|At 6:45 p.m. the Mess Hall was filling up for the public hearing on a Central Business District development proposal.|
By Robin Gee, City Council Beat Editor
After three hours of discussion and public comment, the Fort Thomas Planning Commission voted to table a decision on a proposed Central Business District development project. On Wednesday evening, between 170 and 180 people packed into the Mess Hall for a public hearing on the proposal.
Because of the lateness of the hour and the intensity of public interest, the commissioners decided to hold a second public hearing to continue exploration of the topic before voting on the matter. The additional public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. on May 15. That meeting is scheduled for the City Building, but the venue could change. City staff will be informing the public on when that venue change could take place.
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The top two floors would feature 24 luxury two- and three-bedroom condos with retail space on the bottom floor. Units would run from 1,549 square feet to 2,847 square feet. Parking for businesses is planned at the back of the structure, and an underground parking garage opening onto Woodland Place would be included for the condo residents.
The proposed price point was slated between $600,000 and $1.2 million dollars per flat.
Greiwe Development is the lead on the project with partners North American Properties, Sibcy Cline and M + A Architects. Rick Greiwe opened the meeting with a presentation on his plans with the help of architect Sari Lehtinen. They pointed out features that included covered sidewalks, additional trees and a greenery buffer zone as well as brick facades, pitched roofs, balconies, pedestrian walkways and seating spaces.
Planning Commission member, Dan Gorman, recused himself at the beginning of the hearing, because he owns property included in the proposed plan at 15 and 19 N. Fort Thomas Avenue.
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The city staff weighs in
The developers’ presentation was followed by a report by city Zoning Administrator Kevin Barbian and Engineer Frank Twehues of CT Consultants on traffic and engineering aspects of the plan.
Barbian outlined areas in the developer’s plan that met zoning requirements and those that did not. He explained in some cases where requirements were not met, the Planning Commission had the authority to provide leeway on the matter due to a previous change to the city's comprehensive plan in 1999. For example, the issue of parking is an area in which the commissioners have authority. According to the developer’s plan, the number of retail parking spaces would be 40 without counting on-street parking, but the zone requires 52 spaces for this size of retail space. The commissioners could vote to allow for the smaller number of spaces.
In other cases, the developer would need to request a variance from the Board of Adjustments, Barbian said. The height of the proposed building is three and one-half feet above the allowable height of 50 feet in the zone, and so the developers will need to request a variance.
Twehues reported on a traffic impact study that was conducted by TEC Engineering, a third party engineering firm. He said the report gathered data for two days and found that peak traffic times were 8 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 5 p.m. He said the report concluded that the project would have no significant impact on traffic during peak times, the visibility of public parking would need to be improved with lighting and signage, and the garage entry is safest where it is opening onto Woodland Place.
Neighbors and other residents react
|Fort Thomas residents explore development plans before the start of the Planning Commission public hearing.|
The floor was then opened up to public comment. About 32 people spoke to commissioners about the plans. Comments overall noted that they were not necessarily opposed to development, but an overwhelming majority of those who spoke had deep concerns and questions about this project.
Some of the main concerns included:
Size and scale: Many said they felt the project was just too big. The tallest building nearby is about 12 feet shorter than the one proposed. There was great concern that shadows cast by such a large building would project a cavern-like feel in the district. Some asked if the project could be scaled back and still be viable. Residents questioned if such a large project would fit in to the community feel and small town tone.
The garage entry: Of great concern to neighbors on Woodland Place and nearby, the entry from the garage onto the small cul-de-sac would overwhelm the neighborhood, many said. There are 25 homes on the narrow street that allows parking on both sides. With the school nearby and several community events, parking is already difficult, they said. Additional residents coming onto their street would also cause traffic headaches.
Woodland Place residents met separately with Greiwe, Mayor Eric Haas and local business investor Dan Gorman to voice their concerns in hopes of working out a change in the orientation of the garage. Griewe said he looked at four options and found that the Woodland Place entrance was the only viable option. Neighbors asked the developer to reconsider and to make concessions.
Traffic: Many residents said they disagreed with the traffic impact report. Peak hours happen earlier than the report indicated due to school drop offs and pick ups, they said. Events, school activities and traffic from a nearby dance school have had an impact in the area, overflowing traffic onto side streets.
Viability: Residents said so many businesses have failed in the Central Business District, they were concerned what would happen if such a large retail and residential space went empty. Others wondered if the price of the condos, from $600,000 to $1.2 million, would be too expensive.
Other issues included questions about whether there was enough buffer near the garage entrance, and plans to handle construction noise, disruption and possible damage.
The developer responds
Greiwe acknowledged issues expressed by neighbors and other city residents and offered insight into his reasoning for making certain decisions. He said he has a lot of experience in the high-end condo field and specializes in creating residencies that compliment a certain lifestyle experience for retirees, empty nesters and young professionals. He has spoken extensively with people in that market to discern what they want.
Greiwe did say that the going rate for new retail space is about $26 per square foot and rentals in Fort Thomas run about $16 per square foot. He admitted that he would need to seek funding through mechanisms such as an Industrial Revenue Bond or IRB, used similarly with the homes at Alexander Circle, to keep the prices at a below market rate to attract businesses.
Those who spoke in favor of the project mentioned that desire to develop the Central Business District has been outlined in successive city plans for many years. In the most recent Comprehensive Plan, the need for mixed used development is indicated.
As it stands, the project is still on the agenda for the upcoming Board of Adjustments meeting on April 23 and the Design Review Board meeting on April 25. Both meetings are open to the public and start at 6 p.m. in the Fort Thomas City Building, 130 North Fort Thomas Avenue.
The Planning Commission is a seven-member group of resident volunteers that are appointed by the mayor. The makeup of that commission includes: Fehler, Gorman, Jerry Noran, Dave Wormald, Larry Schultz, Hans Tinkler and Tim Michel. Michel was absent from the meeting.