Many pieces of a unique puzzle are coming together in downtown Kent. When those pieces are finally assembled, they’ll make a complete picture of what could be ahead for downtowns in the Greater Akron area.
With its ambitious Central Gateway Project, Kent is re-inventing its downtown thanks to the efforts of city officials, the , and several private-sector developers.
The Central Gateway provides something for all parties involved while creating a safe and comfortable environment for pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders and motorists. The project will provide the city and its downtown businesses with additional parking for customers; PARTA will get a multi-modal transfer point for its riders; commuters and pedestrians will have easy access to key areas – including employers, shops and restaurants; the university will gain access to downtown and along State Route 59 through the KSU Esplanade; and two major employers in the region – The Davey Tree Expert Co. and Ametek – will have new facilities.
One of greatest benefits to the Greater Akron area is the promise of 1,000 new jobs that Central Gateway backers say it will generate upon completion.
Kent’s renewed downtown exemplifies what can be accomplished by cooperation between the public and private sectors and the use of urban design principles to create a sense of place and support a vibrant downtown. The project is a puzzle of many pieces and one of its key pieces was a $20 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant.
The ‘TIGER’ Pounces
In January 2010, PARTA received the TIGER grant to build its soon-to-be completed Kent Transit Center. Located in Kent’s Erie Street and Haymaker Parkway (state Route 59) area, the center will be the transportation hub of the Central Gateway and will be home to 10 bus bays that will serve local and express bus routes operated by PARTA. With its location near The PORTAGE Hike & Bike Trail, the center will include bike and pedestrian facilities, such as lockers, showers and bike racks.
Although Kent had been planning the re-development of its downtown for years – Kent Engineer Jim Bowling notes that the city began acquiring property in the area between Haymaker Parkway and Water, South Depeyster and Erie streets in 2005 – it wasn’t until PARTA landed the grant that the community’s efforts gained a newfound momentum. With the grant in hand, PARTA and Kent officials found a greater willingness by the parties involved to commit to the Central Gateway area. The grant’s initial $20 million led to investments in downtown that eventually grew to $100 million, according to Bowling.
“If you remember, back in those days, funding and lending from the banks were hard to come by and the economy wasn’t doing so well,” Bowling continues, “It really wasn’t until the TIGER grant that we were able to. That was the impetus to get the final funding wrapped up from the banks, and the city and the university.”
PARTA Planning Director Bryan Smith says that demonstrating that the new transit center would promote a mix of travel modes – transit, pedestrian, cycling and motor vehicles – was instrumental in securing the grant from federal officials. Smith notes that the area is named the Central Gateway because – upon completion – it will be the gateway between the downtown and the university via an extension of the KSU Esplanade, a pathway for cyclists and pedestrians.
Funded in part with $700,000 in AMATS Transportation Enhancement Program funds, the KSU Esplanade will extend from the university’s Fashion Institute to Haymaker Parkway along Erie Street. Haymaker Parkway is also undergoing extensive improvements that will allow pedestrians and cyclists to travel safely between the Esplanade and The PORTAGE. PARTA’s transit center will open in two stages, with its parking facilities opening first in March 2013. The center is expected to be fully operational by July 2013.
Bowling observes that bringing many transportation modes together will not only present convenient travel options for downtown visitors, but foster a new sense of identity for the area as a destination. “Downtown Kent is meant to be a place for people to go to – a community,” Bowling adds.
Creating a multi-modal downtown tied into the university was an aim of Kent’s redevelopment efforts dating back to the 1980s. Those plans lay fallow until 2005, when two of the city’s largest employers – The Davey Tree Expert Company and Ametek – began discussions with city officials about their need for new facilities. Those employers – together with KSU officials – also expressed an interest in a new hotel and conference center for their respective needs.
“Each of the public and private entities had a different goal in mind. These goals didn’t necessarily contradict each other, but if you looked at them in the right light, they actually complemented each other very well,” Bowling says.
The TIGER grant paved the way – not only for PARTA to construct a state-of-the art facility – but for the city to develop an additional 230 parking spaces on top of the transit center for employers and other businesses, according to Smith. With the lure of additional parking in place, Fairmount Properties and its joint venture partner Premiere Development Partners soon secured funding to construct three new buildings for the Davey Resource Group and Ametek. The first building – located at the corner of Haymaker Parkway and South Water Street – will house the Davey Resource Group and is expected to be completed soon. Likewise, the Kent State University Foundation committed to building a 120 room hotel and conference center in the area.
As these pieces were coming together for the Central Gateway, Kent’s Ron Burbick was busy planting some “acorns” of his own nearby.
