What the heck is going on with Main Street?

by Noor Hindi

If you’ve visited downtown Akron recently, you’ll have noticed that Main Street is packed with construction vehicles and city workers in safety helmets. To call it chaos would be an understatement. To try to drive through it is difficult. And if you find yourself sighing heavily at the road closure and detour signs, please know I’m with you in spirit.

But all of this raises a few questions: What the heck is going on over there? Why can’t I make it to Pots and Pans Jamaican Cuisine without dodging construction debris? Will we ever have our beloved Main Street back?

I brought all my questions (and anxieties) to Mayor Dan Horrigan and Assistant to the Mayor Jason Segedy. Here are their answers to questions I asked, including some questions of yours.

What’s happening on Main Street and why?

The City of Akron is currently working on the Main Street Corridor Project. Construction began on July 9, 2018 and will end in 2020. The city is repaving the street, curbs and sidewalks; adding LED lighting and bike lanes that are divided from the street; and redeveloping water main and steam routes.

By the end of this project, Main Street will be fully renovated and more pedestrian-friendly, the city says. That will increase foot traffic, which will be good for local businesses.

“The vision is to make it a more attractive, vibrant community asset that people would want to come down and visit and live in,” Horrigan says.

It’s also about establishing “continuity” in foot traffic between the Northside District, Canal Park Stadium and Bounce Innovation Hub, which is located at 526 South Main Street, rather than just “nodes of activity” at each of those places.

“This project can be a catalyst, I think, both for residents who haven’t been downtown for a while or for visitors,” says Segedy. “You really quickly get a first impression of a city when you’re in its downtown, and I think what people are going to see when it’s done is that the city is going to pop visually for them.”

According to the mayor, about 30,000 people and more than 20,000 students work and visit downtown on a daily basis, making the area vital to the city’s growth.

But it’s cold in Ohio, and I don’t bike or walk, so who cares about bike lanes or being pedestrian-friendly?

For Segedy, the vibrancy of any district can be partially measured by foot traffic. “You’ll see people walking dogs, you’ll see people pushing strollers, those everyday things you expect to see downtown,” he says.

Plus, he says cities shouldn’t plan decisions around weather.

“We don’t say, ‘Well, Canal Park is a waste because you can’t play baseball there all 12 months out of the year,’ or, ‘pools are no good.’ There are things that ebb and flow with seasons.”

The mayor adds that if the city were more bike friendly, more people would be comfortable biking to and from work downtown from neighborhoods like Wallhaven and North Hill.

How much will this cost?

Phase I of the project will cost $32 million. It includes the completion of the roundabout, lighting and other amenities. Phase 2 will cost $15.5 million and includes the completion of the State Street Bridge renovations.  

Some of the money for the project is coming from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which gave the city a $13 million grant through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program. That grant will be spent over both phases of the project. Other funding will come from private utilities like Ohio Edison and AT&T. The state’s Ohio Public Works Commission is funding Main Street too.

The Mayor is describing the project as “major surgery.” He says it’s been decades since Akron has been able to invest a substantial amount of money in Main Street.

“This was a big chance to really do a lot of that infrastructure improvement on top and bottom at one fell swoop. And so it’s really hard to pass up that opportunity when the federal government want to help.”

Why invest in downtown? What about our neighborhoods that need attention?

The mayor says the city can pay attention to more than one neighborhood at a time. He cites the Great Streets project, which has focused attention on 10 neighborhood business districts, which the City calls “mini-Main Streets.”

“I’m not subscribing to the theory that Akron can’t do it,” says the mayor. “We can do both. And in fact, we’re proving it.”

The goal of these projects, Segedy adds, is “making downtown more like a neighborhood and making the neighborhoods more like little downtowns.”

Having different types of housing available for residents is an important way to convince people to stay in Akron or move here, Segedy says.

“If you want to live in a downtown apartment, you have that. If you want to live in a suburban style house on the edge of the city, you’ve got that, and every single thing in between. I think that’s where we can really out-compete a lot of our neighboring communities, because a lot of them are a one-trick pony. They might have one type of housing in great abundance, but not anything else. Akron can provide a bit of everything.”

By the time the Bowery project finishes in fall 2019, Segedy says 450 new apartments will be available downtown.

A roundabout will be built at the intersection of Mill Street and Main Street. Why?

The mayor says the City is going for a “grander entrance” into downtown, something that “really catches your eye.” Aside from this, Segedy says roundabouts are safer than four-way stops because “they cut down the number of injury-producing crashes by a lot, because you don’t get people hitting at angles.”

They also reduce carbon emissions because cars can keep moving, rather than idling at traffic lights, which is when most pollution occurs, says Segedy.

The City of Akron says it will commission an artist to create an installation for the middle of the roundabout, but did not have details available in late February.

What about current businesses on Main Street? How will this affect them?

The Downtown Akron Partnership and the City of Akron say they are working with local businesses to reduce the impact of road closures on their sales. City-owned lots on State Street and Buchtel Avenue and spaces on Main Street south of Cedar Street are free for two hours during the week and that weekends, as always, are free. (Here’s a map.)

Additionally, the mayor says the city has a “plethora of parking” downtown that’s “fairly inexpensive compared to other cities our size.”

A valet service is available on Paul Williams Street, which leads to the lot behind the Diamond Deli and Woody’s on Main Street, for $5.

The Downtown Akron Partnership gives walking tours of Main Street every other Thursday at noon.

Mary Hospodarsky, owner of Sweet Mary’s Bakery on Mill Street just a block away from the construction, feels like not enough work is being done to help small businesses. Sweet Mary’s has relied on outpourings of pedestrians during big events like First Night Akron and the Akron Marathon, Mary says.

The cancellation of First Night and changes to the marathon route, in addition to the construction, means she has a challenging year in store. She says the construction on Main Street is “not encouraging to pedestrians.” She thinks DAP is doing the best they can, and she’s “holding out for the hope that there will soon be more people living downtown.”

In the meantime, she’s nervous.

“We’re going to lose a lot of businesses getting there. You do it because you love it and because you want to see your city succeed but it’s kind of hard being excited about something that you don’t feel you’re getting a lot of return on,” Mary says. “They really have to do more to support businesses that have been there and have been a consistent part of Akron. No one is going to want to live downtown if there aren’t any businesses in downtown.”

READER QUESTION: How many trees will be cut down because of this project? Will they be replaced?

The mayor says although “it’ll be greener,” the city wants to be careful about lighting.

“I’ve seen streets that are very well tree-lined and very well-lit and I’ve seen streets that are tree-lined and look terrible, especially sometimes in the winter, so we’re trying to find a good mix of having enough ground light and above light and also be green. Landscaping was a key part of the entire project.”

Deputy Director of Public Service Chris Ludle says, “We’re putting back more than we remove.” The city did not say exactly how many trees will be removed and replaced.

READER QUESTION: Will the project make it easier for dog owners to walk their dog? Will there be public restrooms and access to water fountains for people and dogs?

The city says it will consider adding amenities to Main Street for dogs and owners, but it does not have a clear plan yet.

Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s Senior Reporter. Contact her at noor@thedevilstrip.com.

Renderings provided by the City of Akron. Used with permission. Photo by Rosalie Murphy.