The Kenmore neighborhood of Akron, Ohio has what a lot of other neighborhoods would love to have: a well-defined and sizable commercial district, laid out along an easily identifiable main thoroughfare. This is no surprise, since Kenmore was a small town of its own up until the late 1920’s, when it was annexed to the city of Akron.
As a result, a 1/3 mile stretch of Kenmore Boulevard remains as the vestige of the former city’s central “downtown” business district. While the businesses located there have generally been in decline over the past 50 years, and the area has become less pedestrian-friendly, the street still retains many of its best features. That includes many older two or three-story commercial structures, all of which are built out to the sidewalk, as well as a curving broad boulevard separated by a median that once provided a right-of-way for streetcars. It doesn’t take an expert to see that the area has great “bones” — and that with a little hard work and imagination, it could be brought back to take full advantage of its human scale, traditional small-town feel and rise to its potential as a true economic hub for the neighborhood.
Tina Boyes, who heads the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance, which serves as the area’s Community Development Corporation (CDC), agrees. She’s explained that the Better Block program organized for the area in 2017 was the impetus for many of the positive things that are happening on the Boulevard today.
“Better Block highlighted Kenmore Boulevard’s potential for economic development and placemaking,” Boyes said. “Residents, artists, small business owners and investors are now talking to each other and taking action to realize the potential for our neighborhood.”
But that Better Block program was only the beginning.
Making Kenmore a Great Place to Bike and Walk
When we talk about walkable streets, we are focusing on places that are people-oriented, creating an environment that's welcoming, safe and accessible for citizens engaging in all forms of transportation, but especially for those traveling on foot. Taken as a whole, the buildings, sidewalks and other features of the built environment are primarily scaled to people, rather than cars.
Kenmore Boulevard still retains much of this traditional walkability, thanks to the fact that most of its commercial buildings are up on the street and the sidewalk, rather than set back behind parking lots. This allows pedestrians to walk along the street and get a close-up look at businesses as they travel.
It’s not only more space-efficient and appealing. It’s also been proven to be more economically productive. People on foot visit their neighborhood businesses more often and buy more often—and walkable places produce far more tax value per acre than auto-oriented places.
Some of Kenmore Boulevard’s businesses have provided this kind of stability for decades, like Kenmore Komics & Games and the E&S Hobby Shop—the type of traditional storefronts that were common to many small-town Main Streets a half-century ago. As you might expect, they are joined by the types of other small neighborhood businesses you’d find almost anywhere — barber shops, a pizza parlor, a dance studio, a tavern and a branch of the public library.
Today, new additions to the street include entertainment attractions like the Rialto Theater, a small venue recently restored by Nate and Seth Vaill. The Rialto plays host to music performers, spoken word events, comedy shows and other community gatherings almost every night of the week. Another project headed by the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance is Live Music Now!, a new music and performance venue that is designed to get residents out in the community—and remind them of its history.
"It's a way to reassert our brand as a music district, while building community, bringing new people into the community and reinventing what that space could and should be," Boyes has noted.
Keeping the Boulevard walk-friendly and enhancing those features that attract pedestrians is important. But making the area more bike friendly—and slowing the car traffic—is also on the agenda. During the neighborhood’s Better Block event, lane reduction and protected bike lanes on Kenmore Boulevard were shown to be successful and were overwhelmingly supported by residents. Thankfully, the local CDC was able to get the city to reconsider its plans to repair and re-stripe the street with the same 12-foot lane spacing they had before, and which encouraged cars to travel down the boulevard at higher speeds. Lane spacing is critical, since it has been proven that narrower lanes encourage drivers to drive slower and more carefully—another benefit for bikers and pedestrians.
To complete the picture, the City of Akron is also targeting the Boulevard as part of it Great Streets program, which is slated for several neighborhood business districts throughout the city. In Kenmore, the Boulevard crosswalks will see improvements to boost safety and competitive façade grants will be made available. These grants will allow building owners to renew and restore the character of the structures, many of which add so much to the early-20th century flavor of the street. It is hoped that the effort will be successful in encouraging the re-population of the street’s empty storefronts, too.
The City’s zoning code has also seen adjustments that will make it more compatible with the traditional character of the neighborhood. Over the years, the code had become oriented more towards suburban development styles, with deeper building setbacks and street-facing parking to accommodate automobile users. That approach simply doesn’t work in an older business district, where buildings are much closer together, and where structures were designed with businesses downstairs and residences above.
All the combined efforts should help move Kenmore in the right direction and enhance the traditional feel of the street. According to Akron Planning Director Jason Segedy, "It's about doing lots of little things that are the details that add up to more than the sum of their parts."
The Pendulum Swings Back
Forty years ago, the Kenmore Boulevard business district was losing traffic and customers to local shopping malls like the former Rolling Acres mall, which was located just two miles away. Today, most of that once-popular mall is being bulldozed as America’s love affair with suburban shopping meccas have faded. With more people desiring to live closer to the places they shop, work and play, the authentic, small-town atmosphere provided by places like Kenmore becomes more attractive and more economically viable each day.
"Having that stretch of storefronts alone sets Kenmore apart,” explains Boyes. “Those buildings are precious."
Integral to that make-over is the importance of the area’s legacy as a hub for musicians. Along with the performance venues like The Rialto and Live Music Now!, the Boulevard is home to several other music-related businesses, like multiple guitar shops and recording studios, that allow people to visit often, linger and interact with others — while enhancing the neighborhood’s sense of identity.
As neighborhood leaders, residents, city departments, local businesses and entrepreneurs come together, a new picture is beginning to take shape — and it’s one that people are getting excited about. For years, the Boulevard was just a broad thoroughfare that was more “drive-through” than “destination.” Dusting off the parts and pieces and restoring it to its more traditional, people-friendly character can change all that.
This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.
(Top photo source: Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance Facebook page)