As the great outdoors beckon, Riverfront Commons comes into focus

As the weather gets nicer and Daylight Savings time returns, thoughts naturally turn to the great outdoors and opportunities to run, bike, play sports or simply go for a walk.
And what better place is there to enjoy those outdoor activities in Northern Kentucky than a spot along the Ohio River? It’s hard to beat those views of downtown Cincinnati and surrounding hills and your access to restaurants, shops and other amenities in the riverfront towns.
Those towns continue working to better connect their population centers and business districts with the Ohio River (and the Licking River), while a long-term effort to connect the towns with each other via the Riverfront Commons walking/biking trail continues as well. City and regional leaders tout the investments in connectivity a win-win for all of NKY.
“We believe that enhanced public spaces and interaction with the rivers will create a sense of pride for each riverfront community and stimulate the local economy,” says Wade Johnston, Regional Trails Coordinator of Tri-State Trails for Green Umbrella, which is overseeing creation of a connected network of multi-use trails throughout the tristate region.
Johnston says a key to successful development along NKY’s riverfront is creating public spaces that can accommodate community events and connect pedestrians and bike riders to surrounding residential areas.
“From an economic perspective, pedestrians and cyclists are more likely to stop in a storefront and spend money, compared to a person driving by at 35 or 45 mph,” he says. “Ultimately, it benefits NKY to make the urban areas walkable and attractive to residents so more people choose to live, work and play here.”
Local leaders clearly see the benefits of a connected riverfront.
“Bellevue would wither and die if we weren’t connected with our neighboring communities,” Bellevue City Councilman Ryan Salzman says. “We need to keep these arteries open and the blood flowing for economic development. And connections like Riverfront Commons send a clear message to developers that we’re open to working together to get things done.”
Covington City Manager Larry Klein agrees with Riverfront Commons’ connectivity goals.
“We don’t want to compete with what’s across, down or up the river, we want to add to it,” Klein says. “By working collaboratively we can leverage resources between cities and states, increasing the scale of individual projects and creating a unique regional asset that’s on par with any in the country.”
Riverfront Commons starts filling in gaps
Southbank Partners has taken the lead in fulfilling a vision for one paved walking/biking trail connecting Ludlow on the western riverfront all the way to Dayton and Ft. Thomas in the east. Small sections already exist on the Newport and Dayton floodwalls, but the next few months will see lots of activity to start filling in the gaps.
Southbank Partners President Jack Moreland says one of the first things people will notice is new signage touting “River Commons: Where It All Flows Together.” Signs have been fabricated and are being given to each city to use as they see fit, he says; Bellevue is the first with specific plans to deploy them this summer.
“It’s an attempt to roll out the Riverfront Commons brand before we really have a finished trail,” Moreland says, noting the full 11-mile vision remains years away from completion. “The signs have a unified Riverfront Commons theme and logo but allow each city to personalize them to highlight what they want to promote.”
Here’s a rundown of activity expected in the near future around building out and filling in the Riverfront Commons vision (moving west to east):
Ludlow: Moreland says that phases 1 and 2 of the trail extension into Ludlow from its Covington border are fully funded and ready to be bid for design and construction. The trail will interact with Memorial Park and Ludlow High School and connect with designated feeder streets to take walkers and bikers up the hill into Devou Park.
Covington: The city received federal and state grants last Fall to help fund a $10 million riverfront transformation, which includes connections to Riverfront Commons. See more details below under “Covington banking on ripple effect.”
Newport: The most visible construction activity on the NKY riverfront might be where Aqua on the Levee and Hampton Inn & Suites are making progress at either side of Newport on the Levee. In the same area, work begins this summer on small bridges to connect the Taylor Southgate Bridge to existing floodwall trails on both sides, allowing walkers and bikers direct access to cross the river into Cincinnati.
Work also begins this summer to continue Riverfront Commons east into Bellevue by creating a paved trail along the floodwall side of Dave Cowens Drive (Route 8) under I-471. It would end in front of Joe’s Crab Shack, where Newport is finalizing plans to construct the new Taylor Creek Overlook Park.
Moreland says NKY’s most important project, however, might be along the Licking River in Newport’s west end, where construction continues to extend Route 9 to the downtown riverfront. The massive project is opening 22 acres along the Licking for development, including the old Newport Steel facility and the proposed Ovation mixed use development where the Licking meets the Ohio.
Completion of the full Route 9 extension is expected by Fall 2017.
Bellevue: Much of the city’s summer activity — including concerts and festivals — will happen at its riverfront park, recently renamed Thomas J. Wiethorn Memorial Beach Park. Bellevue will use the new Riverfront Commons signage to designate an interim walking/biking path along Fairfield Avenue (Route 8) and down Ward Avenue to the park. A Cincy Red Bike station is being installed at Fairfield and Ward to help encourage activity.
“It’s not the ideal long-term plan to put cyclists on Fairfield Avenue with cars, but we just want to get going with the Riverfront Commons concept,” Salzman says, noting that Bellevue’s riverfront — which unlike its neighboring cities doesn’t have a floodwall — would need to be built up in the future to support a free-standing trail.
Dayton: Construction is underway on the first homes in the massive Manhattan Harbour project on Dayton’s riverfront, where the existing floodwall trail would have multiple connections. State funding has been secured to upgrade and fill in a new one-mile trail section.
Ft. Thomas and further east: Moreland says Riverfront Commons officially ends at the eastern edge of Dayton, but he sees an opportunity to extend the trail connections another few miles.
The national Rails-to-Trails movement has created thousands of miles of walking/biking paths along abandoned railroad lines, but now a Rails-With-Trails push is carving public paths along active railroad lines with appropriate safety fencing and separation. Moreland says CSX Railroad now uses just one track along the Ohio River, having dropped the second one, which could allow Riverfront Commons to be extended east along Ft. Thomas’ riverfront and under I-275 all the way to Pendery Sports Park in Silver Grove.
Covington banking on 'ripple effect'
City officials are considering a variety of riverfront options while awaiting U.S. Army Corp of Engineers approval for their initial stabilization and infrastructure improvement plans. Work on the first phase — from Madison Avenue to Crescent Avenue (Route 8) — starts this summer to build a large plaza with walking/biking paths as part of Riverfront Commons as well as water access for kayaking.
Other amenities could offer interactive human-scale components such as water features, public art, food truck plazas and hands-on recreation. The city will need other funding, including grants and private donors, to build the more creative and ambitious options being discussed.
“Excellent outdoor public spaces have a ripple effect, leading to an increased property values in the city and making it more attractive for additional investment,” Klein says. “The link between recreational and cultural amenities and economic development is consistently demonstrated in the great cities worldwide. It’s important that Covington recognizes and acts on that fact by investing in public spaces.”
Covington has also announced two other high-profile outdoor projects. The first is replacement of the golf course clubhouse in Devou Park, a $5.25 million project funded by Devou Park Trust and Drees Pavilion. The new 12,000-square-foot clubhouse will serve more than just golfers, housing a cafe with outdoor seating, bike rentals and a park ranger station; completion is expected by Spring 2017.
The other project is Electric Alley, which will be converted to a walking and biking path between Fifth and Sixth Streets parallel to Madison and Scott. The alley runs through Gateway Community and Technical College’s downtown campus in a growing area with retail shops, businesses, restaurants and the Kenton County Public Library.
The alley conversion is being funded by a $1 million “transportation alternatives” grant from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. A construction timeline will be developed once the project is sent out for bids.
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