Northern Kentucky received some significant news in September 2016. The sprawling Internal Revenue Service building in downtown Covington would be closing and a significant number of the jobs associated with the center would be eliminated. After the initial shock dissipated, area leaders began discussing future uses for the property.
The current IRS center was designed by local architect Carl Bankemper and sits on a 14.5-acre site north of Fourth Street. Construction on the $4.5 million building began in 1965 and was completed in 1967. The building came at a very opportune time for Covington. The city was suffering financially as many residents and businesses had left the community for the suburbs. The influx of IRS employees brought new revenue to the city coffers and helped a number of existing nearby businesses remain open.
What was on the site before the center? Perhaps the answer to this question could be the blueprint for the future. The IRS center is located in what was once a thriving mixed-use neighborhood. By the 1880s, the neighborhood was significantly developed. The streets were lined with densely packed one- and two-story red brick homes and businesses. Small grocery stores and dry goods establishments were a part of the fabric of the community. The neighborhood continued to fill in, and by the early 1900s, manufacturing plants and tobacco warehouses were also represented on the riverfront. The streets were bustling with activity and filled with multicultural families and individuals. The residents had good access to public transportation through streetcar service on Madison Avenue. The neighborhood’s proximity to the Ohio River and the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge provided the population with convenient access to Cincinnati.
Two significant landmarks drew the community together. First Baptist Church with its impressive fieldstone façade was completed in 1873 and survives to this day. Next-door was the First Presbyterian Church, which didn’t fare as well. First Presbyterian was also dedicated in 1873 and featured a 185-foot spire that became a visual point of reference for the community. The structure ultimately was demolished to make way for the IRS Center.
Community leaders are now focused on what should replace the massive one-story IRS complex. One obvious project is the expansion of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center. This expansion has the support of the City of Covington, the Northern Kentucky Legislative Caucus and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. The convention center has brought significant financial benefit to Covington and the entire region. An expansion would only help in these efforts and would be a catalyst for further development.
Nearby completed projects like RiverCenter, the Ascent and the Boone Block all indicate that a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood could be very successful once again in this part of Covington. Streets once lined with small stores and single-family brick homes could again be vibrant. Apartments and condominiums with river views, stores and restaurants catering to area residents and those attending the convention center, and a walkable neighborhood with access to the river, public transportation and numerous recreational opportunities could once again thrive.
Covington’s future, and the future of a region, depends on walkable downtown neighborhoods with good amenities that add to quality of life and that will attract both millennials and retirees back to our urban core. The IRS site provides us this opportunity. Look to the past to plan for our future.
Dave Schroeder is the executive director of the Kenton County Public Library. He first began working at the library in 1986 and has worked with Thomas More College and the Diocese of Covington. Schroeder returned to KCPL in 2000 and was selected as executive director in 2007. He serves on many regional and state boards including Friends of the Kentucky Public Archives and the Northern Kentucky Education Council Action Team IV. He is a graduate of Leadership Northern Kentucky Class of 2008.