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In Akron, redrawing the lines on Main Street renews a social contract

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/28/15 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Biking, Vibrant cities, Walking

In May, Akron pulled off one of the biggest Better Blocks in recent memory. A group of citizens and some well-placed city officials temporarily reconfigured a portion of the city's Main Street with temporary, “green” bike lanes, filled in seven vacant storefronts with pop up shops, found a space for a farmer’s market and soccer fields in vacant lots, and blocked off a part of the street for a “Times Square” type of pedestrian plaza. It didn’t begin or end with a single person or an event, insist two of its champions, Jason Segedy, the director of the regional transportation agency, AMATs, and neighborhood resident, John Ughrin. It was a group effort.

One better<br />The Better Block in the North Hill area of Akron. Image: Fitzwater Photography.

We meet in a Mexican restaurant just down the street from where a sleepy corner of north Akron’s Main Street known as Temple Square suddently became a hot attraction.

Evidence of the Better Block’s green bike lane chalk has faded -- but not the hope of the two leaders sitting in front of me. As they recount the big turnout over the three days of the Better Block, a recipient of a large grant from the Knight Foundation which helped to bring in Better Block founder and Dallas native Jason Roberts, the energy of organizing such a high-profile project is still evident.

Sitting around a table with some fellow Gen Xers is that good combination of skepticism tinged with expectation. But the pictures of happy hipsters enjoying a weekend of strolling and hanging out belies the serious business of what they set out to accomplish.

They learned to treat everything -- from the pop up shops to the temporary bike lane -- as if they are already part of the landscape.

“You are testing a real business,” Ughrin advises.

Same for the bike lane. They had to prove that traffic wouldn’t grind to a halt by removing two of Main Street’s four lanes to widen sidewalks, add a bike lane, and include on-street parking.

They observed car speeds dropping from 40 to 20 mph, and cast that as a positive outcome -- for creating a sense of place and boosting the business of the small mom and pop shops.

“All the (Better Blocks) projects look at the economics of it, because of the world we live in,” begins Ughrin, who noted the festival like atmosphere contributed to a heightened sense of success. “But, neighborhood identity and social capital are potent and what people are searching for.”

As head of an agency responsible for the local disbursement of federal transportation funds, Segedy has been a champion of doing more to encourage complete streets makeovers for cities of Akron, Kent, Ravenna, Medina -- where traditional downtowns and main streets have struggled.

“What I love about the better block is it’s tactical and, in this case, a flesh and blood project that was tried,” says Segedy, whose grandparents raised his mother in North Hill.

“North Hill is perceived correctly as the neighborhood where things are happening,” Ughrin adds. “This project helped reinforce that.”

Besides taking on the role of neighborhood organizers, Ughrin and his wife/business partner, Tina, were hired to collect the lessons from the Better Block into a report. Positive outcomes were more clear, because Akronites showed up. In droves. Did it give them confidence that market demand is growing for walkable urbanism in Akron?

“I’ve been doing this since 1998,” Segedy says, “and for the first time in my career I see people coming out of the woodwork. “I think it’s vitally important that we go back to core cities and provide neighborhoods where we thrive.”

That’s happened in some places in Akron, most notably, Highland Square across town on the west side where a gleaming Mustard Seed store just opened. Walkable urbanism is trending there, but in many ways it is vital to the North Hill where a recent influx of Southeast Asian refugees, many living here without cars, walk to community centers like the International Institute, a settlement agency. The second-wave immigrants -- the neighborhood is known still for Italian and Polish immigrants who moved here during the city’s industrial boom, even though many of the old timers are gone -- hail from Bhutan and Nepal. They make up to 25% of the neighborhood an influx Segedy says factored into the Akron Municipal School District keeping North High School open while others will be shuttered.

What were some of the more important discoveries from the better block?

“I didn’t hear one single complaint during or after about parking,” Ughrin says.

He adds that it emboldened North Hill businesses like People’s Bank and local landlords to speak highly of making features like the road diet and farmer’s market permanent.

“Officially we recommended the city adopt it,” says Segedy. “The city wants to see this kind of thing happen. We presented to the mayor and his cabinet last week. Not only did they learn a lot, they were impressed that actual residents made this happen. It reinforced this was a true collaboration.”

The Akron area has invested heavily, like Cleveland has, in a pattern of building roads to the periphery which has led to the sprawl of the urban area and erosion of the rural character outside of the city. The region's decisions to extend and put interchanges on I-77 and Route 8, a rural highway, sucked economic vitality away from the city. It has led to a lot of wide, but little used roads criss crossing Akron. Attempting to strike a balance, AMATs released a Road Diet Analysis this year which identifies 60 candidates for road diets, including 10 for immediate approval. The city is moving ahead with reconfiguring Tallmadge and another section of Copley roads (from four to three lanes and adding bike lanes). The hope, Segedy says, is to move from a patchwork to a network of calmer roads and bikeways. For Main Street and North Hill residents like the Ughrins, the Better Block inspired them to see their neighborhood in a new light.

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