The outstanding work of Southbank Partners is evident throughout the Newport, Ky., region. Here, the Purple People Bridge (from left on the horizon), Newport on the Levee and the Newport Aquarium are visible ahead, while Festival Park runs along the river to the left of this pedestrian bridge.

Riverfront Commons: The Realization

My first two Riverfront Commons blogs addressed the progression of Southbank Partners’ vision for Northern Kentucky and how the newly built coalition helped unify six cities with a common goal of riverfront rebirth. In this final blog, I summarize the pubic initiatives and resulting private investments that have transformed the Ohio River’s south bank over the last 10 years.

Enhancing the Riverfront, One Community at a Time
Initial projects were small, but as public investments developed, private investments snowballed into the transformation the communities envisioned. Let’s discuss these, working our way upstream starting at downtown Ludlow.

Ludlow: The city partnered with the local school district and private property owners to develop the trail along the top of the riverbank behind James Rigney Memorial Stadium and private homes and businesses. This section will eventually stretch to Covington and service the historic Ludlow Lagoon and Covington’s Devou Park areas.

Covington: Reaching west to Ludlow, Covington’s trails connect most of the riverfront. The EPA-funded prototype shoreline stabilization, designed 
for its signature Covington Riverfront Commons Plaza, was also used to save Riverside Drive from bank failure and provide a base to extend Riverfront Commons to the east. Nearing completion, the plaza was funded by public and private sources. It features a personal watercraft landing, river overlooks and floodwall murals of Covington’s history (image below). This project focal point has catalyzed new investments along the river that transform flood walls and levees from barriers into assets. Recreational and economic developments are anchored by the planned redevelopment of the former IRS site, with trail connections to the Convention Center and its planned expansion, as well as the hotel district, future city hall, Main Strasse and other local attractions.

Newport: The first section of Riverfront Commons began with a bridge and trail connecting the riverfront and levee to the Purple People Bridge and Newport on the Levee. A new hotel, mixed-use retail and housing at Aqua on the Levee followed shortly thereafter. The success of this initial trail investment led to funding for two more pedestrian bridges and the initiation of Festival Park, which is Newport’s signature park for events and one of the primary features of Riverfront Commons. Its success has multiplied the benefits of trail funding.

An Extended Reach
Initial riverfront developments inspired other public agencies to build upon and expand Riverfront Commons. Skyward planned the Licking River Greenway and Trails. After several phases, this 5-mile, water-based bike and pedestrian greenway now extend south through Newport, Covington and Wilder.

Area road systems have also added assets. On Route 8, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet extended a bike trail 3 miles up the Ohio River to Silver Grove. The Route 9 northern extension, which utilizes Complete Streets concepts, opened 75 acres of development land for businesses and includes a new bikeway linking to Riverfront Commons through Newport.

Created during the reconstruction of a failed stormwater outfall, Newport’s Taylor Creek Park provides a public gathering space between restaurants, condominiums and the hotel. The KYTC funded much of the infrastructure repair and restoration as well as an overlook park and trail node, demonstrating the successful integration of planning with grants. Two additional transportation grant-funded bridges opened connections across the river and set the stage for the redevelopment of Festival Park. Another grant extends the levee top and riverfront trails east to the New Riff Distillery. A new grant will fund the initial phase of Festival Park. 

The initial rendering of Covington’s riverfront park shared the city’s vision for this focal point of Southbank Partners’ vision for Riverfront Commons. The nearly completed Covington Riverfront Commons Plaza is on the right.

Private Development
The Riverfront Commons plan encourages private development, which in turn supports plan implementation. To date, total investment in Riverfront Commons-related projects is approaching $80 million. These private investments have expanded the waterfront’s potential and greatly benefited the surrounding communities.

Covington: Corporate relocations into RiverCenter, the conversion of one RiverCenter office building to residences, and the redevelopment of the former IRS facility into a new mixed-use neighborhood will add jobs and almost 1,000 feet of new Riverfront Commons greenway.

Newport: Newport is experiencing a range of private redevelopment, spurred by the development of Riverfront Commons. Newport’s riverfront features a regional music venue at Ovation, a mixed-use development with hotels and a variety of new housing, office and retail. Monmouth Row and Aqua on the Levee also are anchored by the $100 million makeover of Newport on the Levee.

Bellevue: Partnering with Harbor Greene, Bellevue is building a trail across its waterfront and is working with a neighboring residential complex to integrate the trail along its riverfront.

Dayton: Riverfront Commons trails have been incorporated into the new Manhattan Harbor and Riverfront Landing, a mixed-use riverfront retail center and marina. The Riverfront Commons master plan enabled this cooperative success.

Northern Kentucky is a hub for the Cross Kentucky Master Trail Plan. With connections to every city in northern Kentucky and links to regional trails from the various south bank trails, the region has been honored with inclusion in the Kentucky Trail Towns program. The program notes that the region is dedicated “to promote and develop opportunities for outdoor adventure throughout Kentucky, by partnering with public and private entities to foster economic growth and physical health, with increased access to Kentucky’s vast natural resources."

These trails have been even more vital to the public welfare during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing safe and socially distanced outdoor activities and destinations. Plans have been adjusted to accommodate wider trails, add frequent access points to reduce congestion, and improve accessibility by providing parallel trail options and installing hand and surface sanitation facilities.

Thanks to the financial contributions and hard work of people throughout the area, the Southbank Partners’ vision for Northern Kentucky is now a reality. Riverfront Commons has become a beautiful and thriving destination that will continue to grow and evolve to benefit communities and the economy along the Ohio River for years to come.

For more on this project, check out this Riverfront Commons story map.

Bruce Rankin

Woolpert Senior Landscape Architect Bruce Rankin, PLA, ASLA, is an award-winning designer with more than 40 years of experience in placemaking land planning, site and landscape design.