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Northern Kentucky real estate scene is seeing audacious builds and rising home prices

By Abby Laub

When other developers were focusing on the suburbs in the 1980s and 90s, Corporex was laser focused on Northern Kentucky's urban core with landscape-changing projects such as The Ascent.
When other developers were focusing on the suburbs in the 1980s and 90s, Corporex was laser focused on Northern Kentucky’s urban core with landscape-changing projects such as The Ascent.

With historic properties, waterfront vistas, a major metropolis just across the river and a healthy influx of new residents, Northern Kentucky’s commercial and residential real estate markets are vibrant and diverse. The real estate landscape has changed a lot in a short time, but the balance of historic preservation and new development has worked well.

Covington-based Corporex has played a major role. Real estate development by the 50-year-old company has shaped the skyline of the south bank, and it continues to be an innovator.

“Corporex has historically taken on projects that are transformative for the communities that they’re in,” said Tom Banta, Managing Director for Corporex family of companies. “When you look at everything we did on the Northern Kentucky shoreline here – at the time we started RiverCenter – Covington had just been designated by HUD as one of the most blighted communities in the U.S.”

Instead of shuddering at the prospect of making a bad business deal, Corporex saw the great potential of property just across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati and built the RiverCenter Office Towers, complete with the high-end Metropolitan Club at the top.

“At the time it was considered absolutely crazy,” Banta said. “We called it pioneering, and it became a very pivotal moment for Covington. It was considered to be something that was going to advance and move the community forward, and it did.”

Fast forward to 2017, and the influence Corporex’s real estate development has had on Covington will be written as an important chapter in regional history.

“Even more recently when we did The Ascent, that again was considered very transformative,” Banta said, noting that the uniquely shaped, residential tower has 70 units with an average sales price of more than $900,000 in an area no one believed luxury housing would sell, period. “We couldn’t find any comps in the marketplace near that.”

Developing Northern Kentucky is paying off, literally, and it’s clear that the area is special.

“I’ve lived here the last 30 years, and I think what people always find unique about Northern Kentucky is how welcoming and open the people are,” Banta said. “You have the advantage of being connected to a large metropolitan area that has professional sports teams, the arts, the culture, all those things, so you’re connected to that. But you still have that very small, hometown feel. When we built The Ascent and sold those units, 80 percent of our buyers came from Ohio over into Kentucky. And they’re CEOs and entrepreneurs, they’re community leaders, and they just feel that sense of community and spirit in Northern Kentucky.”

mrnk-cover300More major real estate development is on the horizon, and Banta noted how important the river views are to making big projects a reality. Now that the real estate market is again surging, he said, there is a positive move to consolidate and better organize public services.

The next big project is Ovation in Newport, a mixed-used riverfront project that was stalled by the Great Recession but is now on the table again. The massive “live-work-play” structure won’t be strictly upscale like The Ascent and will accommodate residents young and old, Banta said

While new real estate development is exciting, Corporex and other companies are very much aware they must walk the fine line of maintaining the area’s unique charm and history while also not ignoring the suburbs.

“Developers try to lead, but largely we’re reacting to what people want,” he said. “In the ’80s and ’90s people were focusing on developing the suburbs, and the urban cores suffered. But now it’s reversed, because people want walkability, and for work, life and play to be convenient. The health of a community (now) is based on a healthy urban core. If you have a decaying urban center, it’s not good for the whole city long-term. I don’t view it as competing with the suburbs. … You’re creating both, and people are making their choices.”

Another unique new construction project is Ludlow Yards in Ludlow. City leaders recently unveiled this mixed-use development concept at the gateway to the community’s main business district with a design inspired by Ludlow’s railroad heritage. Designed by Hub+Weber Architects, the eye-catching four-story brick building captures the untapped potential of the city’s main business district while connecting to Ludlow’s past.

“We really wanted to create a design and a building that doesn’t look like anything else that would be developed in Ludlow,” Hub+Weber Principal Jim Guthrie said via news release. “Our goal was to create a design that was specific to the community of Ludlow. In contrast to much of the current design trends in urban redevelopment, we sought not only to create a design that would only fit in Ludlow but would only fit in this part of Ludlow – the industrial east end.”

The area is chock full of major commercial real estate developers and builders, including Fort Mitchell-based Paul Hemmer Cos., which has developed more than 3,000 acres of commercial land and has built more than 6 million s.f. of industrial and commercial buildings throughout the country, primarily in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Others very active in Northern Kentucky real estate development are Turner Construction, Gray Construction and Messer.

Record breaking home prices

The Northern Kentucky Association of Realtors and the Northern Kentucky Multiple Listing Service announced in June that home prices climbed to their highest ever prices, after a 6.5 percent increase during the 12 months since June 2015. The average sales price of $183,282 was the highest average price the MLS had recorded, climbing from the $177,404 average in June 2015.

NKAR President Jim Simpson said prices are back up above the levels achieved before the national market crash in 2006. NKAR is approaching $1 billion in annual sales for the first time.

(Lack of) “inventory plays a crucial role and prices are up,” Simpson said. “It’s good for sellers, and home buyers don’t seem to be daunted by that.”

The distribution of home sales is spread equitably among all sectors, including single-family residences and condominiums.

“We are experiencing a high market in the suburban areas, rural areas and riverfront areas – really across the entire market it’s all up,” Simpson said. “The job market is what’s driving it. The economy is getting better, and we’re also experience a lot more trade-up home buyers.”

Some of the region’s key home builders are Fischer Homes, an American Top 50 Builders honoree, Clayton Homes, Drees Homes, Toebben Companies, Walker Homes and Crawford Builders.

Unique to the urban core of Northern Kentucky’s south bank are hundreds of historic properties, including many on the National Register of Historic Places. This year 11 grants generating $143,944 of investment were awarded to eight Certified Local Government communities, according to the Kentucky Heritage Council. The grant awards fund qualifying projects submitted by city and countywide historic preservation commissions that have earned CLG designation. Recipients included Bellevue, Covington and Newport.

CLG designation offers a way for local governments to develop a comprehensive approach to historic preservation and promote the integration of preservation interests into the planning process.

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