Disclaimer: The following is a work of realistic fiction for our special 2050 issue, published in June 2021. These stories are meant to spark imagination, not forecast the future of Akron.
When the city announced its plan to redevelop downtown twenty years ago in 2030, I had my doubts.
As far as I could recall, the only revitalization plan that saw any type of success was the Main street redevelopment that took place from 2019-2021. Even that took time to find its feet thanks to the economic turmoil caused by the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. So, the announcement that Akron was going to begin something four times the scale of the Main St. project sounded ludicrous. However, as we well know, this is a project that actually worked. The irony was that it was more of a restoration than a reimagining.
The success of re-opening continuous corridors for retail and dining, such as Front St. in Cuyahoga Falls, and in Akron’s own Bowery District encouraged the city to pursue further restoration of its downtown.
After the pandemic, Americans wanted to eat at restaurants with sprawling sidewalk seating, shop in stores instead of taking chances with online purchases and gather to celebrate whenever the opportunity arose. Additionally, we finally started to face the reality of climate change. We began to drive personal vehicles less as cities increased convenient public transport services.
After Akron reinstalled the electric streetcars on Exchange and Market street, and Metro RTA improved its service in the neighborhoods, Akronites also began leaving their cars in the garage more often. The streetcars took advantage of the main and already wide corridors, which had been widened back when Akron had its original trolleys. The central driving lanes were converted back to the trolley lane, with the outside driving lanes left for automobiles.
All of these changes gave us something I doubt any of us old timers imagined would happen, the return of South Howard Street. It was a bold plan, for sure. But, federal funding for civic investment and green infrastructure made it less risky. Today, we see a downtown street grid very similar to the original of the 1800s, when Howard ran all the way to Bowery Street and served as the main retail and business district. The redevelopment of downtown wasn’t a full historic restoration project, of course. There were never any plans to resurrect the Pennsylvania & Ohio Canal down the middle of Main St., despite the lazy river potential.
The disaster of the Innerbelt was finally and fully removed, weed filled parking lots were torn up or transformed into green spaces and some of the old brutalist buildings from Akron’s first urban renewal project of the 1960s were demolished. No love was lost on those since, let’s be honest, they weren’t attractive to begin with and had been mostly vacant for decades. Corporations no longer needed massive office buildings for their workforce as working from home had become the norm since the pandemic. Therefore, all those crumbling, maze-like parking decks could be removed too.
Today, the Northside district is no longer an island and we can walk a nice loop from there all the way to Lock 3 and back, with dozens of shopping and eating options along the way to distract us. South Howard being a pedestrian only corridor allows the explorer to gather and relax, and the restaurants to double their outdoor seating capacity for those of us who still prefer to take our meals outside.
If walking isn’t an option due to the weather, you can make almost the same trip using the electric trolley which makes a loop from Northside, down Main Street over to Bowery then turning north on Quaker. That street was also extended to run parallel to Howard, almost in the original footprint of old Canal Street. Unlike South Howard, Quaker is open to traffic, making it easy for deliveries or pickups.
Of course, the crown jewel of this project was the new Flatiron Building, known as the Flatiron II. The original stood where the old metal and glass PNC tower is now, so the planners put it at the “Y” intersection of Bowery, St. Howard and Quaker instead. Thanks to the Americana Revival trends of the 2030s, the new one looks almost exactly like the original though.
The first Flation was built in 1907 by Mahlon H. Long and Howard H. Taylor in the footprint of their wooden frame Triangle Building. The building was designed by architects Charles Henry & Son. The first floor was occupied by the Long & Taylor Cigar shop and the upper floors by other offices and businesses. The old Flatiron was home to doctors, lawyers, jewelers, hat shops, candy stores and barbers. It was even the location for the Akron Bar Association for a time.
The urban renewal movement of the 1960’s brought the Flatiron down and tore up South Howard Street to make way for Cascade Plaza. For decades, its loss was symbolic of the destruction of old Akron and the “good old days.”
We who never saw old South Howard Street or the Flatiron still mourned their loss decades later. For those of us born after the Rubber Age who have mostly known decades of stagnation, the Flatiron represented an Akron we wished to see again. My favorite painting in the People’s Art Museum of Akron is still Raphael Gleitman’s “Winter Evening,’ a cheerful depiction of downtown in the 1930s.
Usually I write about buildings that have been around much longer than the Flatiron II, but it seemed appropriate to highlight it on its 20th birthday, when the city is celebrating the success of its last and most audacious revitalization project.
The Flatiron II is mostly a residence, with just the ground and basement levels available for retail. The second through fifth floors contain midrange apartments and the sixth floor is home to two luxury apartments. Since the Flatiron II was based on the original, it isn’t very tall. But it is a landmark already.
Today the retail offerings are Cascade Candies, Akro Hair and one of Norka Beverage’s soda and milkshake counters. It is also home to a hat shop like its predecessor. The beloved 142 year old Hatterie triumphantly returned to South Howard Street when it moved to the Flatiron from Chapel Hill in 2035. That historic event was particularly pleasing for this hat enthusiast. Of course, the basement is where the New Rathskeller restaurant is located. The Rathskeller is one of Akron’s favorite microbreweries and the area’s only German restaurant.
Ironically, the reconstruction of South Howard St. and the Flatiron II took down most of Cascade Plaza which in turn had destroyed the original streets and buildings. It is almost poetic that the new anchor of the district, the Flatiron II, would not only be a reconstruction of a landmark the city lost, but that it would become home to businesses like The Hatterie that have weathered all of Akron’s storms, and the New Rathskeller, which are resurrections from another time.
For someone like myself who is interested in Akron’s past and its future, the Flatiron II and the return of Howard St. is a dream come true. I happily eat my words of twenty years ago about the project, and look forward to spending many more years enjoying the district.
Charlotte Gintert is a retired archaeologist who has been covering Akron’s architectural history for The Devil Strip for over 30 years. She never tires of digging through Akron’s past. She also still manages to get out with her cameras. You can check out her photos at www.capturedglimpses.com. If you still use Instagram, you can follow her at @capturedglimpses.
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