Akron Better Block: Transforming North Hill Into A Vibrant International District

Akron Better Block: Transforming North Hill Into A Vibrant International District


Through a partnership with the Knight Foundation, Akron, Ohio’s first Better Block project was realized the weekend of May 15th-17th and showed how the community could come together to transform a blighted block into a vibrant neighborhood destination. By introducing buffered bike lanes, enhancing pedestrian infrastructure, and creating two public plazas, the Better Block proved that a street that once existed only for cars could be scaled down to make way for bikes, people, and programming.

Why North Hill?

Akron Better Block took place in the North Hill neighborhood on N Main Street, a wide, intimidating four-lane thoroughfare that was created to quickly move carsakronbetterblock from Downtown to the suburbs. The expansion of Main Street is a “solution” too often used in cities around the U.S. to allow for increased capacity on the road and to relieve congestion. Instead, the added lanes left the road under-trafficked, allowing
cars to blitz through the neighborhood at high speeds.

As a result, businesses have suffered and pedestrians fear being on foot. While the street is home to a number of charming historic buildings, many are vacant, neglected, and are beginning to be torn down, leaving empty lots in their place. These gaps in the street discourage pedestrian activity and make it difficult for small businesses to prosper.

The Better Block was introduced in Akron as part of an ongoing effort to increas
walkability in the City. Road reductions in the Highland Square neighborhood set precedence for the project, and the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS) has been creating a comprehensive road diet plan to present to the City.

To spur these ongoing improvements, under support from the Knight Foundation and with the help of a dedicated group of Akron community leaders, Better Block worked to reduce the scale of the street to allow for human activity, and encouraged local entrepreneurs to test out their business ideas in the vacancies for the weekend. The Akron Better Block team filled the gaps made by parking lots and demolished buildings by creating pedestrian plazas and fields for playing sports, yoga, and ping pong. For one weekend at least, N Main Street realized its potential as a thriving, economically viable block.

Identifying the location

In Akron, as with any City Better Block works in, we evaluated the community’s assets and redevelopment potential before choosing a block. Blocks that house pre-war buildings with good pedestrian form but lack a complete street are preferred. These blocks are typically found at former streetcar intersections, which was the case with N Main Street in Akron. We seek out these former streetcar neighborhoods because they were constructed with the pedestrian in mind, and traditionally follow a human-scale, classic Main Street model. When surveying location in Akron, we paid attention to five different factors for a neighborhood with redevelopment potential:

Edges that define space. Walkable districts always contain buildings that edge the sidewalk, with storefronts facing the street to create a welcoming atmosphere and gather pedestrians into one space. N Main Street, being along an old streetcar line, still maintained many of its traditional pre-war buildings that lined the street. However, a number of the historic buildings had also been torn down to make way for parking lots and to eliminate eyesores on the street, giving the Better Block team plenty of “gaps” to fill in order to exemplify how a pedestrian-friendly district should flow.

Leasable buildings. In order to encourage development, there need to be some vacancies on the street to instigate change and to incubate entrepreneurs during the Better Block weekend. N Main Street had a number of leasable spaces where we placed pop-up shops, giving them a low-risk way to test their businesses.

Potential for multi-modal infrastructure. N Main Street had been expanded to accommodate additional traffic, making it easy to pinch it back to down to one lane in each direction to allow for wider sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes.

Proximity to a neighborhood. As with most streetcar intersections, N Main Street at Cuyahoga Falls is located within a grid of residential homes, making it easy for residents nearby to walk to the commercial corridor and support their local businesses.

Interest from local partners. No matter how great the location, a project is only as good as the community it’s within. Luckily for the Akron project, we were privileged to work with an extremely engaged and active community of leaders and volunteers that were eager to get involved in any way they could. From sharing ideas to lending tools, creating pop-ups, organizing outdoor markets, and painting pallet furniture, the project suffered from no lack of community involvement.

Community Walk

 

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After choosing the location, we partnered with a number of organizations on the ground in Akron to conduct a series of community walks. These walks are designed to incorporate interested community members and hear what they’d like to see in their neighborhood.
From our Akron walks, we gathered that the perception of safety was the biggest factor preventing pedestrians from visiting the block. Additional lighting, filling vacancies, and putting eyes on the street can increase the perception of safety, so we decided to string lights in the plaza, place pop-up businesses in the vacancies, and build a number of outdoor seating areas for pedestrians to gather and feel welcome. Attendees also repeatedly mentioned that high traffic speeds prevented them from feeling safe crossing the street, so the team narrowed down the street to one lane in either direction, moved the parallel parking spaces to the outer edge of the bike lanes, and installed crosswalks to slow traffic and begin to train drivers to interact with pedestrians and bikes on the street. The data we gathered before and after the event showed that average car speeds decreased by 15 mph during the event.

