By Gina Holt
NEWPORT - The swings are empty. The local bar has served its last beer. And the cars that used to line both sides of the street in the neighborhood are mostly now parked in different driveways.
The neighborhood known as Cote Brilliant, or now more commonly as "Newport Promenade," has been vacated by most of its residents - all moved away as the city buys up land for a $110 million shopping and upscale residential development.
New lawsuits and eminent domain orders are still being filed and argued. But most residents have sold out to the city - and are leaving soon.
"We don't have to leave until May 12," said Connie Steffen, one of only two residents left on the part of Chesapeake Avenue being taken for the project. She and her husband sold their house before eminent domain was enacted.
Some of the neighbors are fighting.
The project, consisting of upscale homes on the hill and a retail development below, was challenged by Cote Brilliant residents who filed suit in federal court, arguing the neighborhood did not meet Kentucky Revised Statutes standards for a declaration of "blight."
The federal court said state court was the appropriate venue for that decision.
A new lawsuit was filed on Friday in Campbell County Circuit Court by three families who are among the 16 holdouts facing eminent domain.
It argues - like many outlined in the recently released national study on eminent domain - that the city's move to buy the property to sell to a developer does not constitute a "public use."
Developer's agents and the threat of eminent domain came to the houses on this hill in September 2001.
After offers were made to homeowners and some were accepted, the commercial developer, Neyer Properties of Evendale, unable to attract tenants to the proposed $110 million development, was asked by the city to step out.
That left Newport with luxury homes being built on the hill, a tenantless plan to develop retail, and a large group of Cote Brilliant residents who might be faced with owning two houses, not one.
To help the residents and move forward with the project, the city last winter authorized $12 million in bonds to pay for acquisition of more than 100 properties, demolition and site preparation.
Many residents, already paying two mortgages because they'd agreed to sell, have closed their deals and gone.
Steffen said she doesn't see many people in her neighborhood now. The majority of people needing to vacate Park Avenue, Grand Avenue and Vine Street have left. Everyone has vacated Ohio Avenue, the portion west of the Interstate 471 overpass.
Rivernuts, the neighborhood bar on Grand Avenue, closed earlier this month after being bought by the city for $300,000.
The city is still in negotiations with the church, but St. Francis and Holy Trinity Junior High, formerly known as Holy Spirit Junior High, will be torn down for the project.
"My kids were baptized there," Mrs. Steffen said of the church. "My kids went to school there. We grew up there."
She said it saddens her that her home and community of 22 years is going to be demolished.
She and her husband were also unhappy with the process. They were told in September 2001 that a company wanted to develop the area.
Steve Steffen was not happy with the amount offered - $93,500.
"I'm unhappy with the way they went about it," he said. "It was, 'Take our price or we'll use eminent domain.'
"I couldn't replace my home with what they gave me. What I had is what I wanted, and I couldn't find what I had."
He said his new home in Alexandria is a smaller house, has less of a lot and has a bigger payment.
But eminent domain was a strong argument.
"We were going to remodel our house," Mrs. Steffen said. "We were at a standstill. We didn't want to put all kinds of money in it if they were going to say, 'Sorry, it's ours now.' "
And even though tenants have not yet been found for the retail development, the wrecking ball should swing before fall.
Neyer Properties - which has no connection to Blue Ash developer Al Neyer - said it could not gather all of the properties and was removed from the retail portion of the project.
Phil Ciafardini, Newport city manager, said Neyer is still going to do the Wiedemann Hill project, which is the luxury residential part of the area.
"They'll no longer be part of the commercial section or the lower area. We've purchased whatever properties they had already acquired in that area. We also purchased some of the engineering reports that have a value to the project."
The city is continuing to acquire property. Ciafardini said 80 percent of the properties have already been closed on. A construction timeline will be determined once all the property is acquired.
"I would anticipate the demolition of properties by early summer," he said.
A developer also needs to be hired, but Ciafardini said there is a lot of interest in the project. He said no specific retailers or restaurants have committed to the project.
"We're trying to find a nice mix of retail, maybe some things that are new and unique to the area and other traditional retail that people are use to seeing but not in Campbell County," said Ciafardini. "There could be a Target or Kohl's. It will be a nice community-shopping complex, possibly a grocer."
He said the development is in a prime location because of its proximity to I-471 and Newport on the Levee.
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