Check out the redesign plans for Lock 3 coming next year

“This is not just a good parks project; this is an economic development project,” city officials say of the upcoming Downtown revitalization project.

Reporting and writing by Abbey Marshall

Lock 3 wasn’t meant to be Akron’s central park.

Eighteen years ago, the downtown patch of grass where dilapidated buildings once stood was simply that. But hundreds of concerts and scores of festivals later, Lock 3’s 300,000-some annual visitors have turned it into a beloved site for summer entertainment, lunchtime walks, winter ice skating and more.

“I refer to Lock 3 as the city’s most successful pop-up,” says James Hardy, the Deputy Mayor for Integrated Development. “The city acquired and demolished the buildings and parking structure there and erected a temporary entertainment venue as a way to draw people downtown. It was never meant to be a permanent park or venue. It ended up being wildly successful.”

As a result, the facilities and infrastructure — or lack thereof — remain relatively the same as they were when the park was thrown together in 2003.

Now the city, in partnership with Akron Civic Commons, is preparing design plans for a $10 million reimagining of Lock 3, with construction beginning as early as 2022.

“What’s fascinating to me is it’s an incredibly successful concert and event venue, but in all honesty, it doesn’t function well as a park,” says Dan Rice, the president and CEO of Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition, the organization that serves as the coordinator of Akron Civic Commons. “People are attracted to water and public spaces. The series of locks right beside each other are now our opportunity to create these incredible public spaces in the heartbeat of the city.”

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Phase 1 construction to begin fall 2022

At present, park has a few concrete sidewalks cutting across a largely empty, grassy field with a few picnic tables. While it may be an ideal place to take a brief walk on a lunch break, those conditions do not lend themselves to having people stick around and enjoy the space as a traditional park.

The city envisions transforming those 3.3 acres into an oasis of greenery and vegetation amid the downtown office buildings.

“One thing we knew before the pandemic was the average commuter worker came to their place of work, parked, went to their desk, often ate lunch in the same building and left,” Hardy says. “We have the opportunity not only to attract people but also retain workers downtown through these amenities.”

To mitigate the inaccessibility of the sloping Main Street entryway and steep staircases, preliminary renderings show a tree-lined serpentine walkway that will wind down the hill and open into a reimagined Lock 3. 

A pathway will lead along the water flowing through the locks and through a “Garden Grove,” lush with perennials and vegetation. Visitors can also enjoy a large, shaded patch of grass for an afternoon picnic or string up a hammock between the trees. Park-wide free Wi-Fi will be available for remote workers or people in need of internet access.

In summer, concert-goers will enjoy performances at a permanent stage optimized for the best viewing experience, instead of the temporary stage the park uses each summer.

“We didn’t design the stage location to be the optimal stage location. It was just where it went at the time,” Hardy says. “Rather than the big concrete pad that needs to be torn up every few years and canvas on a temporary stage that needs more maintenance and replacements, we’re doing it correctly in terms of infrastructure.”

In winter, Akronites can lace up their skates to enjoy either of the two permanent ice skating rinks that will be installed in front of the stage and next to the Akron Children’s Museum. Lock 3’s annual outdoor ice skating rink is among the largest in Northeast Ohio, but the cost of installation and upkeep each year is about $100,000. With the new design, the rinks will be built into the concrete. In the winter, the rink sides and platforms will be installed, the rink will be flooded and kept frozen by condensate lines built into the park rather than renting a chiller each year. In the summer, those concrete pads will still be usable as park space.

“The park was never designed to hold an ice rink that large,” Hardy says. “One of the things you’ll see in the renderings is creating spaces that are one thing in the summer and another thing in the winter through really good infrastructure. Everything will be built into the park.”

OLIN, a Philadelphia-based firm that designed the gardens at the Akron Art Museum, will begin the design phase this month as fundraising efforts continue. The Knight Foundation’s $2 million grant, gifted in September 2020, assisted in kickstarting the project’s timeline, on top of $1.5 million from the city and $1 million from additional donors.

So far, fundraisers have secured about $5.1 million of the $10 million needed to complete Phase 1, which includes all the elements described and pictured. City officials are hopeful that funds will be raised by the end of this year and construction can begin immediately following the 2022 summer season.

“This is not just a good parks project; this is an economic development project.”

The Lock 3 redesign is part of Reimagining the Civic Commons, an investment project convened by Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition in three Akron neighborhoods and the Towpath trail that connects them that seeks to knit together communities by reimagining public spaces.

