University Park Alliance Aims to Renew Akron's Urban Core

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If you walk to the end of Zac Kohl's street, you can catch a glimpse of Akron's industrial past. The 12-story Goodyear Tire clock tower rises from the company's former global headquarters a couple miles away, marking a daily destination for thousands of workers, a hundred years ago. One of those men probably lived in the house that Kohl and his wife Beth bought a couple months ago.

ZAC KOHL: They said, when it was originally built in the 1920s, it was probably a top of the line, phenomenal house that someone who was making a good living built.

The house didn't look very phenomenal when Zac and Beth Kohl bought it for four thousand dollars in December. Like many homes in the once thriving neighborhood, it had numerous structural problems, and the Kohls had to build a new porch, reinforce the roof and do many internal repairs. Housing rehabilitation is one part of an ambitious program to redevelop a 50-block area, called University Park, that surrounds the University of Akron campus. Eric Johnson runs the University Park Alliance.

ERIC JOHNSON: We have to rehab close to 500 homes in the next five years.

The entire University Park master plan extends to the year 2030, and includes a mix of affordable housing, retail and office space. The goal is to revitalize this blighted corridor by attracting young urban professionals, empty nesters and others looking to live near the city's educational and cultural venues. Funded by the Knight Foundation, the University Park Alliance is working in parallel with development efforts by some long-standing area institutions.

ERIC JOHNSON: When you talk about University Park, you're talking about roughly two billion dollar's-worth of investment over the last six years --- between the City of Akron, the University of Akron, Summa.

The Alliance is an example of a relatively recent trend in urban development where historic anchor institutions, such as hospitals and universities, work with cities to rejuvenate the communities that they share. Cleveland's University Circle District is similarly combining the resources of Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals and a collection of cultural attractions as an economic engine for urban development. Chris Ronayne, who heads University Circle Incorporated compares his district's growth to the way industrial wealth helped build cities like Akron and Cleveland a century ago.

CHRIS RONAYNE: We are, today, the fastest-growing employment district in Cleveland, and one of the fastest in the state of Ohio.

The same can be said for so called "Eds and Meds" collaborations in Cincinnati, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Ronayne notes that, as each of these cities lost corporate wealth that left for suburban addresses, the educational and medical anchors stayed…

CHRIS RONAYNE: …because they were too big to leave. Hence the word "Anchor". You can't just airlift UH or the Cleveland Clinic out of the city proper.

But, suburban sprawl also took the middle class out of cities, leaving a growing sea of poverty surrounding the hospital and college campuses. Philadelphia-based urban development expert Eugenie Birch says, for a long time, the anchor institutions inadvertently fostered a town-versus-gown divide. For example, she says city universities became walled off enclaves with little connection to the surrounding neighborhoods.

EUGENIE BIRCH: The tendency was to try and emulate the "college green" sort of campus in cities, and many of these constructions were inward-looking. That created great barriers between the community and the surrounding institution.

As such, the University Park Alliance, and similar Eds and Meds collaborations, have developed workforce and housing rehab programs aimed at their surrounding communities. Given the issues of safety and crime that remain just outside the ivory towers, University Circle's Chris Ronayne calls it good stewardship and enlightened self-interest.

CHRIS RONAYNE: You can't wall yourself off from problems around you, you've got to integrate into the communities, and everyone wins in that scenario.

University Park resident Carla Sibley says she was suspicious when she first heard about the University Park Alliance's development plans.

CARLA SIBLEY: I didn't think it would reach out to the folks who lived here. I kept calling it a community that wanted to be like Ohio State on High Street.

After learning more about the Alliance, Sibley remains cautiously optimistic that the project will be more than a new sports stadium and associated restaurants. She just wonders what it will finally look like.

CARLA SIBLEY: If it's going to become the kind of walking, working, young, attractive-type neighborhood that is discussed, there's got to be some massive changes that take place. I'm hopeful. But, I don't see it yet.

And Sibley says the year 2030 seems like a long way away.

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