‘Acorns’ Take Root
Dr. Burbick had a vision for a walk-able retail and restaurant district in the heart of downtown. The businessman began by investing millions of his own money and other investors through his RLB Phoenix Properties LLC in developing Acorn Alley I. Located along East Main and Depeyster streets, Acorn Alley I is a popular destination since its opening in September 2009 with its unique mix of shops, offices and restaurants. It sprouted Acorn Alley II, which opened in November 2011 at the corner of South Depeyster and East Erie streets and is home to new stores and eateries. The former five-story Franklin Hotel located at the intersection of East Main and South Depeyster streets is the site of Dr. Burbick’s next renovation project – Acorn Corner.
The Acorn Alley area is easily accessible by walking and cycling with ample parking nearby and ties in neatly with the Central Gateway area. Dr. Burbick says that it was through his participation with various civic committees and Main Street Kent – a historic preservation group – that he became aware of key principles regarding downtown revitalization. One principle that impressed Dr. Burbick seems relatively simple: People must have reasons to visit downtowns.
When retail, restaurants and related businesses leave downtowns, the remaining occupants tend to be lower-floor offices, such as those for non-profit organizations, that do not attract many visitors to the area, Dr. Burbick says. After years of frustration due to a lack of participants, he decided that he would apply some of Main Street Kent’s principles on his own by redeveloping a single building that housed several non-profits. That redeveloped building drew new tenants and mushroomed into another redeveloped building that drew new tenants, and then a third building that eventually became Acorn Alley I.
Vibrant downtowns are important – not only for commerce – but for a sense of community, Dr. Burbick observes.
“Here, in the last 30 years, everyone hopped in their car and went to a mall someplace,” he continues. “You don’t even know the people that live next door to you. Now, just this last Saturday we had this ‘Masterpieces on Main,’ a wine and art festival downtown. It was packed. You never had that in the past.”
He adds that changes in leadership in the city of Kent and Kent State University helped him in the pursuit of his projects. Prior to these changes, the mindset was to leave downtown Kent as it was. He praises KSU President Lester A. Lefton for pursuing development of the KSU Esplanade to overcome a psychological “town-gown” barrier to connect the campus with downtown.
AMATS was a supporting player throughout the drama of Kent’s downtown redevelopment. The agency programmed funding for several projects directly related to the Central Gateway – most notably the KSU Esplanade – and other nearby projects that would impact downtown such as the Crain Avenue Bridge project. (For a complete map and listing of projects, click here.)
One significant contribution by the agency wasn’t related to a particular project or funding at all, but concerned ideas, strategies and principles.
Released by AMATS in September 2010, Connecting Communities – A Guide to Integrating Land Use and Transportation presents strategies to help create connected livable communities through increasing transportation choices, encouraging coordinated development and reducing environmental impacts.
Planning Coordinator Krista Beniston explains that agency officials developed the guide after deciding that it was time to incorporate a more holistic approach to transportation planning – one that promoted sustainable land use strategies such as preserving urban centers like Kent’s downtown area. Prior to this change in approach, the agency tended to tackle problems with the region’s highways and public transit systems separately with little consideration as to how they might tie-in with one another or nearby pedestrian systems such as sidewalks and trails.
“In the past, our agency would look at a problem and we’d begin thinking about a new lane for a highway or a new intersection to relieve congestion. Our transit planners would tend to look at ridership in certain areas and begin thinking about proposing new routes or stops,” Beniston continues, “We felt that the time had come to stop looking at challenges as separate pieces and start looking at them as a whole.”
Urban design principles – such as those presented in Connecting Communities – are found throughout the Central Gateway. Bowling cites the 15-foot wide sidewalks that will crisscross the area to accommodate pedestrians with ease and ample on-street parking to slow vehicular traffic for the safety of cyclists as examples of the principles pursued by Kent. Dr. Burbick notes with pride that he incorporated similar concepts into Acorn Alley I and II and cites the abundance of bike racks and well-lit walking areas as examples.
Smith notes that PARTA helped AMATS craft Connecting Communities and that participation later benefitted the transit authority. “We used the principles that came out of that to further our own (TIGER Grant) application,” Smith continues, “We were able to show to the funding agencies at the federal level that this is something that our community wants. We care about how our places are connected and we’ve thought about it.”
Thanks to the pursuit of such principles and a commitment to public-private sector partnerships, Kent has a revitalized vibrant downtown. Along with this new flurry of downtown activity and commerce, have come new aesthetically pleasing facilities – such as the new transit center and Acorn Alley – that also contribute to a heightened sense of community. More such facilities are on the way, including a veterans’ memorial that is being planned on the transit center grounds.
AMATS officials hope that that the principles that went into revitalizing downtown Kent will be pursued by other Greater Akron area communities. Beniston says that Kent’s efforts could serve as a template for other communities, but Dr. Burbick notes that the resources that led to success in revitalizing Kent’s downtown – such as a large regional university and a committed local developer – may not be available to other communities. He does offer them one piece of advice in the pursuit of such efforts. “Play to your strengths,” he advises.