Stories

Downtown Akron Partnership Tackling Projects, Large and Small Scale

June 19, 2017
By Bob Downing

The Downtown Akron Partnership (DAP) is working with the City of Akron to fine tune the latest plans for the bicycle route through downtown Akron. It is also working to boost downtown Akron housing and to find a solution to a problem at an Akron hotel on Cascade Plaza.

DAP has been promoting summer activities with partners on the Cascade Plaza and through the Civic Gateway. The new efforts by the non-profit group are being funded, in part, by a $74,376 Akron Civic Commons grant, said Suzie Graham, president and CEO of the Downtown Akron Partnership. It has budgeted about $30,000 from the grant for its downtown Akron efforts, including beautifying the cycle track along South Main Street. Graham’s group is planting and maintaining shrubs and flowers in urns along the cycle route to beautify South Main Street. This happens to be the route that the highly popular Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail is taking through downtown on a temporary basis due to Akron’s on-going sewer construction that required the alternate trail.

Akron cycle track signage and planters.
Photo by Bob Downing

DAP is switching the plantings from rectangular planting boxes to urns because the boxes are too light and short, and often are jolted around. The boxes will remain as part of the downtown beautification efforts. Graham’s group is planting boxwoods, a shrubby plant, in the urns as a year-round planting centerpiece. That choice was confirmed by studies from the International Downtown Forum, Keep Akron Beautiful and the NIHF STEM students, all of whom said the boxwoods are very hardy. Additional summer annuals will also be planted. The planting work is expected to continue through September and October.

Graham’s group has also been working with the city to finalize plans for the $14.5 million Downtown Akron Promenade, a major new effort to rebuild and revitalize the South Main Street portion of downtown. Last July, Akron received a $5 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. It is a very competitive federal grant program. DAP wants to ensure that the TIGER project includes best practices for street design, and wants to guarantee that the plan adheres to Phase 1 of the recent Downtown Akron Vision + Redevelopment plan.

Phase 1 of that plan by Columbus-based consulting firm MKSK was completed in November 2016. It looked at making downtown Akron more walkable and more attractive to millennials, and proposed a number of guiding principles. The plan for Akron includes roadway and sidewalk repairs along South Main Street, the addition of on-street parking and dedicated bike lanes, transit enhancements, traffic enhancements, way-finding signage and green infrastructure. This also includes plans fora traffic round-about at Mill and South Main Streets in downtown Akron. Phase 1 would run north from State to Mill streets. Phase 2 would run south from State to Cedar streets.

City leaders have said that construction on Phase 1 could begin in late 2018 or early 2019, after design and engineering work are completed. When the federal grant was announced, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan called the TIGER grant “transformational for downtown Akron and for our growth strategies.” The city, he said, wants to boost the number of people living downtown. Concurrently, Graham commented that, “The TIGER grant is a way for us to make transformational change downtown creating a welcoming, beautiful Main Street that will set a new standard for how we design streets and sidewalks in our city. Residents, businesses and visitors will benefit from this investment to create an excellent public space for Akron’s people.”

DAP is working with MKSK to complete a second phase of a housing study for downtown Akron. The group expects to spend about $125,000 on Phase 2 of a new downtown plan that includes housing, hospitality facilities and significant public engagement. That work will receive $20,000 of Civic Commons grant money.

Three public meetings will be held at the Akron Civic Theatre to get public input: from 5 to 7 p.m. June 21 and Sept. 19. The third meeting has not been scheduled. The final report will then be shared with the city and non-profits, and guide future downtown development by the city, private investors and non-profit groups, Graham said. “It is a way to guide future investments toward a common vision with shared benefits for the city and our residents,” she added.

Phase 2 has been funded largely by the Huntington Bank and other corporate sponsors. That study should be completed by December 2017, according to Graham. She called what is planned to be “a deep dive” into what type of downtown housing would be most attractive and how many units might be needed. The first phase of the downtown Akron study called for focusing development along Main Street and boosting residential development in the downtown area.

Cascade Cucina on Cascade Plaza
Photo by Katelyn Freil

The 33-page Downtown Vision + Redevelopment Plan included 10 planning principles that are to be incorporated into new public and private development in downtown Akron. The consensus-led plan identified five Akron sites in which development is recommended as the most critical to boost the city’s growth. The most critical were Lock 3 and Lock 4 on South Main Street and the intersection of South Main and Exchange streets, areas that intersect with the Civic Commons footprint. That study was funded by the GAR and John S. and James L. Knight foundations.

Graham’s partnership is also working to help the owners of the now-closed City Center Hotel prepare a plan to provide new vehicular access to the 19-story hotel via Cascade Plaza. The city and numerous partners are looking at developing a new driveway onto the plaza from West Bowery Street to improve access for hotel guests, with the request being made by hotel co-owner Joel Testa. The hotel project will receive $24,376 of the Akron Civic Commons grant money to co-design and implement a remedy with stakeholders and MKSK. By doing so, this will “set the stage for potential prototyping and future investment,” according to Graham. “This is a unique area to have such a large employee base, now residents and hotel guests in Akron,” she added. That might also include expanding the downtown cycle track on Mill and Quaker streets. DAP also intends to train and employ one or two homeless individuals to care for partnership planters along South Main Street – with support from the Akron Civic Commons, she said. That program is set to begin later this year, she said.

DAP is one of numerous parties that are staging food trucks,  entertainment and yoga classes in an effort “to activate” Cascade Plaza and the Civic Gateway in downtown Akron. The goal is also to bring more people to Cascade Plaza, a key open space in the downtown area. The Akron Civic Commons grant will fund Tuesday concerts at noon through Aug. 29 on Cascade Plaza in the Summer on the Plaza series. The grant will help DAP provide “more consistent downtown programming.”  Still, difficulty remains in getting workers out of their offices and involved in the programs remains very difficult, Graham has said.

For more information on Downtown Akron Partnership’s work, visit www.downtownakron.com.