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Thursday, May 30, 2019

Revamped Central Business District Proposal Approved by Planning Commission

Woodland Place resident, Neil Leyshock appeals to the Fort Thomas Planning Commission. Architect for the project, Sari Lehtinen, and developer, Rick Griewe, sit behind. 

By Robin Gee, City Council Beat Editor

In a five-to-one vote, the Fort Thomas Planning Commission approved the Phase One proposal for the Fort Thomas Town Center, a mixed-use development located in the Central Business District (CBD) along North Fort Thomas Avenue to the corner of Highland Avenue. The seventh member of the Commission, Dan Gorman, recused himself due to his financial interest in the project.

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The vote came after the second of two public hearings held on the proposal. The first was held in April and drew almost 180 local residents. At that meeting, most who commented expressed strong concerns about the project’s size, scope and placement of a residential garage entry onto Woodland Place, a small cul-de-sac behind the development. The commissioners decided to table the vote and hold a second public hearing on May 29.

Greiwe Development is the lead developer on the project with partners North American Properties, Sibcy Cline and M + A Architects. Rick Greiwe and M + A architect Sari Lehtinen presented at the first and second public hearings.

RELATED: Revisions for Central Business Proposal Announced

About 75 residents attended the second public hearing on the Central Business District development proposal.

New proposal includes significant changes

After the initial public hearing, the developers presented at the city’s Design Review Board. Board members also voiced concerns about size and scope similar to those of the residents. They asked the developers to rethink the project and come up with more options for design.

The developers withdrew the initial plans and went to work on a second attempt that incorporated several changes. New plans were submitted, and the revamped proposal was the focal point of the second public hearing.

Major changes included:
  • Splitting the building into two buildings with a 30-foot public walkway and garden in between. The first building would be mixed use and have three floors as in the original plans, but the second building would be designated all commercial and have only two floors.
  • Lowering the roof pitch and ceiling height to make the larger building 50 feet tall, in line with zoning so no variance would be required.
  • Reducing the number of residential units from 24 to 18. This reduction also brought down the number of spaces required in the residential garage. The new garage plan includes two spaces per resident plus nine visitor spaces.
  • Creating space for a full service restaurant for the first floor of the smaller commercial building. Office space would be available above the restaurant.
  • Making changes in the exterior design elements in the commercial building so that the two buildings look more distinct.
  • Making changes to the placement of the commercial trash dumpster to make it less visible.
  • Increasing the set back for the residential garage entry. 

 Efforts appreciated but neighbors still have concerns

About 75 people attended the May 29 public hearing. It was clear from the new plans shared by the developers that they had taken several of the community’s suggestions and concerns under consideration. About half of those who spoke said they were in favor of the project and half still had concerns, especially about the residential garage entry orientation, which had not changed.

Neighbors living on Woodland Place met with the developers, Mayor Haas and Gorman several times throughout the process. Most recently a group of neighbors that included architects offered options for moving the garage, including possible ramps leading up to the public parking lot. Greiwe said the sloped terrain of the site made alternatives difficult or unsafe and either interfered with the commercial parking lot or created an angle too steep for trash collection trucks to pick up dumpsters safely or to maneuver.

Other concerns voiced by neighbors included lights from the property shining into their homes at night and increased traffic, as well as parking issues especially during special events at the high school. Some small business owners said they would be very interested in the commercial space, but other residents said they were concerned about the viability of the businesses in the development.

Greiwe took the opportunity to address concerns about the retail spaces to introduce David Birdsall, president of 360 Property Partners, a firm that handles retail leasing and management.

Birdsall told the crowd that he thought the project would be attractive to businesses and their customers. "This meets all of our criteria – great demographics, walkable community, dense neighborhood population, well located and major employment centers nearby. Retail is all about the experience, that’s what retail is today...You have the experience of a great community with a small neighborhood retail center. We are very excited. We feel this gives a great opportunity...We think this will be another great thing in our portfolio," he said.

