News: Hold That Bus Center!

Newport residents angrily reject bus transfer center and call for a public site selection process

Several dozen Newport citizens revolted at a recent meeting against a proposal to build a bus transfer center on the northern edge of Newport.

One-third of TANK's daily trips pass through Newport; the transit center will provide a one-stop transfer spot for passengers, explained Mark Donaghy, general manager of the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK), at a May 16 public meeting at Newport City Hall.

Residents, including some who ride TANK buses, were skeptical a center was needed and were sure it wasn't needed at TANK's "preferred" site — the southern half of the block bounded by York, Monmouth, Third and Fourth streets, now occupied by a mix of businesses in historic and non-historic buildings.

Donaghy said TANK has been thinking about building a bus center in Newport for several years and has considered many sites near the favored one. But he said TANK planners picked that site because it provides the most central location and best all-around accessibility. The center would be located about one block from the Newport on the Levee project and is across Fourth Street from the World Peace Bell and proposed Millennium Tower.

Thinking the site was supported by the three county commissions and the cities represented by the TANK board — and therefore most residents — the transit company held a meeting to get comments on details such as what colors and materials should be used.

To the chagrin of Donaghy and TANK board member Chuck Peters, the only TANK representatives at the meeting, practically none of the residents at the meeting favored the site.

Their Two Cents
The May 16 meeting began innocently enough, with Donaghy explaining how the two proposals — alternatives A and B — would fit into Newport. He quickly found himself on the defensive.

By the end of the it more than 90 minutes later, a few residents had walked out, a few Newport City Commissioners were forced into taking impromptu public positions on the proposal and at least one resident talked about filing a lawsuit to stop the bus center.

While Donaghy tried to steer the conversation toward design details, many audience members were angry TANK hadn't asked Newport residents what their preferred site was. They tried to pin Donaghy down with focused questions about whether or not this was the center's final site, how it became the preferred site, and what justification TANK has for the transfer center.

Donaghy, who didn't have concrete numbers or other details at the meeting, repeatedly told the crowd that the center is designed to remove bus stops from street corners, freeing traffic and providing a permanent place for bus riders to congregate. In the last few years, TANK bus stops have been moved around in Newport because of development and property owners who didn't want them in front of their buildings.

But the residents disagreed, saying that Newport doesn't have the bus riders to justify the center, especially not one costing about $2 million, not including the cost of buying and demolishing several buildings, a few of which were built in the 1800s and hold significant historic value for the residents. The city block in question has a few homes and several businesses, including a dry cleaner, offices, a bar, and others.

Residents in attendance were also angry because TANK had already begun the project by recently mailing letters to property owners about buying their buildings. Donaghy said later the TANK board settled on the site more than a year ago, but residents said TANK and the Newport City Commission have been less than forthcoming in answering questions about plans for the transit center.

Donaghy, in response to a question about what guidelines were used to pick the site, said historic preservation was considered, but said that bus traffic was TANK's primary focus.

"Certainly there was a bias (to traffic)," Donaghy said.

In the middle of the meeting, a couple of residents presented ideas of their own, using the two easels TANK brought to hold the bus center sketches. Rebecca Walker, a 13-year Newport resident and member of the East Row Historic Foundation, used one of the easels to hold a small sketch of what she'd like to see on TANK's preferred block. It called for saving the buildings on York and Monmouth but allowing much of the block's center to be used as a park.

Southbank Partners Inc., a Newport-based economic development group, had been backing a park proposal for the site for a couple of years, but the project is on hold until TANK finishes the bus center's design, said Southbank President Wally Pagan, who wasn't at the May 16 meeting.

Walker also presented a list of 20 other potential sites for the bus center, many of which had already been considered by TANK, Donaghy said later.

Later in the meeting, Dennis Middendorf, president of the East Row Foundation and 11-year Newport resident, approached the other easel, pointed at the mostly vacant World Peace Bell block owned by developer Wayne Carlisle and wondered aloud how much cheaper the bus center would be if it were built there on the south side of Fourth Street instead of TANK's preferred site.

