Building Community Around Downtown Jobs
Akron, Ohio, is a city that built its fortune on rubber. From the late 1800s into the mid 1900s, Akron was the rubber capital of the world, eventually housing the headquarters of all four major tire and rubber producers. But in a tale seen across the Great Lakes region and beyond, Akron’s booming industry eventually went bust. Businesses left and whole parts of town effectively cleared out. But, being a rubber city, Akron’s getting ready to bounce back.
In what’s hoped to be a significant part of that recovery is a plan for the redevelopment of a 50-block area in the city’s center. A multi-sector team of city leaders have joined the effort to dramatically reshape part of downtown Akron near the University of Akron, an area known as University Park. Led by the non-profit University Park Alliance, the project aims to revive the area in to a mixed-use and vibrant neighborhood, leveraging the university and other major institutional employers in the area to lure people back to what was formerly—and what officials hope will someday be again—a thriving neighborhood. And according to locals, it certainly needs the help.
“It’s one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city,” says John Moore, the city’s planning director. Housing boomed in the first two decades of the 20th century as workers streamed in from all over the country to snatch up plentiful jobs in the rubber industry. Housing for these workers developed in response and much of it remains today. Moore says the housing stock is under-maintained and so is the infrastructure. But because of the inherent demand from students at the nearby university, landlords are able to keep their properties occupied. Often too occupied. “They’re packing kids into houses like sardines,” he says.
But profiteering property owners aside, the housing is just plain old. “These houses weren’t built to last 100 years. And here we are,” Moore says.
University Park is not just students, though. In addition to the university, the area is home to three hospitals, research and development facilities, a business incubator and two new community learning centers. Eight of the county’s 10 largest employers are based there. Despite these assets, Moore says the area is still missing a cohesive neighborhood feeling.
“It’s ready to be reborn,” Moore says.
And he’s confident it will. Under the leadership of Eric Anthony Johnson, the University Park Alliance has developed a master plan focusing on three major streets in the area, targeting them as areas for new infill residential development and rehabilitation of the existing stock, new retail and mixed use opportunities and a series of public spaces. It’s aimed at phasing in development starting next spring and running up to 2030. Johnson and his group have the support of a wide range of local entities and partners, and they’re all hoping the plan will create a new center for the city.
“Here in this core lies the strength of Akron’s future,” Johnson says.
The institutional employment is the key. The university and the hospitals are major job providers, and the plan is to capitalize on this population to turn the area in to a place they not only want to work but also want to live.
“There’s no shortage of workers in this area,” Johnson says. “The pieces have always been here, but the missing link has been the creation of the great places between these institutions.”
He’s hopeful that the plan will bring more services and amenities to the neighborhood in order to meet the day-to-day needs of future residents. But filling in those gaps will take time and money. The University Park Alliance is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, newspaper magnates who started their chain in Akron with the Beacon Journal in the 1930s. These hometown roots remain a special tie for the foundation, which has kicked in about $12 million for the University Park Alliance and this project.
Jennifer Thomas is a program officer for the Knight Foundation, and she says the University Park development plan will be crucial for the future of the city. “It’s about how we re-engage people so that the core center of Akron matters to them,” Thomas says.
Making the center matter, according to Johnson, means making it a place people want to visit and maybe even come home to. He sees this as driving the strategy to pump life and economic activity back into the neighborhood.
“We focus on the importance of placemaking as a driver of the new economy,” Johnson says.
Those plans recently got an extra kick when international real estate development firm KUD signed on to handle some of the plan’s buildout. It’s a big name that’ll help lend credibility to the project and its ability to pull in financing. Johnson says that this new partnership is proof the plan will take shape.
“This is not just some vision plan,” Johnson says. “This is a plan that’s actually building.”
Beginning next spring, the first four or five projects will break ground. New and rehabilitated housing is one of the first key elements for Johnson, who hopes to develop market-rate housing in the low $100,000s. Eventually, over its nearly two decade roll out, he expects to build 900,000 square feet of office space, 3 million square feet of retail, 600,000 square feet of research and development space, 160,000 square feet of social and cultural space, and about 6,000 new residential units.
“It’s very ambitious,” Thomas says, “but we know this is something we have to do for our city and community.”
If everything works out, downtown Akron stands to take on a whole new life, potentially something similar to its boom years 100 years ago.
“Twenty years from now you won’t recognize it,” says Moore.
Image courtesy University Park Alliance.