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Friday, April 26, 2019

Design Board Asks Developer for Alternatives

Rendering of proposed Fort Thomas Central Business District showing some of the materials under consideration.

By Robin Gee, City Council Beat Editor  

The Fort Thomas Design Review Board has asked developers of a proposed Central Business District to rethink some aspects of their design and consider returning with alternatives.

On Thursday evening, the design board members heard a presentation by the developer Rick Greiwe of Greiwe Development and Sari Lehtinen of M + A Architects. Other partners in the project are North American Properties and Sibcy Cline.

At a public hearing held during the Planning Commission earlier this month, several community members expressed concerns about different aspects of the development including the overall size, height and placement of the residential garage. Because of public interest, the commissioners decided to postpone their decision on the project and to hold another public hearing at their meeting on May 15.

RELATED: Second Public Hearing Scheduled for Development Proposal

The Design Review Board's charge

Many of the concerns voiced at the Planning Commission meeting do not fall under the purview of the Design Review Board. The focus of the board is to review the aesthetics of the project, such as the facades, signage, lighting, materials and other design aspects.

At the Design Review Board meeting Zoning Administrator Kevin Barbian read from the guidelines that set up the board in 2002. He noted that the board was not intended to regulate building projects or to govern land use questions.

"What this is, is a collaborative effort between our board and the applicant. Ultimately, the goal being to have an aesthetically pleasing streetscape that improves the environment for business and renews economic vitality," he said.

"This is a preliminary or introductory meeting to get some initial feedback by the applicant. This board essentially discusses things such as materials and aesthetics versus some things that won’t be discussed including set backs, project size, viability, connection to Woodlawn, traffic – those are concerns that are left for the Planning Commission...," he explained.

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Board members share concerns

Board members shared their thoughts on the design and the presentation. Overall, while acknowledging and thanking the development team for their work in creating the design, board members expressed concerns about the size and scale of the building and questioned whether it would fit within the shared vision for the business district.

The presenters noted they looked to the mixed architecture of Fort Thomas as inspiration for their designs. They pointed to Tower Park in particular and to the many different styles of gabled roofs and covered porches in many homes in the area. From this, they chose two colors of red brick and stone masonry for their project. They included gabled roofs, large windows, trellises and balconies that helped to create covered walkways below as well as pedestrian areas and green spaces in the design.

Lehtinen noted that much attention was paid to the rear of the building to ensure the project has a finished look on all sides. Greiwe concluded that his project was designed to be a landmark piece of architecture that would define the city’s downtown and provide both commercial and residential space attractive to older adults as outlined in the city’s comprehensive plan.

Design Review Board member Chris Manning said, "I think this does build upon some of the intentions that came out of the community planning process, but it’s big, it’s complicated, it’s very important. So, I think it’s important that we take our time and do this right, look at all these details and discuss them."

He went on to say that he was familiar with Greiwe’s work, yet he said as a critique he had concerns about the roof line, the color scheme and other factors he said he felt contributed to the large-scale feeling of the project.

He noted that fitting a large building to fit residential roof lines is a challenge because gabled roofs on homes, when done on larger buildings, can make them look even bigger. He added that, while the red brick and masonry color choices and design scheme might seem to fit in with buildings in Tower Park and other places around town, using so much of the same colors might also contribute to the overwhelming feel of the project.

Another board member, Jeff Sackenheim, said he was confident of the quality of the design but shared Manning’s concerns "If I’m being critical, the nod to Fort Thomas is by using two tones of red brick... but if you read the elevations we have in front of us, they are really look close to what you have in Mariemont with a change of materiality."

He noted the ways the proposed project used many of the same design elements as the developer’s other projects and questioned if these genuinely fit into the aesthetic of Fort Thomas. He suggested one way to combat the feeling of a massive scale might be to break the project into two or three separate buildings with space for movement in between.

Board member Mark Thurnauer noted that "In this community, we experience this area of town mostly on foot, and when you are walking through town a block is not a large journey, but what makes a walk pleasant is variety. It’s okay that it doesn’t have a break to it, but when it’s all the same there’s a monotony that maybe almost expands that length."

He suggested taking a fresh look at the building on the first level to examine the experience at eye level and up close.

Board members suggest alternatives

Other board members had similar suggestions and ideas on how the project might change or how added design elements might create a more varied and less overwhelming building.

When asked about the possibility of two stories instead of the proposed three, Greiwe explained that the requirements of the comprehensive plan to provide a mixed-use building with residential above commercial space on the first floor drove the need to have at least 18 residential units in order to make the project financially feasible.

"I know that use is a Planning Commission and zoning issue," said Manning. "But for me, I think the uses here are possibly driving the scale. I know the Planning Commission has some latitude...I would encourage the Planning Commission to be creative about the retail requirement."

"Given its significance...I would approach it from what is the highest and best use of this location. What is the optimal way to plan it...," said Sackenheim.

Barbian noted that breaking the building into two with retail in one and residential in the other does not fit the requirements laid out in the comprehensive plan. After going through the process to craft the plan, he said, a major change will create a challenge for the Planning Commission and the community.

The board members requested the developers return with some alternatives. Greiwe and Lehtinen said their team would take into consideration the public input and would look at some of the suggestions of the board members.

The Design Review Board meets on the fourth Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. It is a seven-member board whose current members are Lori Wendling, chair; Chris Manning, vice chair; Barry Petracco, secretary; Pat Hagerty; Barb Thomas; Mark Thurnauer and Jeff Sackenheim.


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