Taking action in Akron
Leaders aim to help University Park area catch up to rest of downtown's revitalization
By STAN BULLARD
4:30 am, March 19, 2012
In the center of Akron, the watery remains of the Ohio Canal and a steep hill have played a defining role in the city's growth since the 19th century. On one side is downtown Akron. On the other is an area now dubbed University Park, which encompasses 50 blocks bounded by Broadway, Arlington and East Market streets and Interstate 76. Big plans
With downtown Akron enjoying a buzz thanks to redevelopment projects from Canal Park to Quaker Square, civic leaders are adding University Park to their gaze.
University Park has many pluses but lacks the commercial and residential redevelopment of downtown; just one new commercial project of scale rose in University Park during the last realty boom. Spicer Village, a multimillion-dollar mixed-use project with retail and residential units, was the sole urban head-turner.
Reversing that trend with new commercial and residential properties is the task of the University Park Alliance, a public-private partnership organized as a community development corporation that can own and redevelop property.
UPA's staff leader is Eric Anthony Johnson, a New Orleans native with a doctorate in urban affairs and public policy and a résumé ranging from economic development in the city of Charlotte, N.C., to the realty manager for the aborted lakefront development plan of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority.
Rather than head to the Sun Belt after Cleveland abandoned that plan, Dr. Johnson landed at UPA where he is again orchestrating a big urban development drive.
Just over 14 months after Dr. Johnson came on board, significant steps are in place to set the table for redevelopment, and four projects that are part of a longer-term master plan already are moving forward. A little bit of help
Beyond describing them as “mixed-use” projects — usually mixes of retail, office and residential uses in one property — at four undisclosed locations, Dr. Johnson would offer no more detail.
He does point to the wish list, though, for the four projects, which UPA wants up by 2016 — 803 residential units, at least one hotel and nearly 113,000 square feet of retail and 260,000 square feet of office space.
One reason Dr. Johnson declines to outline site-specific projects is that UPA and potential developers may want to acquire additional land to the sites.
Dr. Johnson said one reason he made Akron his next stop after Cleveland after touring the UPA geography was the makeup of its 17-member board.
Not only does it include Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic and Summit County Executive Russell M. Pry, but Thomas Strauss, Summa Health System's president and CEO, Luis Proenza, president of the University of Akron and others also are involved. Summa and the University of Akron both are within UPA's turf.
“Communities that are organized to reduce fragmentation will flourish in the future,” Dr. Johnson said. “Resources are too limited for them otherwise.”
David Lieberth, deputy mayor of Akron, said UPA's plans are designed so they capitalize on opportunities for both downtown and the UPA despite the geography separating the two. Moreover, University of Akron actions — from buying the old Polsky's department store in the '80s to fueling demand for new student-focused housing downtown — have helped bridge the gap between the two.
Mr. Lieberth said Mayor Plusquellic, who was in China last week, supported the UPA plan with a big condition: It had to impact the city beyond UPA borders.
Despite this generally being one of the least opportune times to launch realty programs of scope, Dr. Johnson and his staff are undertaking no little plans.
UPA has selected as its realty development partner KUD International LLC, a United States real estate development arm of the Japanese construction and realty conglomerate Kajima Corp., a Japanese concern that is one of the world's largest builders and developers.
Dr. Johnson said KUD will help UPA advance its agenda on many levels. At the get-go last month, KUD signing on helped UPA broadcast through the media its plans worldwide. News of the association last October meant mentions of the 50-block UPA plan ran in cities from New York to Chicago and Tokyo to Mumbai. Part of it also is clout: KUD's parent is a billion-dollar construction concern active in 20 countries.
Dr. Johnson said KUD will offer up a project manager to assist UPA on each development project, and it will supplement the alliance's limited staff of six. Moreover, KUD will provide financing and construction guarantees for projects UPA undertakes in its district.
“A local developer may have a nice plan for a project,” he said, “but may not have the financing capability for it. Here is KUD, which has financing relationships and can provide guarantees that will help secure financing.”
For KUD, the Akron alliance offered an opportunity to work collaboratively to produce projects which may involve local developers and others, said Tom Winter, KUD senior vice president. He said KUD is looking at ground-up construction for the four opportunities Dr. Johnson discussed, and some enlist local firms. At least one expert sees the KUD role as vital to the nascent efforts of UPA.
Steve Strnisha, a finance expert who specializes in complex urban projects and is now a senior executive with the Cleveland International Fund, which provides international investors with U.S. financing opportunities, said the KUD association would open lenders' doors.
“A construction cost and guarantee is absolutely critical to any project of scale from a lenders' perspective,” Mr. Strnisha said. “It shows there is a commitment to bring in a project at a given price. You don't want to have to go to the developer or the developer's partners to come in with more money if it's needed.”
Eric Johnson, who leads Akron’s University Park Alliance, in front of boards representing four redevelopment districts in UPA’s master plan. In the foreground is a part of a fence by renowned University Park artist Don Drumm.
Photo credit: JANET CENTURY
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