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The Workshops
After months of planning, the Akron team hit the ground running to transform the IMG_6251block in under a week. In the days leading up to the Better Block, we conducted a series of workshops with volunteers from the community to help us expedite the process and have the community take ownership of the project. The workshops conducted included Plaza Preparation & Build, where volunteers built a bocce court, created and strung bunting over the street and painted pedestrian areas; Street Repair, during which volunteers cut crosswalks from recycled materials and striped bike lanes; Parklet & Pallet Furniture Building, where volunteers constructed and painted street seating and parklets out of old pallets; and Measurement Workshops, allowing community members to gather data on elements of walkability and safety before and during the event.

Building the Block

These workshops, combined with invaluable community partnerships with Tina and John Ughrin, International Institute, Keep Akron Beautiful, AMATS, Countryside Conservancy, 427 Design, ECDI, and countless others, we introduced five major improvements to the block: buffered bike lanes, 2 pedestrian plazas, an activity field, an open air market, and 6 pop-up businesses.

The Street

IMG_20150514_103625Unlike many of our past projects, where the bike lanes were painted by volunteers using rollers and tape, the City of Akron came on board and enlisted Public Works to help us paint the lanes. While the paint was still temporary and the borders were marked with white duct tape, the lanes could have easily been mistaken for the permanent green lanes found in major cities across the country. By including a buffer and moving street parking to the outer edge of the bike lane, we created a space where cyclists can enjoy the street without the stress of traffic. The addition of the lanes, as well as the widened sidewalks, pinched the portion of the street reserved for cars down to one lane in either direction, reducing speed and making the street safer not only for cyclists, but pedestrians and drivers as well.

The team also added areas for people to gather around the street, including an outdoor beer garden, seating areas outside of restaurants, a parklet and benches along the sidewalks. Shade and seating, combined with food and drink options, invite people to linger and get to know one another in an otherwise unfriendly, car-centric atmosphere.

IMG_20150515_151039The Plazas

The pedestrian plazas included one on the East side of the street that housed a bocce court and seating area, and a Western plaza that staged the outdoor market as well as an art installation and landscaped garden inspired by timeless plaza layouts found throughout the world. Countless volunteers came out in the days before the project to plant flowers, build furniture, shovel crushed limestone into the bocce court, and create bunting to be strung across the street. The Akron chapter of the League of Creative Interventionists constructed an art piece for the plaza, and International
Institute and Asia, Inc. enlisted dozens of talented performers to showcase their music, dance, and storytelling on stages throughout the weekend.

 

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Like all of our projects, Better Block sources its materials locally and works to use borrowed tools and equipment to save on costs and to engage the community in the build process. Temporary donations were used to landscape the street, recycled billboard vinyl became bunting, chair covers, and mural backdrops, and old rubber tires were turned into art.

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The Pop-Up Shops

Starting a brick-and-mortar business can be intimidating to a first-time entrepreneur, making Better Block the perfect platform for local makers to test out their concepts. By eliminating many of the barriers associated with starting a business, six different pop-ups were able to open for the weekend, including Three Sisters Momo, Stray Dog Diner, Summit Cycling Center, a local art gallery, International Welcome Center, and Neighbor’s Apparel.

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Akron Better Block concept map

As an international district, North Hill is home to hundreds of refugees from Bhutan, Nepal, Burma and the Middle East, making it a community rich in culture and diversity. The shops and activities throughout the weekend reflected the multi-cultural flair of the neighborhood; Three sisters served traditional Nepali dumplings by employing Bhutanese refugees; Neighbor’s Apparel employs local refugees to create its unique clothing and accessories; the art gallery showcased work made by local refugee youth; and the International Welcome Center served to educate attendees about the global identity of the neighborhood and provide resources to immigrants in the community. In addition, businesses that already existed around the block, such as a family-owned grocery store and  Nepali Kitchen, benefited from the increased pedestrian activity in the area and saw a boom in sales over the weekend.

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By engaging the refugee community in Akron and giving them the resources they need to start businesses and invest in their community, the neighborhood has the potential to become a self-sustaining, vibrant economic center that thrives from its own residents.

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The Results

During the event, pedestrian activity and perception of safety drastically improved. Average vehicle speeds decreased from 29 mph to 13 mph, and we saw an exponential increase in the amount of bikes, families and neighbors on the street.

The pop-up businesses made record sales during the weekend, and a few of the them are already in negotiations with property owners about making their locations permanent, or at least continuing to conduct business temporarily while the space is vacant. The owners of the parking lot that housed the outdoor market and plaza garden for the weekend was disappointed to see it go and is interested in making the plaza a permanent addition to the block.

As far as the street improvements are concerned, plans are now in the works to begin taking concepts developed for the Better Block and making them permanent. AMATS is including the results of the better block project in their road diet recommendations to the City of Akron.
Many thanks to all of the community members, property owners, city staff, and volunteers for making this an incredibly successful event.

 

 

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