Covington's task: Build a better City Hall

The irony of Covington needing a task force now to decide what kind of City Hall it will need in the future is that it may have had an ideal facility at one point in its recent past.

Covington’s seat of government has had five different locations since 1970 alone, which if it sounds far from ideal, has been. In a community that is growing because of interest in the historic character of many of its neighborhoods, Covington Mayor Joe Meyer believes the stately brick version of City Hall that sat near the southern landing of the Roebling Suspension Bridge from 1902-1970 probably never should have been vacated, saying that by today’s standards, it would have been a “magnificent structure.”

What’s done is done, though, but Meyer believes the responsible goal to pursue now is developing the vision for a city hall that can serve the community for at least 100 years in the future.

“We build things today with such a short time frame in mind,” says the mayor, while pointing out that his family has lived for 40 years now in a house built in 1862. “I was in Tallinn, Estonia, a couple of years ago and the Tallinn Town Hall is still in use, a building they started constructing in the early 13th century and it’s now 600 years later.”

Covington’s City Hall task force doesn’t have to aspire to outdo Tallinn, but Meyer and other city leaders would like to see the next City Hall – whenever it takes shape, with no firm plans at this moment for any sort of construction– be able to serve Covington residents for at least 100 years.

“One of the challenges that we've given to the task force is think in terms of an approach that could still be good 100 or 200 years from now,” Meyer says. “What do we want in this city hall? What do we want in terms of a structure, but also how do we want it to serve the community? What do we want to say to our children and our great grandchildren about the values of Covington in the early 21st century?”

Covington first talked about the idea of launching the task force in September, and the 16-member volunteer panel of people from across the community was approved by the Covington City Commission in late November.

The task force is just at the beginning stages of exploring the questions put forth by Meyer. Helping facilitate the process is the innovative urban growth firm of YARD and Company, which was founded in Bellevue by partners Joe Nickol and Kevin Wright.

Meyer had been having regular lunches to discuss city issues with Nickol, who also serves on the board of Renaissance Covington, the initiative to invigorate growth in the city’s urban core. As they talked about City Hall, it became clear that planning now for a new facility at some future point made sense.

“We thought we needed a conversation about what that brief would look like for the design and development team of a new city hall and, more broadly speaking, the civic commons of Covington. By that, I mean the public spaces that bind us all together,” Nickol says.

The task force chair and vice-chair, respectively, are Lori Eifert and Rob Fischer. They also happen to be neighbors in the Covington neighborhood of Latonia, and are aunt and nephew, with Rob having married Lori’s niece seven years ago. Besides those two commonalities, they also have a shared experience with a lot of Covington residents, in that they’ve rarely had any reason to visit the current City Hall location in storefront space on W. Pike Street that used to be a JCPenney store.

“I think the whole thing that is really the driving force for my involvement is I want to make it so that we have a City Hall where there's going to be community engagement,” says Eifert, who has never served on a city committee previously and works for the Covington Independent Schools helping with homeless students as the district’s Project Home Coordinator and Point-of-Contact for foster care families. “I’d like if it not only serves that civic role for day-to-day government operations, but also to see it becoming a more engaging place for the families and the folks that live in the community and the businesses here.”

Fischer, who works as Senior Manager for Outside Membership Development of the Construction Users Roundtable, loves where he lives, but even further exemplifies the challenge to develop a welcoming city building. “I went to school in and have lived in Covington for 31 years. I’ve owned my house in Covington for 13 years. I have stepped foot in the city building one time,” he says.

The city actively sought to draw together as much diversity in backgrounds, careers and neighborhoods of the city as it could find for the task force. Other backgrounds represented by members include a retired IT expert, a former Covington city manager, a marketing strategist, a pastor with expertise in new uses for old churches, an innovation consultant and an architect.

Besides Eifert and Fischer, the other 14 members of the Covington City Hall task force are Brittany Brandenburg, Janet Creekmore, Peter D’Angio, Tim Downing, John “Jay” Fawcett, Jim Guthrie, Richard Hamel, Andrew Hargis, Stephen Hayden, Chris Henry, Taylor Lowry, Quentin Koopman, Shannon Smith and Angela White.

Together, they have been tasked with creating a vision of what residents want in terms of civic engagement, including where and how those interactions should take place. They are at the beginning of a process expected to run through the middle of this year.

From the outset, five questions they have been asked to explore are:

  1. How Covington interacts as a community at both local and city-wide levels?
  2. How and where Covington participates in public life, shared causes and civic debate?
  3. Common storylines, values and community or cultural sensibilities that celebrate Covington’s history and aspirations for the future?
  4. How Covington connects to and engages with city decision-making, leadership and administrative functions?
  5. What this all says about the values, principles, and priorities that should be applied to the locating, building and shared ownership of shared public spaces and a future center of city government?

The task force needs to by definition be somewhat forward-thinking, with the city having just signed a lease for at least another four years in its current space.

“This work will inform the designers when we choose to go forward with a new city hall, after we’ve made the decision of where it should be and when we should go forward with it,” says Meyer, emphasizing the perceived benefit of having an extensive community conversation instead of just leaving the decision up to the City Commissioners. ”Right now, we've got a lot of irons in the fire. We have so much going on in planning, a lot of economic develop initiatives and a lot of other opportunities, and quite honestly, we need to see the dust settle on some of that before anything happens, so that we get a better view of our long term future.”

Even at these earliest stages, both Eifert and Fischer mentioned about the desire to create a center that may provide services and opportunities not traditionally associated with Covington City Hall, perhaps by partnering with outside community providers like St. Elizabeth Healthcare or the YMCA.

“I want to make sure we're on the right path and doing what's best for Covington,” Fischer says. “That's why I got involved with this. My wife told me ‘We're not moving,’ so we're not moving. And I want this to be something that my kids can look back on and it still will benefit them and their kids, too. It should be something that's a pride of the city.”

Read more articles by Carey Hoffman.

As a Cincinnatian for almost all his life, Carey Hoffman has written about numerous subjects involving almost every Greater Cincinnati neighborhood. He enjoys history — both local and beyond — reading, anything to do with golf, most things related to basketball, and all things that make Cincinnati a more interesting and better place.