“For the first time in years, people just walked up and down the street with a smile on their faces,” said Terrance Bailey, the owner of a soon-to-open clothing store called Ethicrace. We were talking to him during cleanup at the end of the first day of the Kenmore Better Block in Ohio. His store hasn’t opened yet, but he did a pop-up version during the project.
In just a couple hours, all of the bike lanes and sidewalk extensions were removed, the Wikiblock furniture given away, and the plants returned to their owners. Even though the physical elements of the Kenmore Better Block are gone, the excitement and hope surrounding Kenmore Boulevard has never been more contagious. (In fact, it was just announced that the Knight Foundation is continuing the momentum by supporting a neighborhood alliance in Kenmore.)
The Kenmore neighborhood is a tightknit community in southwest Akron, Ohio. The center of the neighborhood is Kenmore Boulevard, a nearly 100-foot-wide road with continuous building frontage. Kenmore Boulevard, which once had a streetcar system running its length, has now been converted into a four-lane road separated by a median and on-street parking. Over the past few decades, economic decline and disinvestment have greatly affected Kenmore. The closing of local businesses has led to little activity and public life on the block. Despite Kenmore’s difficulties in recent years, it has great potential due to its engaged residents and architectural form.
For the Kenmore Better Block, we worked with the community to address several issues facing the neighborhood including; safety, traffic speeds, public life, and economic development.
Kenmore Boulevard has developed a reputation as a relatively dangerous place in Akron. Everyone from long-term residents to police officers expressed concern about the safety of the interventions overnight, saying, “I mean, it is Kenmore.” However, we all decided to test that perception of safety by leaving them out overnight. In the morning, we found that everything was exactly where it was left. We have found that making a place safer and changing the perception around safety is achieved two ways. The first is creating a public place for people to gather and that the community is proud of. For the Better Block, we worked with the community to reimagine Kenmore Boulevard and transform it into a space where the locals could come together and enjoy everything their neighborhood has to offer. A well-designed space that highlights the culture of the surrounding area will lead to a sense of ownership for the community; and therefore, fewer concerns about safety. The second way is to change the conversation concerning safety. Negative language about the safety of a neighborhood can create a self-fulfilling prophecy and spread an exaggerated idea of how dangerous an area is. Words are powerful. With a slight tweak in language, a space can be made safer.
During the Better Block, I spoke to an Akron police officer who was assigned to the Kenmore area. He said that the No. 1 complaint from residents is traffic speeds on Kenmore Boulevard. Cars drive fast through Kenmore Boulevard because of the lack of activity on the block, and the wide drive lanes. The team remodeled the street and created a two-lane road instead of a four-lane road. We extended the sidewalk 8 feet out into the on-street parking, added a 5-foot bike lane, and 8-foot on-street parking spots. The road diet coupled with the increased activity on the sidewalks made cars slow down significantly. We used police speed signs to measure the speeds of the cars through the Better Block area. We found that the traffic speeds decreased from 27 MPH on Wednesday, before the interventions were installed, to 21 MPH on Friday and 20 MPH on Saturday during the Better Block. As seen in the graph below, the standard deviation also decreased throughout the week. More drivers stuck to the average speeds and there were very few outliers driving at high speeds down the Boulevard.
As there typically is, there were some concerns about accessibility due to the road closures, especially pertaining to emergency vehicles. However, during the Better Block, traffic flowed smoothly down Kenmore Boulevard, and even made way for the occasional firetruck and ambulance.
The Kenmore Better Block project also worked to address the lack of public life on Kenmore Boulevard. Kenmore Boulevard, despite having a continuous building frontage and large sidewalks, is very car dominant. The speed and noise of traffic, lack of public space, and few street facing businesses made Kenmore Boulevard uncomfortable for pedestrians. In the days leading up to the Better Block, volunteers counted the number of pedestrians on the block during 10-minute increments. The base counts of pedestrian activity showed that there was an average of 30 people walking by in a 10-minute span. During the Better Block, however, the average more than doubled, to 75 people per 10 minutes on Friday and an average of 50 people on Saturday. The increased life on the block could in part be attributed to the more relaxed atmosphere created by slowing cars and narrowing the street, as well as the new pop-up displays and stores that were created. (As well as the marketing that highlighted the event.)
One of the biggest problems facing Kenmore Boulevard is the lack of economic development in the area. Despite there being long-lasting anchor businesses on the block that draw from the greater Akron and Cleveland area, there are very few businesses that encourage visitors to stay in Kenmore. Seth and Nate Vaill, the owners of the Rialto Theatre, explained to us during the kickoff event that people come from all over Akron to see their shows, but once they’re over, there is no place to go, so people leave and go to Highland Square. Kenmore is lacking in the types of businesses that encourage people to linger in a place. To address this issue, we wanted to create businesses that act as third places, the places you go to when not at home or work. Alto Coffee created a temporary pop-up coffeeshop in a vacant building. This provided an opportunity for the owners to test ideas, should they open a permanent location, as well as provided the building owner a chance to show his space to potential tenants. The team also created a beer garden in an empty lot to revitalize the dead space and create a hangout spot for the community members.
After the Better Block, almost every business owner we spoke to said they had one of their best nights economically. Kenmore neighborhood has the capacity to support a thriving Kenmore Boulevard if the businesses and street design are created with pedestrians and people in mind.
During the Better Block, we talked to long-time Kenmore residents who claimed they have not walked up and down Kenmore Boulevard in decades. But with the Kenmore Better Block, residents finally had a reason to be on there. At the after-party, I could feel the excitement filling the Rialto Theatre, and I could not help but think that this is what Kenmore Boulevard was always meant to be: a place for residents to come together, listen to local music over drinks, shop at locally owned stores, and enjoy everything their neighborhood has to offer.
Better Blocks are fast and furious. We could not have done the Kenmore Better Block without the tireless support of the team in Akron. Thank you to Tina Boyes, the Block Captain, for her constant energy and willingness to go above and beyond to make the Kenmore Better Block successful; Todd Ederer for his support and generosity in letting us use his buildings for pop-ups, storage, and construction. Also, thanks to Seth and Nate Vaill from the Rialto Theatre for providing us their space for the kickoff and programming. Thank you to the City of Akron for insight and willingness to try some new ideas. A huge thank you to the Knight Foundation for their generous financial support throughout the project. And, of course, thank you to all of our volunteers that made the build week possible, and to the Kenmore community for welcoming us into your neighborhood and working with us to make Kenmore a better place.