Between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls sit the Merriman Valley’s rolling hills, flowing river, and shared sense of pride over the neighborhood’s natural beauty and resources.
But the valley is at a crossroads when it comes to its future. It’s a neighborhood of contrasts: the recent site of several large development proposals, which have received public backlash from homeowners who want to preserve the unused green space; some of the city’s highest home values as well as some of its largest apartment complexes; and a distinctly suburban feel despite residents and business owners’ visions of a recreational economy.
The cities of Akron and Cuyahoga Falls are convening to begin a yearlong process to develop a master plan for the area, which will be implemented over decades to come. Cuyahoga Falls City Council will vote this month to choose a consultant for the project. If approved, both cities will commit $100,000 to the planning process.
The Devil Strip spoke to homeowners, renters and business owners to learn about their wishlist and expectations from the upcoming master plan.
Parts of the Merriman Valley used to be Northampton Township, a rural farming community in the valley along the Cuyahoga River. In the 1970s, Akron and Cuyahoga Falls began annexing parcels of its land before merging the remainder of the township with Cuyahoga Falls in 1986.
Today, the Merriman Valley is split between the two cities. That arrangement complicated things when it came to planning and development in the neighborhood.
“It’s an area that sprung up at the intersection between Akron, Cuyahoga Falls, Fairlawn and the [Cuyahoga Valley] national park,” says Shammas Malik, who represents Ward 8, including parts of the Merriman Valley, on Akron City Council. “It never really had a comprehensive plan, in some ways because the Akron and Cuyahoga Falls governments haven’t communicated well until recent years. They’re communicating now, and the master plan is the product of those discussions. ”
A consultant for the master planning process, Farr Associates, was named March 5 after a months-long search. Akron and Cuyahoga Falls are budgeting at least $100,000 each for the planning process. The implementation of the recommendations are not included in that figure.
Farr Associates is a Chicago-based architecture and planning firm that specializes in planning, urban design, sustainable architecture and environmentally sensitive design.
Cuyahoga Falls will introduce legislation to their city council to hire Farr Associates on March 8. Public discussion will take place March 15. If approved, Cuyahoga Falls will serve as the fiscal agent of the project contracting with the firm. Akron will contract with Cuyahoga Falls to reimburse that city for half the cost.
The planning project is expected to begin this spring and conclude in early 2022.
Many Valley homeowners have vocally opposed further housing development
While the rest of Akron developed in the early and mid-1900s to accommodate a population boom, the Merriman Valley did not begin to fully develop until the 1970s when its land was annexed by Akron and Cuyahoga Falls.
About 6,000 residents lived within Akron’s limits of the Merriman Valley in 2010, according to the city’s neighborhood profile that pulled from 2010 census data. The neighborhood’s housing stock is newer and more expensive than the rest of Akron, with a median sale price of $159,000 in December compared to $116,000 citywide, according to Redfin data. It also has the lowest vacancy rate of any Akron neighborhood.
“Looking to grow our own population, this is an area that could be desirable for people to live in,” Segedy says, citing the neighborhood’s proximity to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Blossom Music Center and other amenities. “In our overall plans to grow this city, we want to create many different environments for people to live in, whether that’s in an apartment downtown or living in a subdivision on the edge of the city in an area like this.”
In recent months, the most contentious debate in the neighborhood has been about what to do with undeveloped green space.
Proponents of residential development note how an increased population in the community could enhance the neighborhood, from increased patronage to businesses to amenities they complain are missing from the Valley, such as a grocery store and post office.
“There are some wonderful things happening here already, but there’s so much potential,”says Eric Starr, who owns Arkham Tattoo at 1562 Akron-Peninsula Rd. “If more people move here, that’s more visibility on our storefronts, more patrons of our bars and restaurants. I think a little more diversity as far as new businesses down there would be great.”
But the members of the Preserve the Valley citizen action group are staunchly opposed to new residential construction — at least while they await a master plan. From protests alongside the heavily trafficked Merriman Road to scores of public comments from city councilmembers in recent months, they’re determined to be heard.Months after Preserve the Valley’s efforts encouraging the city not to sell 45 acres of public green space at Theiss Road for residential development, the city reopened bids specifically for conservation efforts to be considered alongside the five development proposals.
“I really wasn’t expecting to organize a group,” says Shelley Pearsall, a resident of Merriman Valley who started a petition that has garnered over 15,000 signatures in opposition to development. “One day, I just went and stood on the property with my sign that said ‘Save these woods,’ and I was really stunned by how many people honked or pulled over to speak to me in support of what I was doing. It made me realize how passionate everyone here is about green space and the identity of our neighborhood.”
