Tuesday, January 03, 2006

What I Missed: Highland Square

The deal was struck -- or at least announced -- over break. Steve Albrecht has agreed to the pedestrian-friendly, parking-in-back design for HS redevelopment that residents have been clamoring for these past, oh, seven years or so. Looking over the map depicting the finalized agreement, it looks a heckuva lot like the design proposed by the HSNA-hired consultants in '03.

Thanks to Mia at RubberBuzz for blogging the story so I caught it on my return.

So what took so long? Aside from the long hard slog of getting Albrecht on board, it appears from the press coverage that the heavy work was ironing out the financial arrangements. You can read the BJ's story here, plus nearly identical coverage from the Leader. The West Akron Sun's story isn't up yet (they wait a week -- otherwise people would just read online and skip paying nothing to read it in print. I guess.) None explain what the holdup was, but given the details about the contracts and land swaps, I'm left to think it was mostly about the Benjamins.

Make no mistake, this is a victory for the activism of Square residents. They learned from waking up one morning and finding a Walgreen's metastosis on their front steps, and from the near miss with Taco Bell not to just leave their neighborhood up to the whims of landowners. They got involved, got organized, made noise and presented information that made sense. People working through the Highland Square organizations mitigated the effect of the Market Street widening project, and now have gotten a lot of what they wanted in a redevelopment plant. As Tim Russo says, "Grassroots, baby." Everyone should take a moment and reflect on what can happen when passionate people channel their energy toward a common goal.

OK, moment's over.

A couple things concern me. First, this should have been seen as a fairly significant victory for the Plusquellec administration. The fact that they announced it on December 28 -- deep into the blackest news black hole of the year -- makes me wonder about the fine print. When politicians announce something on Friday afternoon, it's because they don't want anyone to pay attention to it. Announcing it between Christmas and New Years is the political equivalent of dousing it with nitric acid and sinking it in a swamp in New Jersey. Was it clumsy PR on the part of the administration, or is something lurking in this agreement that doesn't want close scrutiny?

Second, as the BJ's fawning editorial notes in passing, "the South side of Market remains a test." Indeed it does. The owners there make Albrecht look like a charter member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Meanwhile, Albrecht has said he wants retailers on that side of the street to have as much parking as he does so shoppers don't poach his spots. This could result in vast deserts of asphalt that could negate the gains made in the instant agreement. None of the news stories explore whether the deal addresses this issue.

Finally, that editorial. Granted, Albrecht is investing millions of his money into this venture. Granted, he did not, strictly speaking, have to listen to anyone. He did good, and hopefully will do well. Still, the editorial was a bit over the top. Coming on the heels of the BJs well-publicized financial woes, a paean to their largest single advertiser was probably inevitable, but is unseemly, nonetheless.

3 comments:

peppermintlisa said...

I know i said I'd blog about HS in depth but I haven't had the time to write anything thoughtful.

Many of us in HS consider this a Pyrrhic victory. We are getting redevelopment, but not by someone sensitive to the area.

Yes, Albrecht sought public opinion for his plans. That's because the development agreement includes public property--owned by the city and library.

I've met with him and read a lot of correspondence from him over the last two years, and his obstinancy and lack of awareness became apparent.

He only moved parking to the back of his retail at the behest of the city. So championing his compromise doesn't take everything into account.

I think at surface view his plan resembles the HSNA-sponsored plan. And, indeed, because the parking (too abundant as it were) lot is placed in teh back now, that makes it a helluva lot better.

However, I'm still concerned about Highland Ave being cut off and diverted into a parking lot. The library entrance will face the parking lot, not the sidewalk, which doesn't help to facilitate the pedestrian environment we're trying to uphold and enhance. I think there will be some safety issues there.

Plus, there is an expanse of space between teh sidewalk and the retail (where Star market currently rusts away). It is intended to be "lingering" space with chess tables or other contrived crap.

However, Albrecht has said explicitly (heard the words myself) that he does not want any lingering businesses to occupy his retail space. No restaurants or cafes that would keep cars in his lot when others could be parking there. So just who will want to "linger" in this large, (I believe, elevated) space?

I'm dubious that he will seek to rent to businesses that are what the square needs. He is not opposed to chains.

I know this sounds like a deluge of negatives. It is, I suppose. Being close to the cause, it's difficult not to be frustrated.

I am happy something is moving along finally. But I question that it's ultimately good for HS.

Pho said...

Peppermint:

First, thanks so much for your comments. It's unfortunate that you have to blog this to make your misgivings known. The papers should have called NSNA for comment when they did their stories. It's clear from your comments here that they did not.

I find all your objections valid. On the other hand, HS was dealing with some painful realities. First and foremost, that the people who own the business property are not interested in HS as a neighborhood, but as a business opportunity. If I had the Starkle Markle property and a couple million to invest in it, the result would look a lot more like what the HSNA wanted.

But I don't own HS and I don't have millions of dollars. Fact is, Albrecht was going to do what he thought best for his investment.

You (individually and HSNA collectively) changed his calculus and got some of what you believe would be best for your neighborhood. The new Highland Square won't look exactly like you want it, but it won't look like Walhaven or Pilgrim Square or Montrose, either. That's a victory of the hardest kind -- changing the way a businessman does business -- and should be celebrated.

A second reality we all have to face is that a pedestrian-friendly retail space is much harder to maintain in a city like Akron. I was in DC this weekend and was reminded what makes their neighborhood business districts work -- MetroRail. When I lived in DC, if we wanted to go to a cool new restaurant or shop, often as not we jumped on the train to get there. Albrecht has reason to be skeptical that similar business districts can thrive here. What he has agreed to is a compromise between the vision of HS denizens and his original strip-mall plans. Again, I see this as a victory and think you should be proud of it.

Finally, during the aformentioned DC trip, we dropped in on mutual friends J&LW in their new Montgomery County digs. Your name came up; they say "Hi."

redhorse said...

The pedestrian argument is a slippery one. yes, many people walk through the neighborhood, but many drive to the retail area and then walk. Others drive, go to one store, and then drive away. As the mayor said in the SOS meeting, we are not a major city with significant public transportation infrastructure. That is the reality, that many of us rely upon our cars.

And yes, Albrecht might be an obstinate, stubborn man (don't know, have never met him). It's also his property, and he could have gashed it up in a manner that would have freaked everyone. He didn't. In my book, point Albrecht.

The fact that this project was held up for years for bickering over parking space (strip it all away, and that was the heart of it), and then will go forward with nearly the same damn plans as were in place some time ago, is not a victory. It's a testament to wasting time.

Possibly the Taco Bell victory stoked some egos and they contended they could make the world bend to their visions of the square? Look at the rhetoric used? Save Our Square? It's perfect now, needs preserved in its present form?

I was in Mary Coyle today, looking at the architect's renderings of the redesign. Funny, they're strikingly similar to what was in the ABJ rendering.

I love that my neighborhood is active and vocal, but I also wonder where it's priorities are as well.

I heard Smith at the SOS meeting say some folks wanted N. Highland and Highland to match up, so that there wasn't a jaunt in the road. Okay, but how that get done with out tearing through property owner's home and yards? What good would that have served?

The library enterance doesn't face Market now, and the parking there is terrible. During the summer, that's no issue: I'll ride my bike up or walk. But in the winter, parking matters when towing along two kids.

I do wonder about the retail, and hope that it's local, not chain. With that much space going in, there are great opportunities for local business owners.

I know this plan could never make everyone happy, there were too many constituencies, and they all felt significant personal involvement. But the plan is reasonable, if not perfect. It's time to go forward.