This year is shaping up to be a busy year for Northeast Ohio cities and towns trying to revitalize themselves. At least two dozen municipalities have turnaround plans in place, including Akron and Canton, which are spending more than $100 million between them to reinvent their downtowns.
In downtown Akron, there are still empty buildings and relatively few pedestrians. The latest revitalization thinking—the inspiration for Akron’s new plan—says the city’s heart is supposed to be a place of action with people “who work, shop, play and make homes there.”
Akron planning director Jason Segedy says not to worry: it will take some time to build-out a new downtown. He says when this one is built – focused on city living – people will come.
“Back in the ‘50s, retail was kind of the main use downtown, then that suburbanized,” Segedy says. “And then office became the main use. That’s largely suburbanized. But I think people are social creatures. And I think they always crave a sense of place in a central hub. And, particularly relevant to this conversation, a hub to live in.”
Still, within sight of the new projects like the Bowery rehab and Main Street upgrade are past projects, like Locks 3 and 4 and Quaker Square. Impressive to this day, they nonetheless didn’t tap that “central hub” yearning and prompt a downtown turnaround.
“Not yet,” Segedy says.
He says the development process is actually a very long-term thing.
“I think those things were really important going back even 20 years to kind of creating energy downtown,” he says. “And that’s almost like having a lot of bricks and now we need to put the mortar between the brinks. And the mortar really is residents, and having people living downtown.”
Della Rucker, co-founder of the Cincinnati-based city planning consultancy ECONOGY, agrees. She says making downtown a productive, growing community can take decades, and does require the right physical elements.
She also cautions it’s crucial that housing, work and entertainment foster diversity and inclusiveness. A downtown becomes a dynamic central neighborhood, she says, through people coming together in a freewheeling exchange of ideas and ambitions.
“Then the question becomes, ‘How do we work with human behavior? How do we work with people and communities of people to intentionally foster downtowns as places where people are really coming into their potential together?’” she says.
Developing diversity is on the minds of some residents of the new downtowns, too. A year ago, Janelle and Ralph Lee moved into Bliss Tower Lofts, a signature office-building conversion beside the historic Onesto Hotel – also remade into a premium apartment high rise as part of Canton’s emerging urban-lifestyle downtown.
“It’s totally renovated and a luxury lifestyle,” Janelle said.
“It’s the start of the renaissance when you talk about the Onesto, the Bliss being apartments," Ralph said. "I think the next step is to figure out how to put two- or three-story housing downtown because some people just want a house. I think that’s the next step for the downtown resurgence is to figure out where you can do some developments like that.”
Since they got to Canton, Janelle, who is an economic development specialist by profession, has been working with the nonprofit Strengthen Stark Project. She says she is seeing diversity develop in their area.
“People are actually moving downtown and you have a range of folks,” Janelle says. “You have millennials. You have folks like us, you know, empty-nesters who now want to do some urban living. You have some families with kids and with pets. And so, it’s a diversity of people. And that’s what makes a downtown.”
More Costs Ahead
In both Akron and Canton, the ideas of creating a live-in downtown have been in the works for some time. As major elements of the cities’ respective plans come together, some questions from the beginning linger: What’s all this going to cost? And when will it actually be done?
Beth Butler has been in Canton since she joined the faculty of Kent State Stark some 15 years ago. For the last five, she’s had an apartment in a converted professional building with tall windows overlooking Canton’s developing Art District.
“We’re pretty close to there,” Butler says. “And I think that Canton has done it right in that a lot of cities, when they do their downtown revitalization, it’s all restaurants and bars. It’s all an entertainment district. But we have a lot of variety here.”
Canton’s major downtown housing renovations to date have cost about $60 million. The latest downtown rebuilding in Akron includes an estimated $40 million to develop the Bowery block, and $31 million for Main Street improvements.
In both cities most of the funding for the revitalizations has come from private investment, philanthropy, or state and federal grants.