There is a neighborhood. It lies within the bounds of Exchange and Market Street. It holds an assortment of amenities within walking distance, including a local hardware store, a community gym (with an indoor pool, sauna and basketball court, I might add), a Krispy Kreme to tempt you out of the fitness goals you set at that community gym, the I Promise School, at least four theatre companies, and live-work zoning designed for entrepreneurs.
For Jeopardy fans, the answer is, “What is West Hill?”
That’s right: West Hill. The neighborhood between Downtown and Highland Square is the only neighborhood in Akron with this capacity for live-work zoning, allowing homeowners to start small businesses out of their homes.
In theory, this means that entrepreneurs could live upstairs and open up a shop downstairs, cutting down the expense of renting both a home and a separate rental property. West Hill residents call this zone the Unified Planned Development District 40, or UPD-40.
The UPD-40 area did not always exist in West Hill. Like many neighborhood initiatives, dedicated residents developed a strategy to get the UPD-40 designation for a small section of West Hill. In 1991, Barbara Snyder, a business and property owner in the neighborhood, and her mother went to City Council and got the zoning passed.
In the 90s, they called the neighborhood Victorian Village, an ode to the unique, beautiful Victorian era structures that sprinkled the neighborhood at the time. Barbara began to cultivate her own properties as live-work spaces.
One of those properties houses Ages Tribal Arts, a welcoming structure littered with tribal artifacts from all over the world. Business-owner Eric Schickendantz runs this business out of the first floor of this home. Walking through, visitors are immediately drawn into a new world. You see the faces and figures of international influences captured in large wooden structures.
This started about eight years ago. Snyder rented the upstairs of the property and was hoping the concept would take off and start a movement of live-work spaces in the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Schickendantz doesn’t get much foot traffic. This adventurous business owner sells most of his items on an appointment basis.
“I was kind of hopeful that this neighborhood would bloom,” said Schickendantz of the area. “It seems like a brilliant idea for an artist to live upstairs.”
Schickendantz isn’t the only one feeling the frustration.
Karen Noel, Vice President of the West Hill Neighborhood Organization, found herself reviewing some files around 2015 and stumbled across the UPD-40 district, which was still known as the Victorian Village. Noel and her team realized that many of the Victorian era homes had been torn down.
On a mission, she set out to expand the district to include more of the neighborhood.
The members of the WHNO and the city’s planning department worked together to expand the boundaries, redraw the map and rewrite the ordinances to make it “easier for people to take advantage of this concept,” says Noel. “I just want to see people flourishing in these homes.”
Live-work zoning can allow entrepreneurs to cut back on the expense of simultaneously paying rent and a lease for a storefront. In turn, that cuts down on electric bills. It reduces on commute time. It can be a space to try new things and fail with a less significant loss.
Plus, West Hill’s huge Victorian homes are relatively cheap. Over the last six months, West Hill houses listed at median prices ranging from $39,900 in September to $57,400 in November. That’s between 44 and 64 percent of the city-wide median for the same months, according to data from Realtor.com. The neighborhood is right in the middle of many of Akron’s busiest neighborhoods, including Highland Square and Downtown, with access to West Akron and Sherbondy Hill.
Even Rowlanda Mangham, the resident who lives above Ages Tribal Arts, recommends living in a live-work space. “It’s a wonderful place to live,” says Mangham, “The feeling of community is strong within West Hill.”
So what’s the holdup? Why hasn’t West Hill become the bustling, live-work artist’s village district of Akron that Snyder envisioned decades ago?
West Hill is trying to reshape its past identity as a neighborhood riddled with crime. It’s not the only neighborhood trying to outlive its previous reputation, but it is definitely adding some time to the development of the neighborhood. But perception is more of a problem than its reality. I know because I live here. As a resident of West Hill who knows many of her neighbors, is a member of the gym around the corner, runs her neighbor’s dog, picks flowers for her dining room from the community flower bed, is on a first-name basis with the employees at Stagecoach Antiques and walks around the neighborhood at all hours, I can say firsthand that West Hill is still my top choice for a space to live.
The well-organized WHNO is eager to help anyone who is interested in the neighborhood. They recently met with the Will Hollingsworth, owner of the Spotted Owl in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, who is preparing to open a second location in the old Chop and Swizzle building, also known as the old fire station, at 60 South Maple Street.
JT Buck, a WHNO board member, noted the diversity of the board. Each board member comes with expertise — architecture, theatre, community gardens, and business.
“We are super well-connected people,” Buck says. If you’re interested in the neighborhood, “We have the capacity to help talk you through it.”
Buck has begun his own adventures into the live-work space model. He calls his home “The Orchard House.”
After moving back to Akron, Buck found a home he was interested in purchasing. However, he didn’t have the capital to buy it outright. He agreed to a kind of rent-to-own agreement with a private investor.
Now, Buck rents some of his upstairs rooms as efficiency apartments for people who were in similar situations he was in when he first moved back to Akron. It has served as an “incubator,” for individuals to move to the next step in their lives. And fortunately, through these rentals, the Orchard House “largely pays for itself.”
“I want [the Orchard House] to be a model home for the UPD-40. I want people to see a fully realized version of what these houses could be,” says Buck. He’s looking for an entrepreneurial partnership to activate the first floor of the Orchard House. “I’m a terrible florist. I suck at food service. But if somebody has the passion, I have a space for them,” he says.
So, what can Akron do?
One, if you are a West Hill business, you could get involved with the WHNO. Two, if you are in the business of investing, WHNO can offer deeper insight on the neighborhood.
Three, if you’re looking to own property, consider starting in West Hill. The houses are large, affordable and centrally located, and even if you’re not looking to start a business, you could encourage someone else to do so and have the rent pay off your home.
Four, if you’re looking to start a business or already have a business and are tired of paying both rent and a lease, you could try out the UPD-40 district. Maybe even try the Orchard House. It could cost much less than you’re paying now.
Five, if you are a part of an organization that provides funding, you could fund the WHNO and provide them the opportunity to get the ball rolling much faster toward a fully realized version of the live-work village.
In 2019, all eyes should be on West Hill. The neighborhood offers residents, investors and business owners opportunities to try, fail, try again, and experiment with a variety of ways for homes to pay for themselves. There aren’t many opportunities like that.
To contact the West Hill Neighborhood Organization with questions about the district, visit www.facebook.com/WestHillNeighborhoodOrganization or write to email@example.com.
To contact JT Buck about space in the Orchard House, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact Barbara Snyder about potential homes in the area, email her at: www.snyderandsnyder.com.
To contact Eric Schickendantz, owner of Ages Tribal Arts, email him at email@example.com.
Josy Jones is a theatre artist with a background in international relations.