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Akron urban core plan: Rubber meets the road

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/21/12 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

"Eds and Meds" are being hailed as engines of urban revitalization, much the way 'retro' baseball parks like The Jake and Camden Yards were in the 1990s. There are striking similarities between these two types of big bang development schemes. In the end, a metric of success applied across the two might be, How often do marquee structures like hospitals and stadia lead to more development, the kind that fill in the smaller-scale spaces?

Cleveland's Gateway, it can be argued, made the E. 4th Street revitalization possible. More accurately, the ball parks in combination with the Euclid Corridor streetscape and Bus-Rapid Transit project made this area of downtown spiffy and lively. In return, E. 4th Street has made downtown a very desirable place to live, work and play again.

Smart growth is a term used to describe the sustainability of land use, which is often measured in efficiencies or sometimes in placemaking power. Where development pressure is high, cities can and often do set the ground rules for development. Cities play a role in ensuring development is aware and responds to its context. In Cleveland and Akron, the big institutions have the resources, and are currently setting the stage for how and where development occurs.

In Cleveland, Eds and Meds driven development is a tale of two cities-there's Uptown and the Clinic campus. The difference couldn't be more stark: UH and Case are filling in underperforming asphalt on Euclid and Mayfield with developments that promote walkable urbanism (whether it's affordable is a separate question considered here). The Clinic, meanwhile, designs its campus with little to no emphasis on building up neighborhood. Their ideas for public space in their latest Master Plan call for an internal greenway and an alignment of buildings where eyes are not on the street but continue the tradition of looking inward. The Clinic places buildings as objects in the center surrounded by the left over landscape. The approach historically has led to a campus that can often feel "sterile and monolithic," PD Art and Architecture critic, Steven Litt, writes.

In his critique of the Clinic's Master Plan, Litt notes that, "around the country, many urban universities and some medical centers-the "eds and meds"-are taking a more active role in relation to their surroundings… It's exciting that the Clinic's new plan indicates a strong commitment to Cleveland. At the same time, it's natural to ask whether it might be doing more to heal the city around it."

In Akron, University Park Alliance (UPA) is a non-profit developer similar to University Circle, Inc. Both UPA and UCI are building a consortium of big institutions toward major new developments in town. (Another great example of an ambitious urban campus revitalization that must be noted is Cleveland State University). Akron is in pre-development for two big, mixed-use projects-The Crossroads District and University Square-that aim to strengthen the physical connection between University of Akron and the major healthcare employers downtown, Akron General, Akron Children's Hospital, and Summa.

According to UPA President, Dr. Eric Anthony Johnson, the idea is to reach out to a growing market who want to live, work, socialize in one walkable district at the crossroads of Akron's main streets and health-related employment center.

"Cities are going to be emerging back on the radar, with rising gas prices and for reasons of talent attraction," Johnson says.

Currently, only six percent of employees of the four big institutions live in the University Park district, he adds.

UPA hired Tripp Umbach to study the economic impact of infill development in Akron. In March, 2012 the firm reported that the urban core plan could expect a $183 million return on investment-based on the projected industries to occupy the development (retail, office, R&D) and the number of direct jobs created per square foot and indirect jobs and tax revenues.

"The world of economic development has changed dramatically," Johnson says. "The old approach was go off and lure big companies with a wide net. The new world is about place. In biomedical, resources like talent go to great places. Boston, Seattle, San Francisco."

UPA has signed on KUD International, a major developer who will put together the financing-a challenge with lenders unfamiliar with mixed-use developments.

With the backing of its partners, UPA is driving an agenda that includes affordable housing and a small business retail mix. The study forecasts enough demand within the Akron Metro area to green light 803 housing units, priced at $130,000.

"The report found that would be affordable to an inordinate amount of people living in Akron and the MSA," Johnson says.

"Because we're a mission-based organization, it gives us an advantage. We don't have to say, I need a 12% profit margin to make it work. Now, I hope the higher price (residential) follows behind that…

"I hate to say it, but if you start with (the high net worth individual) you have it backwards. You don't start with the risk adverse individuals; you don't start with risk oblivious. The second category is risk aware. In this new world, with the real estate market being what it is and communities being strapped, they need an intermediary to make sure development will happen."

In 2012, Johnson expects movement on at least two big infill projects. Ultimately, the plan calls for four mixed-use infill projects along Market, Main and Exchange streets.

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