Chang­ing cor­ri­dors

New liquor store pro­posal spurs talks about fu­ture of city’s commercial cor­ri­dors

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - GABRIEL KHOULI gkhouli@cov­news.com

A pro­posal to put a new pack­age store on the Cov­ing­ton By­pass Road has spurred an in-depth dis­cus­sion about the fu­ture of the city’s commercial cor­ri­dors and what they will and should look like, with some of­fi­cials’ mod­ern vi­sion for the fu­ture clash­ing with oth­ers’ views of what’s real­is­tic.

Fred­die Neely, who owns 210-plus acres of land off the By­pass Road, is plan­ning to build a 10,000-square foot, high-end pack­age store across from the newer El Charro and Zaxby’s, but he asked the city for a vari­ance re­quest­ing that he be al­lowed to put his store’s park­ing spa­ces next to the road, in be­tween the road and his pro­posed build­ing.

The re­quest was de­nied by the city’s Board of Zon­ing Ap­peals, be­cause the city’s or­di­nances, en­acted in 2008, re­quire all new build­ings in commercial districts — ex­ist­ing build­ings are grand­fa­thered into the law — to have their store­fronts di­rectly next to the road with park­ing al­lowed on the side or in the rear of the build­ing.

But the case spurred dis­cus­sion — and has con­tin­ued to do so – leading the Cov­ing­ton City Coun­cil to pro­pose chang­ing the city’s laws to once again al­low park­ing spa­ces to be placed in be­tween a busi­ness and a road.

The ques­tion be­fore the coun­cil, and in­ter­ested lo­cals, is ‘What is the best way to move for­ward?’ and the is­sues in­volved are many, in­clud­ing aes­thet­ics, walk­a­bil­ity, per­sonal property rights, the re­al­ity of the present and the de­sire for the fu­ture.

The case against park­ing in front

Cov­ing­ton’s or­di­nances were based on mod­ern de­vel­op­ment trends, which gen­er­ally as­cribe to the be­lief that large spa­ces of as­phalt and paved sur­faces are ugly and should be hid­den as much as pos­si­ble, while more aes­thet­i­cally-pleas­ing store­fronts and land­scap­ing should be the more dom­i­nant view from the road.

Equally, or even more, im­por­tant than the aes­thet­ics is the fact that hav­ing store­fronts closer to roads and the side­walks that line them is safer for pedes­tri­ans who want to use those side­walks to walk to stores. The idea is that a pedes­trian walk­ing to a store is safer if the store’s en­trance is closer to the side­walk as op­posed to be­ing sep­a­rated by a park­ing lot where cars will be fre­quently mov­ing. (There is still gen­er­ally some sep­a­ra­tion of pave­ment be­tween the side­walk and the build­ing for traf­fic flow for the businesses.)

At a work ses­sion last week, Cov­ing­ton Plan­ning Di­rec­tor Randy Vin­son said the or­di­nance rec­om­men­da­tion to out­law park­ing in front of a commercial build­ing came from a study of the U.S. High­way 278 cor­ri­dor that said ar­eas of that cor­ri­dor are “pedes­trian hos­tile” for mul­ti­ple rea­sons, in­clud­ing the fact people can’t walk to store­fronts with­out cross­ing park­ing lots. (An­other rea­son is there’s lit­tle buf­fer be­tween the side­walk and U.S. 278 it­self, such as reg­u­larly spaced trees.)

There are many commercial cor­ri­dors ex­actly like U.S. 278 all across the coun­try, and those cor­ri­dors are fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from down­towns, in­clud­ing Cov­ing­ton. How­ever, there’s a plan­ning move­ment that says even these cor­ri­dors can and should — though not in ev­ery case — be­gin to mir­ror the down­town style which en­cour­ages walk­ing and bik­ing to get to shop­ping ar­eas.

Se­nior Plan­ner Scott Gaither said in his read­ing and re­search, a com­mon re­frain is that the younger gen­er­a­tions are at­tracted to ar­eas that have more com­pact de­vel­op­ment and pro­mote walk­a­bil­ity. He also said plan­ners by na­ture con­sider the longterm pic­ture when im­ple­ment­ing trends.

Lo­cal of­fi­cials are now ask­ing whether that move­ment should ap­ply to all of Cov­ing­ton’s commercial cor­ri­dors, es­pe­cially the By­pass Road, which has a speed limit of 55 mph, faster than the other cor­ri­dors, in­clud­ing U.S. 278, which is only 45 mph.

In ad­di­tion, part of the By­pass Road was con­verted in mid-2012 to Ga. High­way 36, con­tin­u­ing from where Ga. 36 meets the By­pass Road com­ing north to­ward Cov­ing­ton. The change was made to re­move trac­tor trailer traf­fic from the Square and down­town.

The case against reg­u­lat­ing park­ing

At­tor­ney Philip John­son, rep­re­sent­ing Neely, said the ma­jor ar­gu­ment against the or­di­nance ap­ply­ing to the By­pass Road is the fact it is, and he be­lieves, will con­tinue to be a ve­hi­cle-ori­ented commercial cor­ri­dor.

El Charro and Zaxby’s were both built be­fore the or­di­nance change in 2008 and have park­ing lots in front of their build­ings. Cov­ing­ton Ford had to meet the re­quire­ment, but it still has cars in be­tween the build­ing and the side­walk be­cause it uses that space as a show­case.