Residents fought a similar battle against rezoning residential development at plots of land at Sourek Trail and the former Sycamore Valley Golf Course in Cuyahoga Falls. They ultimately lost that fight when proposals for housing development, including more than 140 townhomes on each site, were approved in 2018 and 2019. The Villages at Sycamore are now on sale, with prices starting in the mid-$200,000 range.
A proposal for residential development at the former Riverwood Golf Course was approved by Akron City Council on Feb. 1. Petros Development Group plans to build 190 housing units (35% of which will be rentals) on 78 acres of land 100 feet from the Cuyahoga River, even after officials say they received “literally thousands” of emails from Northeast Ohioans in opposition, citing concerns ranging from income inequality to environmental issues to school funding.
Rich Swirsky, whose Ward 1 includes part of the Valley, opposed the vote. Malik, the other council member representing the neighborhood, abstained due to a conflict of interest with a former employer.
Some in the area argue it’s not one or the other: both development and conservation can exist in the Valley.
“It’s a great untapped resource as far as a residential neighborhood is concerned,” Starr says. “I’m definitely somebody that loves the metro parks but also owns a business down there. I think there’s enough land down there for additional housing, enough resources to get new recreation, more tourism. I think everything can be served, and I don’t think there’s any downside.”
Fred Guerra, Cuyahoga Falls’ Planning Director, says the goal of the master plan is to balance those interests.
“There are a lot of natural assets that need to be protected, and we plan to do that, but we also allow for appropriate growth with the plan,” he says.
Most Valley residents are renters
Even as the city plans to attract new homeowners to the area, renters make up 74% of Valley residents on Akron’s side, according to the city’s neighborhood profile.
Though Damien Betts, a renter at Timberland Village Apartments, wants to eventually leave Ohio, the 22-year-old says he and his neighbors have input for the cities’ consideration — even if their stay in the area may be temporary.
In the short term, Betts hopes to see a grocery store and increased walkability. Besides walking his dog in the parks, he says he has to leave the neighborhood for almost everything else.
“There are some inconveniences. I would really like to see more stores in the area,” he says. “I mostly have to drive, and I’d really like the option to walk to local businesses nearby.”
Thousands of tenants like Betts live in apartment complexes such as Cedarwood Village and Timber Top Apartments, which offer lower rents than many other complexes in the city. Akron’s 2019 median gross rent, a metric that includes rent and utilities, was $830. Timber Top currently lists one-bedroom apartments for as little as $650. Cedarwood’s one-bedroom options range from $700 to $760.
“I would want to see (the cities) focus on the housing that exists first,” adds Carley Yontz, a resident at Timber Top Apartments. Timber Top, a complex with more than 1,800 units, filed around one eviction per month from 2017 to 2019, according to Summit County records. “A lot of people who live here are lower income, and I don’t want them to be ignored to build brand expensive new housing. I would love for them to help with infrastructure issues here to create affordable housing with good conditions.”
Kyle Herman, a resident living at Cedarwood Village, believes housing could be a key to economic sustainability for the area.
“I’d like to see how development could happen in a more sustainable way,” Herman says. Originally from Stow, he left Washington, D.C. and moved to the Valley for affordable rent close to home when the pandemic began. “Both environmentally sustainable, but also economically sustainable so that there is tax revenue going to fix the problems that exist. All of the other services that they’re proposing depend on that revenue.
“As a renter, I don’t see a problem with more housing stock,” he continues. “I don’t think anyone else should not be allowed to live here when we do. We shouldn’t destroy entire forests or entire ecosystems to do that. There has to be a balance.”
Commercial development and zoning to be reimagined
While residential development is contentious, nearly every resident The Devil Strip spoke to agreed that Merriman Road needs to be reimagined.
At present, retail and restaurants along Merriman Road are clustered into strip mall-like structures that line the street. Those strip malls include dining options, gyms, bars and shops, but residents have to leave the neighborhood for basic necessities, such as a grocery store or a post office.
Some residents and city officials believe more housing options would bring those resources to the area.
“If you separate all the neighborhoods [in Akron], they all are all just basically little townships with grocery stores, post offices, et cetera,” Starr, the owner of Arkham Tattoo, says. “The Valley doesn’t have either of those.”
With poor street lighting in some areas, a lack of crosswalks, and sidewalks that start and end where the cities’ jurisdictions switch, the neighborhood is not currently very walkable.
