Companies are asked to make their new businesses fit with the City Council vision for downtown Covington, but current regulations don’t require it. City officials are working to fix that.
David Nemens, community development director, said this effort began in January at the council’s retreat.
“The council members pretty unanimously expressed concern about the downtown zoning as a whole,” Nemens said. “They felt that they had defined a vision for the future of the downtown element of the comprehensive plan. They felt that the zoning for the downtown, although it allowed developers to build this vision, didn’t require them to.”
To that end, the council requested Nemens’ staff come up with a way to revise the ordinances so that they reflected the vision for downtown that the city has spent years developing.
This means, Nemens said, that there may be some delays for certain sites to redevelop but he said the council understood that and was willing to make the trade off.
There are three areas in particular that the council was concerned about:
• First, there’s the chunk of land known as DN6 in the city’s downtown plan, which is south of Kent-Kangley Road and west of Wax Road. There’s the 20-acre Covington Elementary School site, as well as a 17-acre parcel that is vacant. City officials say that Ashton Development, which owns that site as well as the new Covington Esplanade development, is interested in purchasing the school site and developing the entire 37 acres.
City planning manager Richard Hart said the city wants five-story, mixed-use development. “This is one of the last pieces that the council thought we could really do right,” he said.
In June, the council passed an interim ordinance that “doesn’t say you can’t build there, it just says what the city wants there,” Hart said.
• Next is the DN3 area, which covers 85 acres and is across from where a Costco store is being built. “There’s some existing storage use there, there’s an existing gravel extraction and then there’s the Bonneville Power site,” Hart said. “This is the most permissive zoning. The council was concerned that there might be this kind of intensive use in that zoning.”
As a result, the council passed another ordinance in June that created a six-month development moratorium for that area, which allows the City Council to eventually consider a proposal to revise the zoning to require future development there to more closely fit the downtown plan.
• Finally, there’s DN7B, which is a strip of land along Wax Road that has homes, some commercial uses and church nearby. “When the council adopted the downtown zoning they weren’t really sure what to do with that zone, so they made it a less intensive zone with limited office uses,” Hart said. “They were trying to encourage some cottage houses and townhouses near downtown with limited office use on one end and more office uses allowed on the other. But Jenkins Creek runs through that, so there are critical areas and shorelines that impact portions of that property.”
Councilwoman Marlla Mhoon-Blair also has concerns about the DN7B zone, something she worked on as a city Planning Commission member prior to her appointment to the council in 2006.
“The goal here is, as it has always been in my opinion, for best use of the property and how that fits into the long-term plans for the city,” Mhoon-Blair said. “Rules regarding shoreline management very much determine what can be done with that property.”
Downtown development is an issue Councilman Wayne Snoey is particularly passionate about.
“Covington was once mostly rural, but it has quickly changed into a dynamic city with a mix of housing and business,” Snoey said. “It is imperative that the council update the Comprehensive Plan to reflect these changes and the tremendous opportunities that exist now that were only a dream 10 years ago.”
Nemens said several other factors converged in recent months in a way that meets the city’s vision.
“Before this, the council had asked us to look at the comprehensive plan policies and the zoning for the Wax Road corridor which is known as DN7B,” Nemens said. “The other strands that converged are on the DN6, where there is a large undeveloped property, as well as the school district property (Covington Elementary) which will be re-developed in the not-too-distant future because the school district would like to build a new school.”
Nemens said the council was concerned that it might lose an opportunity to build a substantial development in those areas which were identified in the city’s downtown plan in 2005.
He added that “the council took a closer look at the DN3 zone and saw that although this zone is just between Covington Way and Highway 18 at the gateway of our city, this area allowed a wide use of ranges like multi-family. It also allowed high-impact industrial,” Nemens said. “So, the council put an emergency moratorium on the DN3 zone.”
The final thing “that has occurred,” Nemens said, is that Snoey “made one or two presentations during (council) study sessions about the potential for redevelopment in downtown.”
Snoey has some definite ideas.
“The high price of transportation and lack of resources to improve the transportation system require that we consider a downtown that provides more of the services and goods that our citizens need,” Snoey said. “We must create more opportunity for living-wage jobs and affordable housing that currently don’t exist in Covington. A revised downtown plan is needed to better reflect these realities. We have a one-time chance to get it right, or piecemeal development will rob us of the greatest potential.”
Nemens said that while this likely won’t require a major re-write of the downtown element of the comprehensive plan, it is important to make some changes.
“Taken together, all of these events and all of these questions have led (city officials) to believe that we need to take a more comprehensive look at our downtown plan and especially the downtown zoning, so that a lot of these issues can be looked at in conjunction with one another,” he said. “Our plan is to bring back to the council starting (this month) an overall downtown zoning work plan to tell them how we’re going to weave all these things together.”
Hart said downtown is spread across 530 acres. “The issue is where to concentrate the most intense – and therefore the highest – uses, which becomes the central gathering places that people identify as downtown Covington,” he said. “It’s tough when it becomes a four-lane, state highway strip commercial area and you try to mold that into something that is viable in the long-run, energy-efficient, sustainable and pedestrian-friendly.”
Hart said the downtown plan doesn’t go far enough “when you try to take that zoning and apply it to what’s actually on the ground.”
For Snoey, it’s important that development of the downtown core happens in a way that everyone is happy with it, not just the City Council.
“This council has decided that, after listening to our citizens, we will do everything we can to help foster a better future for our city,” Snoey said.
Staff writer Kris Hill can be reached at (425) 432-1209 (extension 5054) and email@example.com