to Congress that reflected a need to speed up the sale of these unused buildings and a better plan for selling them.
"IRS and GSA have a procession place to dispose of property and we’re working on a plan to go through that process," said Mike Yeager, development director for Covington. “It’s the one holdup."
Huizenga is more optimistic and hopes control of the building could happen by 2020.
There are actually two pieces of land. The main 20.5 acreage is assessed at $26.5 million by the city and a nearly 3-acre parking lot is assessed at $1.6 million. What the government will want for the land is unknown.
Most developers aren’t going to see 20 acres as too small, said Charlie Pond, vice president of development for Oswald Company, Inc. Pond said it’s actually easier to work on a larger planned space or a section of a master plan.
Pond, also president of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky chapter of NAIOP, a commercial real estate development association, said infrastructure would be less expensive to do all at one time based on a plan.
And that is what the city is doing. Yeager said they are working to create one vision instead of 20 different ones. Eventually there will be public meetings and a team to drive the project.
But, like the Banks, it could take years, say officials. Don’t expect ground to break anytime soon.