Mark Schweitzer is a writer and lifelong resident of Akron, Ohio. Today he's sharing a guest article about the renewal of Akron, Ohio after decades of challenges.
Cities all over America face challenges of one kind or another. For some, it’s lack of affordable housing, uncontrolled growth and gentrification. For others—particularly in the post-industrial Midwest—the challenges include population loss, infrastructure maintenance and promoting economic growth.
While Akron, Ohio belongs in the latter group, its own challenges—like the region itself—vary in significant ways.
Population loss was steady but gradual, with the greater part of it taking place before 1980. While the city may no longer be The Rubber Capital of The World, it is still home to Goodyear World Headquarters and major research facilities for Bridgestone. Indeed, the enduring legacy of the Rubber Boom helped set the stage for the city’s current role as an innovation center, not only for the plastics and polymer industry, but increasingly for health care, aerospace and electronics.
As a result, while Akron faces many of the same problems as many Rust Belt cities, it has managed to weather its economic downturn fairly well compared to others.
The city’s reputation as an open and welcoming community has played an important role in this process, with its immigrant population growing over 30% between 2007 and 2013. This has represented close to $137 million in spending power for the local economy and an estimated $17 million in state and local taxes.
Most importantly, Akron’s long tradition of innovation is being put to work once again—not only in the realm of economic development, but in new strategies designed to attract more people into the city’s neighborhoods and downtown.
As outlined in my previous essay, How Did We Get Here?, Akron’s downtown shared the fate of many central business districts across the country as residential development, highway expansion and suburban growth combined to drain the life out of urban areas. Like everywhere else over the last five decades, proposed remedies have been hit-and-miss.
Today, a new city administration and a new generation of city leaders are busy working to create more small-scale hits and less big, painful misses.
Building off the success of Lock 3, a public park and performance area near the center of Main Street, the city is continuing to reshape the now-exposed Ohio Canal area, via the Bowery Project. This involves the redevelopment of a half-dozen buildings into a mixed-use project that adds 90 residential housing units and an arcade to help connect Main Street to the Canal at Lock 4. It’s the latest of several projects designed to bring more residents to the city’s central core.
Seeking input and buy-in from the whole community, the city and the Downtown Akron Partnership (DAP) are moving forward with an incremental downtown development plan created by MKSK of Columbus. The plan seeks to take advantage of assets like downtown’s minor-league baseball stadium, existing Canalway paths and activity hubs, and tie them together in a way that is more bike and pedestrian-friendly.
Overall, the plan is designed to promote development over time, using waves of residential and retail development to mutually support each other in a sustainable way.
Out with the Innerbelt
When the Akron Innerbelt was originally planned in the early 1960s, it was envisioned as a way to connect the downtown core to the existing highway system. Since completion of its first phase in the 1970s, it served as a little-used “Road to Nowhere” that had erased neighborhoods and cut off the city’s central business district from the near west side.
The never-completed highway was later characterized by former Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic as an “overbuilt, expensive entrance into downtown.” In 2014, the decision was made to remove most of it, turning the newly-opened space in between its existing access roads into surface level streets with room for new construction in-between. The work is already well underway, and once the road is gone, the plan is to extend incremental downtown development into the area.
All-In on the Arts
Building on an active arts community, Akron has taken one of its strengths and committed to using it to enhance the quality of life across every area of the city.
"A vibrant arts and culture sector is a leading indicator of economic prosperity and it helps create a place where people want to live,” says Nicole Mullet, director of ArtsNow, the local non-profit whose mission is to connect arts and cultural activities with the broader community. “The way Akron is leveraging arts and culture in placemaking not only adds to our collective well-being, but is also a smart, strategic move in retaining and attracting diverse talent.”
Supported by The Knight Foundation and other local funders, there are active, community-based art projects in almost every city neighborhood, from streetscape improvements and mural projects to street art, new performance venues and rotating displays of works from the Akron Art Museum.
A “Giving-Back Tuesday” last fall inspired the museum to offer free annual memberships; over 10,000 people took them up on the offer. In addition, the museum partnered with the Akron-Summit County Public Library to ensure that the arts can reach into every household by establishing an all-new Art Library. The innovative program lets people use their library card to check out works of art to display in their homes — just like you would a book.
A New Day for Neighborhoods
For years, many city residents had complained that city administrations focused too much on downtown and allowed neighborhoods to fend for themselves—often with mixed results. After taking on the job in 2016, Akron Director of Planning and Urban Development Jason Segedy started reaching out to residents for help in identifying their neighborhoods and shaping a consensus about their boundaries.
“Like all great cities, Akron is a city of neighborhoods,” explains Segedy. “Our rich history and our stunning topography have combined to create a city of well-defined neighborhoods, each with its own look, feel, and sense of place.”
“In Akron, every one of our neighborhoods is sort of quirky,” Kyle Kutuchief, Akron program director for the Knight Foundation, has pointed out. Now, he and other community leaders are focused on identifying the things that make each one unique, and using those elements to brand, market and enhance them. Those enhancements not only include restoring the historic walkability of many neighborhoods, but to also add more housing. Late last year, the City Council approved Mayor Dan Horrigan’s request to offer 15-year property tax abatements on residential construction. The plan forgives 100 percent of additional property taxes for 15 years on any new home or projects of $5,000 or more.
“The program is a powerful tool our community can use to jump-start population growth,” said Horrigan. “It will reward Akron homeowners who invest in their homes and improve our neighborhoods.”
Bringing it All Together
To make neighborhood improvement and transformation smoother and more coherent, the administration is also combining Planning, Economic Development and even elements of the Engineering Department into a new Office of Integrated Development. The new office will not only help reorganize the way Akron does business, but also to help support efforts to create a sense of place in the city’s neighborhoods.
The new Great Streets Akron program also plays off this strategy, directing new long-term investments in 10 neighborhood business districts. Using grants to improve facades, revolving loans and money for community development support, the goal is to work with businesses and residents to breathe new life into these important commercial corridors.
This community-based, street-wise focus—now based on small-scale incremental growth and sustainable development—makes for a great combination when added to the city’s existing assets. Those include a wealth of parks (including a National Park and the Ohio & Erie Canalway), recreation opportunities, cultural and historic assets, and a solid school system that has been physically rebuilt from the ground up over the past 15 years.
Like economic and business development, reviving neighborhoods and making our cities more attractive can’t be achieved with a single stroke of a magic wand, or a giant infusion of cash. As Akron has come to grasp over the past few decades—it will take a whole bag of tricks to set the stage for growth and renewal.
“It is the little things that truly make the difference,” says Segedy. “These are things that often involve fundamentals, as well as authentic collaboration between public officials, the private sector, and everyday people. This approach is reaping great dividends in Akron, and a new energy, enthusiasm, and excitement is in the air, as people make the transition from focusing on what was to what could be.”
(Top photo source: Mark Schweitzer)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Schweitzer is a creative writer, book publisher and lifelong resident of Akron, Ohio. His passion for architecture and historic preservation has led him to research the development of urban planning, historic neighborhoods, and today’s best practices in city renewal. Currently a member of Akron’s Urban Design and Historic Preservation Commission, he is guiding the effort to have Akron’s Goodyear Heights neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.