Q&A: Remaking Downtown Kent
The physical aspects of downtown Kent are changing rapidly. I sat down with the city's engineer to get a handle on how the work is being paid for.
If you look up the phrase "transitional period" in the dictionary, there ought to be a picture of the city of Kent.
The sheer amount of physical and cultural change that's occured throughout the past few years is extraordinary.
Whether the change is for the best or merely trading new elements for old can vary depending on what day or in what coffee shop you're talking about it.
Culturally, there have indeed been some great losses in the name of "progress." The closing of Kent Hardware and Spin-More Records come to mind. Other potential losses hang on the razor's edge, such as the Wells-Sherman House.
To bring about this change city officials — that means members of Kent City Council and the city administration — have worked to invest an anticipated total of $15 million when all is said and done to remake downtown Kent.
At its core, the end goal of all this redevelopment and infrastructure work is essentially to strengthen Kent's tax base so there's more money available to pave roads and pay Kent's cops and firefighters.
But it also means that Kent's $15 million investment in itself helped bring about roughly $85 million in other public and private redevelopment. All that amounts to a transformation of downtown that includes combining the new with the old.
I sat down recently with Kent City Engineer Jim Bowling to talk about where the money is coming from and where it's going regarding infrastructure improvements for the downtown redevelopment projects.
The conversation was a long one — it lasted more than an hour and ranged from bike racks to complete street reconstruction — but there's a lot of work going on downtown with a lot of different financial sources and various project categories. So, it's worth the read if you really want the details on much of the downtown infrastructure work.
An abbreviated transcript from our conversation follows:
Kent City Engineer Jim Bowling: It was 2008 when the city, in the planning process, one of the things we had to do was determine a budget and funding plan. That budget and funding plan included a certain amount of TIF financing that was anticipated. When the city was looking at funding the downtown, it was trying to initiate the majority of the work with what we would call TIF eligible funds. Those TIF eligible funds being the monies generated by the actual development. At that time there was anticipation how much money would be available for infrastructure by the development. In other words, we have access to $7.5 million that only will occur if they build those buildings that increase property taxes that will turn around and pay back the debt incurred to make the development happen. SO if that development doesn’t happen that $7.5 million wouldn’t be available to anything else because it wouldn’t exist.
So, in that funding plan the idea was to do all the infrastructure work primarily within that avenue of funding, as well as to leverage certain capital dollars strategically to help promote the downtown moving forward. An example of that, if you went back in the records you would see before we got the TIGER grant for PARTA the city had already entered into an agreement with the university … for them to build the esplanade and for us to do Erie Street. That’s before PARTA got the TIGER grant. The city needed to do Erie Street. It was a mess. We knew it was essential for the downtown. The university wanted to move forward with The Esplanade … So while we were still negotiating with developers to bring them to the table, We knew the plan was good, we knew what we wanted to do was good, we made the step forward and said ‘if you can do that, do the Esplanade, we’ll do Erie Street.’ And then we pursued grant funds for both Erie Street and the Esplanade and therefore got grant funding for both of them. So that was an example where we used capital money to leverage other things to happen.
Kent Patch Editor Matt Fredmonsky: So do you have a total figure, in terms of grants, that has come in from other agencies for the downtown redevelopment project?
Bowling: With the latest (grants), coming to the city is approximately $3 million. If you add on PARTA's TIGER grant, it would be another $21.6 million onto that. And that’s just for the downtown.
Kent Patch: And how does it break down?
Bowling: The agencies, you have the Ohio Public Works Commission, which is the state. You’ve got federal money from AMATS (Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study). And you have the TIGER grant through the Federal Transit Administration. Then there’s the Ohio Department of Transportation Jobs and Commerce Grant, and then one that’s been discussed is the Ohio Department of Development. We were told if they don’t come up with the money ODOT will give us the money (for reconstructing two downtown streets).
Kent Patch: The $3 million figure seems low. Maybe I’m thinking of all the other grants for the Plum Creek restoration and the new Fairchild Avenue Bridge.
Bowling: I have a list of all the grants received since I’ve been here, and that list totals around $47 million. That includes the grants we’ve gotten since I was here, not the ones I’m executing.
Kent Patch: It seems as if it should be a larger figure, but I imagine $3 million is still pretty helpful.
Bowling: Let me tell you the downtown as I perceive it, in some regards. The total investment downtown, and these are approximate numbers … from the city is anticipated to be around $15 million. And this goes all the way back to when they bought the first piece of land well before I came to the city of Kent.
Kent Patch: I’m trying to think of which piece of property that would have been … it was the two houses next to the Right Dimensions property that were torn down first about four years ago.