CBD zoning offers Planning Commission more latitude

Zoning Administrator Kevin Barbian gave a brief staff report. He noted that the changes brought the building height to within the required 50 feet limit so no variance would be needed.

He also noted, however, that the formula to determine the required number of commercial parking spaces for the project indicated 60 spaces, and the development has only 40 on site. The developer offered that there were 16 parking spots on the street, but Barbian said these cannot be counted in the formula.

Still, he said, the Planning Commission has some latitude when it comes to parking requirements in the Central Business zone. They could choose to count the on-street spaces and also public spaces available nearby elsewhere in the CBD. He noted that the city owns space behind the Hiland Building across the street from the development that could accommodate 31 spaces.

Another option for flexibility is shared parking. Two different types of businesses with different parking usage could conceivably share a space, he explained. For example, offices might use more spaces during the day, while a restaurant in the same building might have more usage later in the evening.

Barbian said zoning requires three loading and unloading spaces for the amount of commercial space in the project, and the proposed development only has one large space. Again, he noted the Planning Commission would have flexibility with this requirement.

Later in the discussion, Commissioner Jerry Noran explained why it appeared that the Planning Commission did not need to meet all zoning requirements. "We can't change the zoning ordinance. The CBD the only one that there is some latitude, because CBDs are a kind of a strange animal. All the other zones have specific parking requirements and setback requirements...but the CBD zone is different."

Engineer Frank Twehues of CT Consultants reported on a new traffic study which was conducted the week of May 20, 2019 and concluded that there would be some increased delay on traffic flow during peak hours but no significant overall impact.

The Planning Commission discussion and vote on the new proposal 

After the public hearing was closed, Planning Commission Chairman Dan Fehler opened the floor for commissioners to ask questions of Greiwe and city staff. He asked about previous concerns such as general design and the mass of the buildings.

Noran was the first to respond. "The Stage One [Phase One] we approve or approve with conditions or deny...It doesn't go to council. The Stage Two Plan is reviewed by staff. There is no public hearing so this is important," he explained.

"I'm really conflicted here. The first plan we saw I thought was way too big. This plan is too big. I think one of reasons I feel that way is based on Kevin's comments on parking. Forty spaces are provided but sixty spaces are required. I think that tells you it's still too big..."

He made a motion to table the decision for more review and discussion, to explore more alternatives for the neighbors on Woodland and rethink the size, but his motion did not receive a second.

The discussion continued about the modifications in the height and mass for the project as well as the streetscapes, screening and landscaping, loading options and the possibility of valet parking for the restaurant. Other topics included trash pick up, utilities and items that will be specifically addressed in the Phase two stage.

Commissioner Dave Wormald made a motion, and Tim Michel seconded it, to accept the development proposal with these conditions and acknowledgements: 

  • That the submitted number of off street parking spaces be approved with the intent to work with the city to secure additional offsite spaces;
  • The lighting be subject to a photometric analysis according to the city development standards to ensure no glare into adjoining properties;
  • The screening area at the end of the lot be reduced from the required 50 feet to 25 feet contingent upon approval from the city Design Review Board and the city Tree Commission;
  • A waiver of three required off street loading spaces to one space with encouragement to work with city to create street side public loading zone on North Fort Thomas Avenue;
  • Acknowledging that the traffic impact study conducted by TEC Engineering and reviewed by CT Consultants does not show a significant impact, and that the study was conducted in accordance with city procedures;
  • Acknowledging that there is a modification that all the access points are 24 feet minimum and that has been met by the proposed development plan and
  • Acknowledging that access to the residential garage is considered safer than previously proposed access from Highland Avenue, due to steep nature of the street grade [terrain].
 The motion passed, 5-1, with Noran was the only dissenting vote.

Next step: Design Review Board

The project is on the agenda for the Design Review Board today, Thursday, May 30, at 6 p.m. in the Fort Thomas City Building, 130 North Fort Thomas Avenue. The developer will work on a much more detailed Phase Two plan that will include many more specific details on landscaping, design, utilities, storm water, parking and more.

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, Noran, Wormald, Larry Schultz, Hans Tinkler and Michel.

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