Urban planners envision vibrant Akron

Master plan created by renowned firm divides downtown into districts to utilize ‘untapped development potential’

By Betty Lin-Fisher

Akron’s downtown and surrounding areas are really made up of three main streets and four distinct business districts, which should be developed into vibrant, walkable spaces for businesses and homes, according to a master plan developed by a world-renowned architecture and planning firm.

The plan includes focusing on such things as a wellness center and loft apartments along the canal near Akron Children’s Hospital and downtown; developing the East Exchange Street corridor by the University of Akron; and creating a focal point of research and development firms, retail and living spaces along East Market Street near Summa Health System’s City Hospital and UA.

The University Park Alliance, a nonprofit community development corporation whose mission is to transform the 50-block neighborhood surrounding the University of Akron, will release the plan at its annual luncheon Wednesday at the UA Student Union.

The plan is ‘’really capitalizing on untapped development potential in Akron,’’ said Eric Anthony Johnson, UPA executive director, who is about nine months into his job and set a goal shortly after he started to have a master plan for the area by the organization’s annual meeting.

The plan was the result of about six months of work by EE&K, a Perkins Eastman Co., and a firm that designed many successful urban revitalization projects, including New York City’s Battery Park and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Stanton Eckstut is an EE&K principal who was the lead planner on the project and worked with all of the major anchor institutions in the UPA and downtown Akron region, including government officials and Akron Tomorrow, a group of chief executives.

But the charge to Eckstut and his team from Johnson was to come up with an overall plan, or ‘’playbook,’’ for all of the various partners in UPA and the region to use.

The plan aims to allow a partner or group of organizations to show potential investors or employees that there’s a common vision for the future of the community, including places where people can live, work and play, Johnson said.

The plan, which cost about $370,000, will show ‘’this is a place worth investing,’’ Johnson said. ’’Why not come to a place with synergy and great partners?

‘’Someone may invest simply if they see the pieces together. They may not invest if they see fragmentation.’’

Eckstut said he and his team see ‘’an extraordinary downtown with wonderful assets. It’s so different than other cities we work.’’

Eckstut has been to Akron many times as he and his team worked on the plan. His firm’s leaders are located all over the country and Eckstut said he splits his time mostly between New York City and Washington, D.C.

‘’I think the canal is the real big sleeper in this. We definitely see the future of the Main Street part and parcel to be connected to each other,’’ he said.

Healthy living

One vision is to see Akron Children’s and Akron General build a wellness center along the canal and then bring in a movie theater and loft apartment living.

Children’s is very supportive and excited about what UPA is doing, including showcasing the towpath and canal, said Children’s Executive Vice President Shawn Lyden.

Children’s officials have talked with leaders from nearby Akron General Medical Center about ‘’things we can do together relative to property development,’’ Lyden said. The two campuses are within walking distance, separated by West Exchange Street.

Children’s also has received suggestions from the University Park Alliance as the hospital moves forward with plans for a major expansion, Lyden said.

The hospital is in initial development stages of a capital project that would add a parking deck, medical office building and critical care tower for its neonatal intensive care unit and emergency department, Lyden said. Work could begin in the second half of next year.

Eckstut said the collaboration among the key partners in UPA, such as all three hospitals, the University of Akron, Akron Public Schools and city and county officials is something he has not seen anywhere else he works.

‘’Usually people are so involved in shaping their own worlds and competing that the idea of coming together is a tribute to Akron,’’ Eckstut said.

He said the partners have encouraged his firm to ‘’think beyond property lines’’ for the plan.

University of Akron President Luis Proenza, who formed the alliance with Summa Health System and the city in 2001, said the master plan is important to accelerate the transformation of the area and understand the points of convergence between the partners.

When people look at potential projects in a larger framework, ‘’you begin to paint a new picture, a new understanding of what the real downtown Akron means and a much more exciting vision of the future of our community,’’ Proenza said.

Mayor Don Plusquellic said that overall, the city is pleased with the master plan. Housing downtown makes a lot of sense using the canal, he said.

‘’I don’t think there’s any flash of lightning that suddenly went off that they saw something that we haven’t in a way, but it helps to verify some of the thoughts we’ve had of the importance of University Park in relation to the core city and focusing on that core and bringing more development there based on this plan,’’ Plusquellic said.

Joe Kanfer, chief executive and chairman of Gojo Industries and head of Akron Tomorrow, said it is in everyone’s best interests to have a ’’strong downtown with strong businesses and strong housing.

‘’We have some very experienced outside people working on this,’’ Kanfer said. ‘’We were able to have the benefit of other communities who have done this.’’

Johnson said that while Eckstut has been modest about his qualifications and experience, he ‘’is arguably one of the top two or three individuals in the world at what he does.’’

Having someone of Eckstut’s reputation will get the city attention, with people thinking, ‘’OK, something must be going on in Akron if you have a team of this caliber,’’ Johnson said.

Getting started

Eckstut said after a plan is designed, there is a move forward to see the plan put in place. ’’We’re anxious to move onto implementing this and to be part . . . of UPA and work with lots of partners,’’ he said.

Johnson said the overall plan has a time span of five to 20 years, but it’s important that some work start within the first 18 to 24 months.

While it is 10 years old, the UPA is at the end of its first year after a merger with a community development corporation to give it more options to help develop projects instead of simply facilitating partnerships.

Earlier this year, UPA announced its first project, breaking ground within a year on a 100 percent ‘’LEED-certified’’ neighborhood. LEED is a certified designation given to buildings for energy efficiency and environmental friendliness. Johnson said UPA is still working toward that goal with potential groundbreaking this year or in the spring of 2012.

The master plan identifies three neighborhoods — the Upson-Jewett neighborhood near City Hospital and neighborhoods surrounding Mason and Leggett schools — as areas receiving a focus on rehabilitating the housing stock to encourage current residents and attract new residents.

Akron school Superintendent David James said the benefit for the district of having a master plan for the area will be to help ‘’stabilize the areas around those schools so we’re not losing population, but gaining population.’’

James said it is not about moving people out, but creating economically diverse neighborhoods where children go to school.

James said economic development is vital to schools because ‘’the success of our community is going to be reliant on an educated work force.’’

‘’I need to turn out a better product,’’ James said.‘’ I need to have more going to post-secondary education because we need those workers at Summa and Gojo [and other downtown employers].’’

Two weeks ago, UPA reported that the major institutions in or near University Park have a direct economic impact of $2.5 billion within the area and an indirect impact of $3.5 billion within Ohio.

"Urban planners envision vibrant Akron," The Akron Beacon Journal, April 9, 2011