Bowling: So this goes all the way back to land acquisition. Of that $15 million, $3 million approximately is coming from grants. And then $7 million approximately is from TIF (Tax Increment Financing), so that leaves $5 million over a span of, how many years since they first started buying land, has been used to leverage everything else that’s going on. And of that $5 million, land acquisition is over $3 million. So if you take it and you look, $15 million sounds like a lot. However, $3 million is paid for by grants, and $7 million, it doesn’t exist without this. So $5 million stretched out over 10 years has been used to leverage PARTA, their project, Kent State University’s Esplanade project, Fairmount's redevelopment, Pizzuti and the Kent State Hotel, and even significant parts of (Acorn Alley II) would not be happening without the parking deck … and the old hotel. So from the view that I take, that’s quite a bit of things leveraged with a small amount of what would be city resources that could be used somewhere else when you talk about over that length of time.
Kent Patch: Does that $15 million figure include the Downtown Kent Corporation money that was approved for buying land for the new courthouse?
Bowling: No, that doesn’t include the new courthouse. I look at that more as a continuation of the development that’s happening downtown. It’s not an essential piece to make the downtown happen. That’s really what the $15 million is about. Of that $15 million, one of the things that hasn’t been noted much by people is a significant amount of this money is being put into the existing downtown. It’s not there yet, but we’re talking about installing the new parking system; solving basically the existing parking concerns; putting in way-finding; painting light poles; putting bike racks throughout town, not just throughout the development; putting new trash cans and benches throughout the rest of town and other, what I will call downtown-wide, improvements. Those things alone, they exceed $1.3 million, so that just shows that development, not only is it focusing on itself, it’s really focusing on improving the downtown as well.
Kent Patch: It’s interesting too because it doesn’t really include the Ohio Public Works and AMATS money that helped pay for the new traffic signals on S.R. 59 that include updated pedestrian signals in the downtown area.
Bowling: If you throw that in, that’s another, the S.R. 59 project was over $3 million by itself. That one had AMATS money, OPWC money, it had CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) money in it as well as our funds. The accounting on some of this stuff gets to be rather a headache.
Kent Patch: I can imagine the budget director has a fun time dealing with all this. So, I guess what some people are still wondering is how they’re going to see that investment paid back. I understand the TIF money is sort of separated out in large part to pay for part of the parking deck, but that money that’s not part of the TIF, that $5 million or so, people are still wondering ‘Well, OK, we made this investment that’s great, but Kent still has poor finances. How are we going to get that back?' I guess that’s sort of the income tax generation part of it that’s a few years down the road.
Bowling: I can only speak to how I view it. First of all, there isn’t a “pay back.” This isn’t loan money. The only money that was borrowed is the money that’s going to be paid back by the TIF. If you look at this as, 'OK, what’s my return on investment?' How many years is it going to take to pay back this money?' Then, I think you’re right. You are going to go to the income tax that’s generated by the development, and that’s going to be extremely difficult to measure because of the, Bryan Smith (PARTA's planning director) likes to call it the “halo effect,” so this dollar brings in $7 more dollars of money spent. You could look at it that way.
Kent Patch: As an engineer, you look at it probably from a purely infrastructure standpoint?
Bowling: From an infrastructure standpoint, the work that was done with the development gives me $7 million worth of money … that TIF generated $7 million of revenue to use on infrastructure. So you could look at a fairly direct correlation. We paid $5 million of city money that could be used on infrastructure, or other things. We got $7 million out of it to do infrastructure in that area. So there’s a $2 million bonus right now. I spent $5 million. I got $7 million. That doesn’t include the byproduct of this, which is the increase in income tax and what I like to say the $100 million facelift the city is getting with the new buildings, with the walkways and the new infrastructure. The way I look at it, if someone was asked ‘You give me $5 and I’ll give you $7,' would you take it? I think so. Granted, that $7 million in infrastructure, $4 million went to building a new infrastructure with the parking deck. But a good portion of the rest goes to fixing Erie Street, which was in deplorable condition; fixing DePeyster Street, which was in deplorable condition. Addressing existing streets downtown and doing some utility work downtown as well as being able to deal with the existing parking concerns. Before the development started people had issues with parking. This has allowed us to solve some of that.
Kent Patch: So let’s talk about those elements. The actual work that is being done both in the immediate vicinity of the block and throughout downtown with this money. What are the specific projects?
Bowling: First off you have the demolition of the old stuff that was there. The relocation of the old diner, those Right Dimensions houses that used to sit at DePeyster and S.R. 59, the Bar’N site, those kinds of things. So you had the demolition. You had the Alley 4 improvements, which would include burying of the overhead utilities. If you remember that alley, that was an unsafe place for people to walk. I was down there the other day and people are walking down that alley in a way that they look comfortable. Then you’ve got the downtown streets, Erie and DePeyster, that are being done.
