Covington residents petition for affordable housing, public hearing at IRS site

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A group of residents has submitted a petition for a public hearing on affordable housing at Covington’s Central Riverfront development project.

Thurman Wenzl speaks at a commission meeting in June. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

“This is not just a few of us that feel this way,” said Covington resident Thurman Wenzl at the Covington Board of Commissioners meeting on July 18 before presenting a paper copy of the petition to the commissioners, which Wenzl said had gathered about 110 signatures at the time of the meeting.

Wenzl told LINK nky the number had grown to about 130 signatures.

“It’s clearly a widespread concern,” he added at the meeting.

Wenzl has a background in epidemiology and studied the effects of workplace conditions on chronic diseases before retiring.

Wenzl read the petition’s text during the meeting’s public comment section. The petition reads as follows:

“We, the undersigned residents and workers in Covington, call upon the city commission to call a public hearing on planning developments at the IRS site. Such a major decision on city development needs full participation to ensure that public resources are spent for the good of all.”

The IRS announced that it was vacating the city-owned land in 2014. The agency employed about 4,000 people from the site and was one of the city’s largest employers.

After the IRS’ departure, the city drafted a master development plan that calls for a mix of land uses, including commercial and residential space and an expansion of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center and a refurbished street grid.

The project is located at the former site at the city’s north end, near the Northern Kentucky Convention Center.

BusinessFlare, a marketing consultant contracted by the city, gave a presentation on how to attract developers to the site at the same meeting after members of the public had spoken.

Two other residents, Joe Hartke and Sophie Shiff, also spoke on the issue, affirming Wenzl’s statements and expressing their own points of view.

Hartke spoke about the volatility of the recent housing market, especially regarding rent prices, which saw rapid inflation over the last two years. Rent inflation rates have begun to decline in recent months, according to the federal Consumer Price Index.

Inflation rates for shelter from June 2003 to June 2023. Chart provided | The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

“The IRS site presents us with an unbelievable opportunity to correct this [problem],” Hartke said, adding that he feared that the addition of luxury or high-end housing at the IRS site would have the effect of ratcheting up prices for the rest of the housing in the area.

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After Hartke spoke, commissioner Tim Downing addressed the broader audience in the commission chambers, pointing out that the city had had about a year’s worth of public input before soliciting requests for development proposals. The city has collected proposals for four land parcels on the site to date. The remaining land parcels are not currently open for development proposals.

Covington City Commissioner Tim Downing speaks at a commission meeting in April. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

“I’ve started hearing a narrative that we’ve had no public engagement,” Downing said. “But multiple members of the commission were actively engaged in soliciting members of the public” to share their ideas for the site.

“We opened it up so, that way, people could come and provide different thoughts,” Downing added. “We had small round tables of people of all economic backgrounds: business owners, non-business owners, people that are on both sides of the political spectrum,” he said.

The city held several events related to the IRS site beginning in January of 2019. The city has documented the outcomes of the public input events in the appendix of its master plan for the land.

Attendees at the IRS site open house in January 2019 submit comments attesting to their desires for the Central Riverfront development. Photo provided | The City of Covington

One of the first events was an open house in which members of the public came and shared their desires for the site by submitting comments and creating vision boards.

A chart showing where at least some of the attendees of the open house lived. Chart provided | The City of Covington

A city press release from shortly after the meeting says that about 200 people attended. The master planning documents show the results of a poll taken at the event, to which 91 of the attendees responded, that asked which Covington neighborhood the attendees lived in.

An outsized portion of the responders came from the Seminary Square and Licking Riverside historic neighborhoods and the central business district.

Documents also show what was on people’s minds for the site, with the most common comments expressing space for greenery and park and pedestrian accessibility.

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A well-thought plan for the scale of the buildings in the neighborhood was also at the forefront of attendees’ minds. Affordable housing also appeared on the list, but it was not at the top.

With the help of a consultant, the city held what it called civic dinners in the subsequent months, where they polled residents on specific issues and questions. Those conversations indicated a concern for recruiting businesses that could provide high-paying, sustainable jobs as well as ideas about the overall atmosphere of the district.

The master plan’s appendix also documents both residential and commercial market analyses for the land by Noell Consulting Group, which pulls data from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau (note: the analyses were published in March of 2019 before the onset of the pandemic, so the figures published online may not reflect more recent economic realities).

One page of the analysis details similar mixed-use developments in the region that “will compete for renters and buyers via significant lifestyle opportunities. These projects range from smaller mixed-used developments to progressions of longer, ongoing projects,” the text reads.

Some of the projects they name include the Ovation development in Newport and additions to The Banks district in Cincinnati. The analysis says that the district’s target market for renters is “mature single professionals, professional couples, empty nesters and a moderate number of young families.” The Noell Consulting Group justified their argument with charts and data tables. They also performed a similar analysis for homeowners.

Renter and owner household target market analyses from Noell Consulting Group, published March 2019. Data and chart provided | The City of Covington

“I really believe a range of incomes and a range of ages can be fit onto that site,” Wenzl said at the meeting.

Wenzl also said that he hoped people who make “say, $35,000 a year” could live on the site, adding that this would likely require buildings that were taller than initially planned. Hartke even made the case that there ought to be no height limits on the residential properties on the site.

High-end developments like Ovation have drawn criticism from residents who believe their higher prices crowd out lower-income residents. Shiff made this criticism during her statement to the commission.

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Shiff also directly responded to Downing’s comments when she took the podium.

“I think it’s amazing you guys have done a lot of public outreach on the IRS site,” Shiff said. “… We want more.”

“We want public outreach at every single step of the process,” she went on to say.

Specifically, she asked for more information on the proposals that had come in for the first four land parcels to ensure that they were in line with community feedback.

Although governing bodies do not usually share information on proposals for public projects before choosing a bidder or developer, Shiff said that “this shouldn’t be a topic of debate. I shouldn’t have to beg my government to involve the public at every step of the process.”

Shiff concluded by saying, “There is no housing crisis for the rich, after all.”

Another resident, former Covington Independent School District Board of Education member and one of the founding members of the Covington Human Rights Commission, Pamela Mullins, took the podium after Shiff had spoken. She wanted to know how the land was being bid out to developers, particularly how it related to local small businesses.

“Where are there opportunities for participation of the small businesses?” Mullins asked. She did not comment on the petition for the public hearing or on the issue of affordable housing.

Mayor Joe Meyer told Mullins that participation from local small businesses was a “high priority” for the development project and that she should consult with the city’s Director of Economic Development, Tom West, to learn more.

Read the appendix of the development project’s master plan, which includes summaries from the city’s initial public outreach efforts as well as the complete market analyses from Noell Consulting Group here.

The next caucus meeting of the Covington Board of Commissioners will take place on Tuesday, Aug. 1 at 6 p.m. The next legislative meeting will occur on Tuesday, Aug. 8 at 6 p.m. Both meetings will take place at Covington City Hall on Pike Street. Only the legislative meeting will have a dedicated section for public comment.

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