The 900-foot Millennium Tower, originally scheduled to open by New Year's Eve 1999, still is a viable project in its financing stage, Pagan said.

Goodbye History
The public sentiment might have been best expressed by a woman in the front.

"This is hurting us," she said, seemingly close to tears. "We're not just having a bad day here."

Many Newport residents have put extra effort and money into their homes and businesses to preserve their historic character, she said, and the city and TANK want to throw away more of it.

In the past couple of years, the city tore down a 1930s fire station built by Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Admini-stration as well as Campbell Towers, a seven-story building built in 1927 and last used for office space. Both were cleared to make way for the World Peace Bell and Millennium Tower.

The city also allowed Posey Flats, an 1890s apartment building in poor shape, to be demolished for Newport Aquarium parking at the corner of Third and Monmouth streets, said Margo Warminski, a professional historic preservation consultant and 20-year Newport resident.

"That was the most significant loss," she said.

Newport should be careful about tearing down parts of its history, she said, because it can't be replaced.

"All of this tourist-oriented development is fine now," Warminski said, but what happens during a slow economy?

Most residents haven't fought for historic preservation yet because the city had something valuable to replace the buildings with, she said, such as the Levee development, and the particular buildings have been isolated or in poor condition. But the transit center site is different, she said. Although the buildings vary in age and style, they form a block that adds a lot to the city's urban character.

Drawing Lines
After a member of the crowd asked city officials to speak their minds, Newport Mayor Tom Guidugli said he thought TANK's site was the best location, but that he might rethink it because of the residents' concerns.

Newport City Commissioner Jan Knepshield said two years ago he thought the site might be a good place for a bus center, but this was the first information he'd heard about the idea in a while.

"I don't know any more about it than you do," Knepshield said, speaking to the residents. "We haven't railroaded through anything."

The bus center project isn't being driven by the city, though, but by TANK and its nine-member board — three of whom are each appointed by the Campbell, Kenton and Boone county commissions. So TANK could take the property through eminent domain without city help.

The city's stance seems the same as it was one year ago, when a majority of the city commission signed a letter backing TANK's preferred site, Newport City Manager Ciafardini told CityBeat.

Ciafardini also feels the objecting Newport residents have been kept informed about the process. A year ago, TANK and Southbank presented sketches to one of Newport's two historic preservation groups (the two groups merged several weeks ago to form the East Row Foundation).

"I'd say that there's been adequate public input," Ciafardini said.

However, he said the city is definitely interested in preserving the streetscape formed by buildings on York Street, as well as the three buildings on the block listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Southgate House. The middle of the block would be redeveloped, but the details are still up in the air.

To help resolve these issues, a majority of the five-member city commission voted May 22 to create a citizen's committee to study the center's design but not the location, Ciafardini said.

So far, at least one of the owners of property at the preferred site is objecting to the plan.

Brad Fennell, whose father owns the Challenger Piping building on Fourth Street near York, said his family has no plans to sell the building, which has been in the family for more than 100 years and would be demolished under both TANK plans. The Fennells also don't plan to sell any of the other few properties on the block they own.

"We would like to continue our business where it is," Fennell said.

But Donaghy doesn't foresee TANK picking a site far from its preferred one.

"I don't see many alternatives to that site," he said. "Could it happen? Sure. I don't have the final say."

Although Walker planned to attend the next TANK board meeting on June 14 at 6 p.m. at the company's offices in Fort Wright, she had little hope TANK would respond favorably to the East Row residents' requests for public hearings on the issue, adding that she was willing to file a lawsuit to stop the project. Walker said later she expected a committee of residents to form to explore "the whole direction that Newport is taking right now."

So will TANK go back to the drawing board and hold public hearings on the plan? Peters and Donaghy weren't sure.

"That's something I guess we need to discuss with the board," Donaghy said.

This fight is just beginning, Middendorf said.

"It's going to be an ongoing battle between growth and development and trying to preserve the architectural and historical character of the city," he said.

Attempts to reach Carlisle, who owns several buildings on TANK's preferred site, were not successful. ©

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