“When a lot of the development in the area was happening in the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s, it wasn’t on the radar as much to function more like a walkable town,” city planner Segedy says. “There wasn’t as much consciousness about how that would interface with the rest of the area.”
The city hopes to attract more pedestrians and bikers to the area when a Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad depot opens on Merriman Road in 2023. The station is planned for 1762 Merriman Rd., between Happy Tails Thrift Shop and Valley Mart.
But business owners worry that lack of walkability will stop potential customers from reaching them.
“We’re all excited about that and think that’ll be a good attraction,” says Michael Meeker, owner of Big Tree Fitness at 1698 Merriman Rd. “Let’s say a family wants to go to Quarter Up to play pinball, or a couple wants to grab a drink. Until they put in crosswalks and meaningful, thought-through changes, it’s nearly impossible for them to do it.”
“I know there’s a lot of residents that are calling to preserve the valley and don’t want to see changes, but I think we can make changes to where bringing more tourism in and bringing more residents will force the city to address things like the lack of sidewalks, which will benefit us all,” Starr adds. “It’s not a walking neighborhood, but it’d be simple to turn it into a walking neighborhood.”
In addition, residents are asking city officials to reconfigure the layout of roads. Business owners complain that, due to heavy traffic and speeding on Merriman Road, customers are sometimes unable to access their storefronts.
“You’ll see several wrecks a year down here because of that problem,” Meeker says, noting that customers have difficulty accessing his businesses in traffic without turn lanes. “The idea of people being able to access our businesses freely is a nightmare for most of us. It gets to be irritating.”
Segedy says a major part of the master plan will focus on coordinating transportation improvement, not only for streets, but for pedestrians and bikers. Parts of the neighborhood could be rezoned, he says.
Ideally, Segedy would like to see Merriman Valley’s hub of retail and restaurants transform from its current strip mall appearance into an area that looks and functions like a “small, quaint village” similar to Peninsula. That could be done by implementing codes requiring buildings to be constructed closer to the sidewalk and limiting parking or requiring lots behind businesses instead of in front of them.
At the same time, he wants residents to be realistic about the city’s limitations.
“We couldn’t impose or do this all overnight, but we can take a look at development patterns and zoning issues,” Segedy says. “The residents are rightfully so eager for a plan to take place, but local government, we’re still going to have limited ability to dictate what is built and how it’s built. Our zoning codes can limit factories and Walmarts from popping up, but we can’t micromanage every single detail of how something’s built.”
Residents envision a “recreational economy” for the area
If not residential development, what would Akronites like to see happen to land in the Valley?
A simple answer some give is: Nothing.
“We need a master plan, but I would prefer no development. We’ve maxed out. We’ve peaked in the valley,” says Jodie Grasgreen, a member of Preserve the Valley. “We really have to realize that the environment is not an extra amenity. It’s something we need to cherish and preserve.”
Others think the land can attract tourists, and that future development can be catered to that goal.
“The city of Akron deems us a recreation destination, and yet our recreation is being taken away with these developments,” says Karen Zampelli, president of Merriman Valley Neighborhood Association, about recent housing developments on closed golf courses and undeveloped land. “We should focus on drawing people to this area for tourism and activate existing structures within the city to accommodate those tourists.”
Many residents The Devil Strip spoke to believe with proper zoning for outdoor recreational activists, the neighborhood could enjoy an economic boost. Suggestions included canoe liveries, fishing depots, mountain biking trails, white water rafting and more.
The seeds of that desired recreational economy are already blooming in the area. Between its close proximity to the national park, the 101-mile Towpath, Sand Run Metro Park, Hampton Hills Metro Park and businesses such as Second Sole and Blimp City Bike and Hike, the valley is already a destination for local runners, hikers and bikers.
“Once the final dam at Gorge [Metro Park] is removed from the Cuyahoga River, the entire river will be connected from Merriman Valley through Downtown Cuyahoga Falls,” says Andrew Holland, a Cuyahoga Falls resident. “Imagine how unique it will be to have those opportunities here, and bringing in those tourists will help businesses not only in the valley but across both our cities.”
All residents and business owners say they expect to be included in the planning process and implementation as the plan progresses.
“There’s a lot to be done. We should take our time and follow the master planning process,” Malik says. “Everyone needs to be heard here: residents, conservationists, developers, planners, and more. It needs to be a participatory process. This is a really unique area with people who all have a vision for the identity of the valley.”
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.