“There is noth­ing pedes­trian-friendly about the Cov­ing­ton By­pass Road, and it’s not go­ing to be as long as the speed limit is 55 mph,” John­son said at a work ses­sion.

The other ar­gu­ment is that the area isn’t close to a lot of res­i­dences and doesn’t have easy pedes­trian ac­cess.

While plan­ning is all about the fu­ture, and what could be, John­son said he doesn’t think it’s real­is­tic to as­sume the cor­ri­dor will ever have heavy pedes­trian traf­fic.

The city’s cur­rent law does al­low businesses to be granted vari­ances if they meet spe­cific cri­te­ria, such as a unique lot shape, that would make it a “hard­ship” to abide by the park­ing re­quire­ment.

John­son read­ily ad­mit­ted there were no such hard­ships that ap­plied to the pack­age store un­der the city’s or­di­nance; how­ever, the property owner would pre­fer to keep park­ing in front of the build­ing be­cause of the na­ture of the store.

Hav­ing park­ing in the back and a side­walk in front would re­quire the store to have two ac­tive doors on each side; both for cus­tomer safety and store safety, the owner would pre­fer to only have one en­trance. If there’s no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the park­ing re­quire­ment on the By­pass Road, then the park­ing re­quire­ment un­nec­es­sar­ily in­fringes on in­di­vid­ual property rights, John­son ar­gues.

Search­ing for a so­lu­tion

Af­ter the Board of Zon­ing Ap­peals de­nied Neely’s re­quest for a vari­ance, the Cov­ing­ton City Coun­cil dis­cussed the is­sue and de­cided at a work ses­sion to dra­mat­i­cally re­duce the ef­fects of the park­ing law.

Un­der the coun­cil’s or­di­nance pro­posal, which al­ready had its first read­ing at the last coun­cil meet­ing, businesses would only have to obey the more re­stric­tive park­ing re­quire­ments if they were on a road with a speed limit of 45 mph.

How­ever, Plan­ning Com­mis­sion mem­ber Jonathan Paschal said that change to­tally gut­ted the city’s or­di­nance, as there are no commercial cor­ri­dors, ex­cept for down­town Cov­ing­ton, that had a speed limit of less than 45 mph.

Paschal made his com­ments dur­ing a joint work ses­sion be­tween the Cov­ing­ton City Coun­cil and Plan­ning Com­mis­sion that lasted an hour and 17 min­utes, as all sides of the is­sues were de­bated.

Mayor Ron­nie John­ston and Coun­cil­woman Hawnethia Wil­liams were the only mem­bers of the coun­cil to at­tend the work ses­sion. John­ston ac­knowl­edged mul­ti­ple times that the 45 mph change painted too broad of a brush, and he promised he would take the is­sues back to the coun­cil for more dis­cus­sion.

How­ever, John­ston still be­lieved that ev­ery area of the city might not war­rant the park­ing lot re­stric­tions, and he wanted to see the coun­cil look at the is­sue in more depth to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween cor­ri­dors.

The Plan­ning Com­mis­sion for­mally op­posed the City Coun­cil’s or­di­nance change by a 4-1 vote with mem­ber Ron­ald Martin op­posed (mem­bers Pamela Maxwell and John Travis were ab­sent).

The city’s main com­mer- cial cor­ri­dors are U.S. 278, the By­pass Road, Wash­ing­ton Street, down­town Cov­ing­ton and Ga. High­way 142, which has had sev­eral businesses meet the new re­quire­ments, in­clud­ing Kauff­man Tire, Taco Bell, Waf­fle House, IHOP and McDon­ald’s. Some businesses of U.S. 278 have also met the re­quire­ments, in­clud­ing Wendy’s and McDon­ald’s.

How­ever, on the By­pass Road cor­ri­dor, the Neely property is ac­tu­ally one of the big­gest play­ers, as am­bi­tious plans have been dis­cussed for the property for years, in­clud­ing poten- tially turn­ing it into a high­end commercial com­plex. Mayor John­ston said he’d love to see an open-air, pedes­trian-friendly shop­ping des­ti­na­tion there and Philip John­son didn’t dis­agree.

Next step

The de­ci­sion is now up to the coun­cil, which is set to vote Mon­day on the fi­nal read­ing of its pro­posed or­di­nance change restrict­ing the park­ing re­quire­ments to only roads with speeds less than 45 mph. The coun­cil of­fi­cially meets at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall but al­ways has a 6 p.m. work ses­sion prior to its meet­ing.

Sub­mit­ted /The Cov­ing­ton News map il­lus­tra­tion by Gabriel Khouli/The Cov­ing­ton News

These ex­am­ples of new Kauff­man Tire and McDon­ald’s fran­chises on Ga. High­way 142 met the city of Cov­ing­ton’s or­di­nance re­quir­ing store­fronts to be closer to the road with no park­ing spa­ces in be­tween to im­prove aes­thet­ics and pedes­trian walk­a­bil­ity. This aerial shows the By­pass Road, where a new pack­age store could be lo­cated across from El Charro and Zaxby’s. As you can see, those businesses have park­ing spa­ces in be­tween the road and their businesses.

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