In that way, Hardy says the Lock 3 redesign is more than a recreation project.

“This is not just a good park project, this is an economic development project,” he says. “We’re creating an attraction that builds on the success of the last 18 years and helps out a struggling downtown. Beyond becoming that central park not just for the city but the Towpath; it’s a huge amenity to attract businesses to stay and locate in downtown Akron.” 

Between years of construction on Main Street, a pandemic and the uncertainty of when employees at downtown corporations will return to their offices, many small downtown businesses have taken a major hit in the last few years. The city is hopeful a revitalized park will draw people to the area and bring back sustainable business not only for those that remain, but for future entrepreneurs looking to open spaces in currently empty storefronts.

“The City of Akron will be a better candidate for bringing in talent we see in other parts of the country as far as startups, tech companies, music,” says Will Blake, an audio engineer at Kent-based Woodsy’s Music. Blake, an Akron native, has worked several concert series, including Rock the Lock, for several years. “I envision us being a hub for an even greater swath of industries and creative outlets. The redesign will make that possible and point us in the right direction.”

The city has made efforts to breathe life back into Lock 3 and bring people downtown in the past year. Though city officials did not want to gather mass crowds during the pandemic, the city made several changes, including commissioning massive murals on either side of the Civic’s brick walls and introducing a Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area (DORA) for park-goers to drink alcohol purchased at Main Street restaurants.

“What I love is that downtown is getting more walkable, more open and inviting,” Blake says. “We’re breathing life into downtown. I think people will enjoy meeting up downtown and gathering there.”

But questions of equity in who is using those public spaces, such as Lock 3, remain. Though the core of the Civic Commons project seeks to invest in disinvested areas, many people utilizing Lock 3 daily live in luxury apartments downtown or work corporate jobs. The city hopes that because of its centralized location, this project can be a meaningful connector of public spaces in the city.

“We want to make connectivity between the University (of Akron), Main Street and all the other downtown buildings around there, yes,” Rice of the Ohio Erie & Canalway Coalition says. “But this park is at the center of the city. It’s got the Towpath connector that links to the Summit Lake shorefront, another Civic Commons project. This is our one chance to make transformational public spaces exceptional for everybody.”

A Black artist working in the music industry, Blake says between the meaningful thought-processes in the redesign and other new organizations, such as the recently formed Black Artist Guild, he is optimistic about equity in Lock 3.

“When it comes to making Lock 3 a space for artists again, organizations such as Black Artist Guild will be putting their best foot forward to take advantage of spaces and promoting more equity and inclusion when it comes to access,” he says. “The underserved artists in Akron are finally going to have an outlet to a larger path and more access to hopefully capital and sponsors to bring these artistic visions forward. Hopefully between this and organizations like the Black Artist Guild, they’ll make more resources available.”

Phase 2 and beyond

The $10 million Phase 1 includes the gardens, pavilion, stage, ice rinks, landscaping, serpentine entryway and paths. In Phase 2, which will begin fundraising and construction at an undetermined time based on the timeline of the first phase, will be a playloop connecting Locks 2 and 3 and the Akron Children’s Hospital. Akron Children’s Museum is also located in Lock 3.

“One thing we do not have downtown is activities for children,” Hardy says. “We’re going to have some of that with Phase 1, putting more in with garden grove, Akron Children’s being there and permanent skating rinks in winter, but we don’t have dynamic play spaces. Phase 2 is all about the kids.”

OLIN, the design firm behind the project, concepted various play spaces throughout the locks based on Ohio topographical aspects. For example, in the 8,200 square foot “plateau” area, there will be a large blue heron playground that operates as both a piece of artwork and a play space for kids.

Other concepts include a splash pad in the “misty plains,” sand boxes in the “sand bog,” a tree house in the “forest,” a meandering boardwalk in the “valley” near the flowing water in the canals and more.

“There’s over 5,000 associates, patients and family members at Akron Children’s,” Hardy says. “We want to activate dead space over there and provide them with dynamic play space and connection to the downtown area.”

Though that phase is a long way down the line, the city is eager to begin the transformation of the downtown public park into a robust hub for Akronites all across the city.

“These are nice park projects,” Rice says, “but at the end of the day, it’s about economic development and quality of life here in Akron.”

If you would like to be involved or contribute to fundraising efforts, contact Dan Rice at drice@ohioeriecanal.org or visit www.ohioeriecanal.org for more information.

Renderings provided by Dan Rice.

Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at abbey@thedevilstrip.com.

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