Kent Patch: That’s Erie Street being rebuilt from Haymaker Parkway to Water Street and DePeyster Street being rebuilt from Erie to Haymaker?
Bowling: The total (street reconstruction) improvements being done are going to be Erie from Water to S.R. 59 and DePeyster from S.R. 59 to Main. The TIGER grant is doing two blocks of that, the ones that face the multi-modal building.
Kent Patch: So from Erie Street from DePeyster Street to Haymaker Parkway, and then DePeyster Street from Erie Street to Main Street?
Bowling: Right. As well as a new traffic signal at Erie Street and S.R. 59, as well as resurfacing a small piece of S.R. 59.
Kent Patch: Before we move on, there’s a master plan picture, sort of the 30,000-foot view, that shows plantings with trees and a barrier in the middle of Haymaker Parkway near that planned, new traffic signal. Is that still part of the plan?
Bowling: That’s not included at this stage right now. That was a planner showing features that were possible. When it really comes down to it ... We could do that if we want. There’s turn lanes in there for the buses to turn into their drive. In the long term vision we actually have a need, if you want to call it that, to maybe “soften” S.R. 59, but there’s no immediate plans to do that.
Kent Patch: So moving on from downtown streets being reconstructed with the money.
Bowling: Then you have the parking lot at Alley 5, including the reconstruction of Alley 5 itself, which that was just a slight bit better than Alley 4.
Kent Patch: I always thought that alley was worse. I’m interested in those details, like the way-finding signs.
Bowling: The things we’re starting to get into now is an implementation of the public parking system that maximizes the usage of the public parking in downtown. And there’s a lot of public parking in downtown.
Kent Patch: It’s just not where everyone wants it.
Bowling: Way-finding, we’re just beginning to work on a way-finding program so that when we’re done with construction, signs will be up telling people where the parking is. Part of the problem is people don’t know where the parking is. Pedestrian and vehicular-level way finding and place making; in other words, when you get to downtown Kent the signage will change in some regards so you’ll know 'I’m somewhere.' The way finding also includes potential for a banner system throughout downtown. We can envision the time when, going up Franklin Avenue where the farmers market is, there are banners advertising the farmers market in the summer. In front of the McKay Bricker Gallery there’s banners that advertise art. We haven’t defined that yet, so we’re starting that. So when you drive in, you get breadcrumbs that lead you to where you park. Then when you get out of where you park you have breadcrumbs from there that lead you to where you want to go.
Kent Patch: And that will be included in this existing pot of money for the redevelopment block?
Kent Patch: And in separate categories from that, but still paid for out of the same pot, are new benches and bike racks?
Bowling: Yes. We’re looking at replacing any of the outdated benches in the existing downtown and installing new benches throughout the downtown.
Kent Patch: How many?
Bowling: I budgeted for 40 new benches.
Kent Patch: I don’t know how many there are now. So basically, here’s where we get into the details of what the $5 million investment is going to pay for immediately, in terms of infrastructure. I guess the most common complaint I hear from residents is that “We should just be fixing streets and sidewalks. That’s what the city should do.” But the city is getting those kinds of improvements for the downtown on top of this huge facelift and $100 million redevelopment. So it’s sort of like you make the small investment and you’re getting both.
Bowling: The engineer on my staff in charge of the street program … him and I have sat down and we know how much we want to maintain the streets in a condition that we felt was acceptable. However, that amount is $1.1 million a year. Before I was here, they were budgeting $600,000 a year. That’s what they wanted to get done. We were already in a position where we weren’t achieving a base minimum. At the rate we were going, the streets were going to deteriorate beyond our ability to repair. So, there’s two ways to look at it. You can continue down that path, and I know where it was headed. The data show we were going down. Or, you can take a little bit of that, and it’s a very little bit, and you could use that to generate more revenue to the city, which can then be used for the street program.
Kent Patch: Which I think is sort of the argument that city officials have been making, the side argument all along, ‘Well, here’s why we’re doing this because more jobs means we’ll have more income tax revenue to do those things.'
Bowling: Right. What’s the only other way to gain revenue?
Kent Patch: Raising taxes primarily.
Bowling: There you go. So either you’re growing and you’re expanding and getting a bigger base to pull from to manage the resources that we have, which are the streets, which we’re saying needs $1.1 million to maintain those. Or we’re taking the amount of people that we have and we charge more to maintain those same streets. Water and sewer rates are a little different, but in some regards you can look at water and sewer the same. You increase users; you’re spreading out the cost to maintain it. If you decrease users or usage, that means all of us are paying more to maintain what we’ve got. On the risk of sounding very business-like, if you’re not trying to expand and sell more water and sell the usage for sewer, you can’t distribute the costs of the system.
Kent Patch: So back to benches.
