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Dozens express traffic, environmental concerns at White Pond Reserve community meeting

Dozens gather at Akron church about White Pond development
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
Residents and city leaders gathered at Zwisler Hall at Saint Sebastian Church to discuss a controversial development proposed on an area of wetlands on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022.

The fight to keep an area of Akron wetlands from being developed upon seems to be gaining traction, as city officials continue to attest that the development will bring major benefits to the city.

More than 100 people gathered in an Akron church auditorium Tuesday night to learn more about White Pond Reserve, a potential mixed-use, market-rate rental housing and retail development proposed for a wooded area off of White Pond Drive and Frank Boulevard on the city's west side.

Residents have expressed concerns in recent city council meetings that the development will harm the wetlands environment and increase traffic in an already busy area. City officials say the development is needed to meet Akron's housing demands.

Mayor Dan Horrigan, deputy mayor for integrated development Sean Vollman and the mayor's strategic adviser Emily Collins attended the meeting, as did Alan Gaffney, managing partner of Triton Property Ventures LLC, the developer of the project.

Vollman spoke about the city's goal to attract more residents and create housing.

“The reality is, Akron’s been losing people and investment for six decades. We need to be able to compete for residents, for investment, for economic opportunities and jobs. All of these things work together,” Vollman said at the community meeting. “It’s easier and cheaper for developers to build in the suburbs, and we’re working hard to change that dynamic and encourage development in our community. Otherwise, we’ll continue to lose residents, lose retailers, and lose economic opportunities and amenities for our residents.”

City officials bought the property in 2006 and initially intended to build an office park there. Now, they are considering selling the 65 acres to Triton for a project that would hundreds of rental homes and apartments as well as several shops.

Vollman and Collins say if approved, the development would not be constructed on the wetlands themselves.

Peter Niewiarowksi, a biologist at the University of Akron, said in the meeting that trees will be cleared, which still affects the wetlands ecosystem. He’s also concerned it will harm nearly endangered species of turtles and salamanders that he’s spotted by the property.

“We need to take some more time to decide what we want to do. It may be legal – the question is, is it the right thing to do? Those are not the same thing, and this is our opportunity to distinguish between those two things and make a choice that looks forward, not necessarily backwards,” Niewiarowski said.

Gaffney, the developer, said the potential construction would decrease the tree canopy of the area from 50 percent to 43 percent, he said.

While he understands residents’ concerns, Gaffney said he was surprised these discussions did not come up in the many years the land has been for sale, he said.

“We are happy to invest in Akron, and that’s where we viewed ourselves doing it. A little surprised with the timing of the pushback,” Gaffney said. “We thought we were buying land that has been available, all the information that we’ve been using, has been available for the last number of years.”

Alan Gaffney, Managing Partner at Triton Property Ventures LLC, speaks to the crowd about the proposed White Pond Reserve development
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
Alan Gaffney, Managing Partner at Triton Property Ventures LLC, speaks to the crowd about the proposed White Pond Reserve development

The city secured a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would have allowed them to fill in some of the wetlands to build offices, he added. His company is not planning to fill in any of the wetlands for the White Pond Reserve project.

“We are not eliminating the wetlands, in fact, even though that was the plan, longer-term for the development, I mean [the city was] planning on filling that in … so we thought we were actually helping by saving it, which is our goal,” Gaffney said. “I think the concerns that are coming in are legitimate, but we do feel that we’ve addressed those concerns, both from a tree canopy side to, you know, saving or maintaining those ponds that are there.”

Councilman Russ Neal, who represents Ward 4, where the project is proposed, introduced the various speakers and facilitated the conversations. Community organizers briefly presented their main concerns, and Gaffney and city officials gave an overview of the project. After that, attendees wrote down questions and concerns on Post-It notes and placed them at different tables, organized by topic.

Mayor Horrigan left the building when residents were getting ready to move around for the activity.

Residents speak about White Pond
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
Chris Niekamp (center) attended the meeting with his wife, Andrea (left) to ask questions and express concerns about losing more green space in Akron. The Niekamps live off of White Pond Drive, near where the development is proposed.

Chris Niekamp, who lives off of White Pond Drive, attended the meeting and wrote down questions.

Niekamp is not entirely opposed to new developments in the city, and understands the need for housing. He said he's concerned housing projects like this might jeopardize what makes Akron unique: its green spaces.

“If you create this 'plastic' housing in the green space, and ruin these beautiful areas, will we lose more people than we gain? Will the value of our homes, the value of our environment decrease?” Niekamp said. “Will we lose what’s special about Akron by creating these developments on green space, and harming what makes Akron great?

Another resident, Kevin Karas, lives across the street from the property. Karas is concerned about the project impacting wildlife.

“We as neighbors all do utilize the space as a place to be out in nature,” Karas said. “You really do see a lot of wildlife when you visit out there.”

He’s also concerned that the project does not promote affordable housing, which is needed in Akron, Karas said.

The rent will likely range from $1600 to $2300 per month, Gaffney said.

Vollman from the mayor’s office said building housing of various price ranges will attract residents of all backgrounds, and more supply brings down costs.

Other residents voiced concerns about traffic. The Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS) is currently conducting a traffic study of the project, city officials said.

Ward 8 Councilman Shammas Malik has asked in recent council meetings if they can hold off on voting until the AMATS study is completed.

Malik, as well as Ward 1 Councilwoman Nancy Holland, Ward 5 Councilwoman Tara Mosley, Ward 7 Councilman Donnie Kammer and At-Large Councilwoman Linda Omobien also attended Tuesday’s meeting and talked with residents.

Community organizers will collect all of the feedback and submit a report to city council. They are also suggesting alternative plans for the site - such as rehabilitating it to create a nature preserve, like the Kent Bog, or the Beaver Marsh at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Council is expected to vote on the potential sale in the next two weeks.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.