The city of Akron is looking to boost the number of people living downtown. Could that mean adding thousands of cars -- or adding thousands of people who decide they don’t need a car? WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia has more on how transportation could be changing in the Rubber City.
“It will take me seven minutes to get to my house [and] probably five minutes from here to Mustard Seed,” says Suzie Graham. She’s moving closer to downtown, and she’s excited about having a shorter commute. The president of the Downtown Akron Partnership has seen demand for downtown living rise in the past few years, and she says the key is to grow the population in tandem with business.
The three pillars
“The ideal downtown environment has equal pillars of living, working and playing. We were historically only a ‘work’ pillar. Our ‘play’ pillar has grown significantly. Now the ‘live’ pillar is starting to grow as well. The idea is to keep them in balance and make sure that we grow responsibly. So if there are impacts to any of those pillars, it does not impact the overall economy in a significant way.”
Bring people downtown
Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan has said he wants to increase downtown residency from about 3,600 people to at least 10,000.
Companies like Testa Builders are already getting ready for the increase with projects like the renovation of the Akron City Center Hotel into apartments, which will increase the city’s housing units by 10 percent. Downtown apartments have an 83 percent occupancy rate right now. Not bad, but well below the 96 percent or so in downtown Cleveland.
Cassie LaRosa is in her 30s and is a leasing agent at Testa, and she’s also lived in the Northside Lofts for about a year. While she’s not car-free, she does walk and bike around town a lot. And she has a suggestion.
“Make it feel like it’s more walkable for the residents. I don’t think that it’s a traditional lifestyle in downtown Akron. Brightening up the sidewalks, providing some lights after-hours [and] just making it feel safe and bright and inviting would definitely help residents get out and walk.”
LaRosa still needs a car to drive to work. She is what Jason Segedy – Akron’s planning director -- calls “car-lite.”
“To be truly car-free in a city like Akron -- it’s pretty difficult. Because you’re always going to have that trip [where] you want to see your friend in the suburbs. And so how do you get there? And then eventually, I think most people make the calculation, ‘I need a car for some things.’ And then once they have the car, they’re like, ‘Why would I not use that car when I already have it?’”
Time to eat
One thing downtown Akron dwellers usually need a car for is grocery shopping. But that could be changing soon: a small market is slated to open in Northside Lofts, and a supermarket was recently announced as part of the Bowery project near the Akron Civic Theater.
Segedy also points out there are two supermarkets minutes from downtown. And that’s whether you’re driving your own vehicle or using a ride-sharing service like Uber.
There are also Metro RTA stops at both places. The public transit agency has routes all over the city, and even up to Cleveland. That’s how 35-year-old Thomas Skala gets to work from his apartment near downtown Akron.
“There are like three times I can pick up the bus. I take an hour up north. There are three times I can take the bus up south, and that’s about it.”
And if he misses one of those, he's out of luck for the day and has to stay home.
Hitting the trails
Skala is not thrilled with public transit. A Northeast Ohio native, his last car was stolen when he lived in Arizona -- just as he was about to move back here – and he’s never bothered replacing it.
“I like bicycles because they give me a sense of me being in control. Whereas buses don’t do that. They’ve opened up a lot of bicycle parks downtown; I hope that’s some indication of the future. Jason Segedy is a great idealist for the future of this place, so I’m looking forward to what he wants to do.”
The city’s planning director is a cyclist as well, and says the Towpath Trail is another option for people who want to live “car-lite.”
“We have, honestly, a world-class facility in the Towpath. Our next step is kind of, ‘how do we connect east and west to that Towpath?’ So we are working on developing some new trails in Akron like the Rubber City Heritage Trail which will connect Ellet to Kenmore and connect the Towpath. We have the Freedom Trail connecting Kent and Akron. And then the city’s working hard to do a lot of work on how to improve our on-street bicycling experience.”
The end of the Innerbelt
Segedy says that includes adding more bike lanes and tearing out the Innerbelt highway downtown to create walkable and bike-able green space – all to help people become “car-lite” if they decide to live near their jobs at, for example, one of the many hospitals, law firms or smaller employers downtown.
The Innerbelt project got underway in February, and city officials say they’re working on plans for the space before ripping out the old concrete.