Bowling: There are downtown, if you don’t count the farmers market benches, which we're not replacing, there are seven that we are going to replace and 30 or so new ones planned. These are just the “formal” benches. There are a couple places in downtown right now that you can sit, but it’s not necessarily a bench. It’s more architectural or streetscape oriented.
Kent Patch: An example would be a retaining wall almost anywhere.
Bowling: We’re building numerous ones on Erie Street. Downtown if you see the adopt a spot planting islands … we’re doing similar ones on Erie Street — some big ones. One is almost 60 feet long.
Kent Patch: How is that going to fit in there? This sounds like a somewhat new addition to the Erie reconstruction plan. I remember your presentation on “sharrows” a while back and that’s sort of my view of the Erie Street reconstruction.
Bowling: Right now the existing Erie Street is only 60 feet wide, the right of way. We added 20 feet going into the south side of Erie Street east of DePeyster Street. You’ve got 15 feet of sidewalk roughly from building to the curb. Then you’ve got 19 feet of perpendicular parking. Then you’ve got 22 feet of drive lanes, then 9 feet of parallel parking and another 15 feet of sidewalk. Where the parking has to narrow down before you get to an intersection, we’re moving the sidewalk out. So in some cases that sidewalk is 35 feet from face of the building to the curb. In those areas are new planters for the adopt a spot program.
Kent Patch: So the Erie Street reconstruction is really going to mimic the existing downtown in terms of pedestrian space?
Bowling: The one difference is, because benches started all this, along these islands instead of having curbs we’re going to have cut-stone seating walls, just along the planting areas, so that people can sit if they want to.
Kent Patch: An informal bench basically?
Bowling: Right. So if it’s empty you don’t think 'Oh my gosh, this is a dead town.' And a lot of these locations were set for the benches at least, where we expect to see an amount of activity. In the corner of the new hotel, the façade is all glass where the lounge is, so you perceive you’re part of that if you’re outside. The area of retail space for the multi-modal facility, if there’s an outdoor dining area you will have seating areas near that. As we go west on Erie Street across DePeyster, it’s a similar design. Near Acorn Alley is sort of a plaza area. The ability to walk through is going to be extended down to Alley 5 and the parking lot in the city’s block. Our long-term plan is to have artwork in this area. That hasn’t happened yet, but we’re building the place for it.
Kent Patch: Isn’t there a planting island at the end of Erie Street already at Water Street?
Bowling: Yes. It has to go because parking will be moved to the edge with driving down the center of the road. It’s more important to get parking out of the middle of the street and move it to the sides.
Kent Patch: So is that sort of the last element of the small infrastructure projects that are being done as part of the redevelopment?
Bowling: The seating walls are done as part of this project. They’ve already been out to bid. The benches we’re going to buy afterward and install throughout the downtown. The painting of the old light posts is a separate project category. There are 104 old light posts. Also we’re looking at painting the signals at Main and Water and Main and DePeyster … just to do something to make it look fresh. We’d like to replace the signal, but that’s a significant investment compared to the need. Bike racks are another project category … and the bike racks we’re budgeting for 100 new. Because there’s only eight existing. And these are not racks for a whole bunch of bikes. This is more of a single post for two bikes. From what our understanding is, cyclists want to be able to see where their bike is.
Kent Patch: So they want to be able to put it close to where they are rather than put in one location and leave it?
Bowling: Yes, and that doesn’t include the bike lockers at the transit center. And trash cans, we’ve budgeted for another 50 trash cans. There’s some work that has to be done to the Alley 3 parking lot behind Main Street to the north. At a minimum we’re looking at restriping it and new signage because it’s not clear. That’s the bulk of the downtown district-wide improvements.
Kent Patch: When you look at how much the city is investing between land acquisition, demolition and construction to get all this back it really seems like a lot in terms of infrastructure. Some people don’t realize it now, but I think five years from now they’ll realize this was a complete remaking and expansion of the core downtown that’s going to last another 100 or so years.
Bowling: Especially the buildings will last that long.
Kent Patch: Well, maybe not the roads.
Bowling: We wish they lasted a portion of that life. From the monetary standpoint, it is approximately a $100 million redevelopment.
Kent Patch: Factoring in the cost of all the projects?
Bowling: Yes. Pizzuti and the new Kent State hotel, PARTA's transit center, Kent State's Esplanade, Fairmount's mixed-use buildings, Acorn Alley, all of that totals more than $100 million.
Kent Patch: For a $5 million immediate investment.
Bowling: $5 million that could have been used to do streets, or pay staff, or other expenses. And that’s $5 million over the past decade or so since the city first bought land in the downtown redevelopment block.
Kent Patch: Thanks for the time Jim. I appreciate it.
Bowling: No problem.