Written by Michael Monks, LINK nky chief content officer
A downtown Covington building was painted black without permission from the city and on Wednesday night, a city board denied a retroactive OK.
A new business, Alibi, from the proprietors of adjacent Agave & Rye, opened at 633 Madison Avenue, offering a bar and food from its next door neighbor, which was also painted black several years ago.
It is the fourth different business to occupy the space in four years.
But this time the owners changed the facade of this historic commercial property and ran afoul of the city’s zoning code.
According to a staff report presented to the board of architectural review and development (BOARD), the occupant requested approval to retain the paint which was applied to previously unpainted brick.
According to the Historic Covington Design Guidelines and the Covington Neighborhood Development Code, unpainted brick is to remain unpainted unless large sections of the original wall have been replaced with new brick that is clearly different in color/size/shape/mortar joint, or a building in which most of the original brick is 25% or greater of the entire building and is in very poor condition.
The guidelines state that brick and mortar in poor condition needs to be repaired before painting.
Nich Johnson, director of projects for Agave and Rye, told the BOARD that the brick was in poor shape, but also that there was no repair work before the paint was applied. He also attributed the paint job to an over-eager contractor who proceeded prior to the business receiving permission from the city.
Johnson said that the business received an email from the city saying that the proposed paint color would not be allowed.
“Unfortunately by the time that information made it to the contractor, it was already painted, so he got a little overzealous there,” Johnson said.
Since receiving notice of the violation, Johnson said that the business has not been able to bring in a contractor to evaluate potential costs or processes to remove the paint.
He also said that any attempt to remove the paint “will likely cause additional damage.”
The brick in question sits on the upper portion of the downtown building. The lower portion has previously glazed brick which was not painted.
City of Covington Preservation and Planning Specialist Christopher Myers, who reports before the BOARD, included in his staff report a list of recommendations from the National Park Service on best practices to remove paint from bricks. Methods like blasting, power washing, and sanding are frowned upon by the NPS, while the use of gel or paste compounds are looked at as most effective in preserving the integrity of the mortar.
Johnson said that the business’s only financially viable option would be sandblasting and power washing. “And that would lead to a not so great final product,” he said.
The BOARD was mostly unsympathetic.
“I’d have a different feeling if you had addressed some of the issues,” said BOARD member Larry Mosteller. “This kind of looks like a cheap way out and didn’t really address the underlying problem which you said had significant deterioration.”
Other BOARD members said that the applicant did not provide sufficient evidence of the claimed deterioration.
Alibi opened after fire codes prevented the previous business, Papi Jocho’s, from using its kitchen the way it was set up, Johnson said. “It was going to cost $40,000 to $50,000 to do what we wanted to do in that kitchen,” Johnson said. So, Papi Jocho’s was closed. It followed the closure Sugar Whiskey Sis and Crema, two other businesses associated with Agave & Rye.
The Agave & Rye brand, however, has expanded rapidly in a short period of time. It is a popular downtown Covington destination, celebrated for its elaborate tacos and margaritas. It now has ten locations across multiple states, according to its website.
“This is a difficult situation and I am pretty sure the BOARD does not seek to be punitive, because the board has never sought to be punitive in the past,” said BOARD Chair Elzie Barker. He asked whether it was advantageous to the city “or anyone involved” to order that the building be restored.
“It seems pretty straightforward what we have to do here,” BOARD member Dr. James Schafer said.
“What is the outcome of preserving the top half of that building, which is already being reported as being in a difficult shape. Why would restoring the original brick look of the building improve the building?,” Barker asked during the virtual meeting.
“Because that is our mandate,” Schafer responded. “That is our design guidelines we are supposed to uphold.”
It was also stated during the BOARD meeting that other businesses in the same historic district have requested to paint previously unpainted brick and were refused.
“It is a cheaper way to do it than hiring a mason to chip out the old brick and repair the mortar and give it the continuity,” BOARD member Rebecca Weber said.
“I tend to believe this was done as a branding effort,” BOARD member Janet Creekmore said. “I don’t know that it was done because the brick was damaged or in bad shape.”
“If we don’t give approval for this, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the paint needs to be taken off and the front needs to be damaged,” Dr. Schafer said. “It just means we don’t approve it. All we are saying is, this isn’t right.”
BOARD member Mosteller asked, “are we for preserving our community or are we not?”
Ultimately the BOARD voted unanimously to deny retroactive approval of a certificate of appropriateness.
The operators of Alibi have the option to appeal the BOARD’s decision to the Kenton County Circuit Court. They also face potential further action from the City of Covington’s code enforcement department. It was unclear Thursday what exactly any penalty or remedy would look like. LINK nky will update this story when more is learned from the city.
Photo: Alibi in downtown Covington (Michael Monks/LINK nky)