Upon completion, both projects are expected to bring residents back from the suburbs to urban living, while cleaning up the city’s appearance. It’s happening by capitalizing on the sudden popularity of mixed-use living that combines retail and residential spaces. The concept is a hallmark bigger cities such as New York and Boston, and is being introduced to smaller ones such as Westlake, a Cleveland suburb that adopted the idea with the construction of Crocker Park. Now Testa Cos.’ CEO Joel Testa is trying to bring a similar feel to Summit County.
“The trend we’ve seen in construction is people moving away from the cities out to the suburbs,” Testa says. “It’s created a segregation by economic class. In the old neighborhoods, there was a true diversity of people of varying ages and religions and economic abilities. There’s a lot to be learned from that and we’re trying to get back to that.”
New spice in life
The $35 million Spicer Village project, developed by ASW Services and the Bord family, will transform what was once 40 rundown blocks on and near the University of Arkon’s campus into a polished region. The project is centered around the university, both geographically and operationally, and also involves the University Park Alliance, which includes the University of Akron, Summa Health System and the city of Akron.
“In a knowledge and innovation economy, which is the economy we’re in, the university is the key to the future of Akron’s economy,” says Ken Stapleton, the director of the University Park Alliance. “We’re not the largest employer, we’re probably not the largest tax generator. But we are either the most or one of the most strategic businesses in Akron in terms of economic development with technology and research. And we attract talent. Given the labor shortage, our ability to pull high-quality talent in is important for (other businesses) in the region. Of the companies around Akron, the university is going to have a major role in attracting, training and keeping the talent around.”
The university has spent approximately $300 million on campus, constructing a new residence hall on East Exchange Street and creating nine new buildings around campus. Summa will open a new critical care unit this spring and a new cancer center within the next two years. And perhaps most important, the neighborhoods to the south, east and north of the university’s campus are all undergoing extreme makeovers.
It starts with providing luxurious places to live. The idea is to bring buyers closer to their jobs and, as Stapleton hopes, improve the quality of life while improving Akron’s finances. There will be buildings on East Exchange Street with retail on the first floor and a combination of office space and residential living above. Just south of campus and East Exchange Street will be townhomes, condos and flats for purchase.
“The key to all that residential is that it’s about a piece of home ownership. It’s not a rental piece, which has been the history there for a long, long time,” he says. “Our home ownership rate is very low - below 20 percent. We want people investing their own dollars in this neighborhood and through the whole University Park area.”
“I think people are realizing the suburban sprawl can’t keep expanding farther and farther away,” says Monty Miller, president of ASW Services, a company involved in Spicer Village’s development. “Not everyone likes to get in their car and travel. Also, we have people (who have) raised their family and now they want to be close to something and be part of the community. That’s Spicer Village. We reconnect to the community and have a neighborhood feel.”
That neighborhood feel is also the aim of the Northside Lofts project. The northern edge of the $35 million project runs between downtown and the popular biking/hiking trail of the Cuyahoga Towpath. This area will soon house shops, restaurants and, of course, residences.
“The design of the buildings is to look like old Chicago warehouses that have been rehabbed,” Testa says. Two 10-story buildings will stand together on Furnace Street, housing 89 residential condos - 61 warehouse-style lofts and 28 townhomes with brownstone walkups. “It’s the more traditional Boston, Washington or Chicago that people would think of.”
Canal Park is within walking distance, as are the bars and clubs surrounding the stadium. There will be a private limousine service and a concierge staff to book reservations, get tickets or pick up dry cleaning. Testa is trying to give residents the feel of a luxurious hotel, without the bill at the end of the week.
Testa approximated that buyers can spend anywhere from less than $200,000 up to $1 million on their residence all located within the same building. “It opens it up to everybody in the buying market,” he says. “And more importantly, it gives you that diversity. People from various economic levels will all be living together.”
The goal is to provide the type of living that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the state of Ohio.
“We’re trying to bring the flavor of Manhattan to Akron,” Testa says. “We want little shops that are boutiques, cafes, delis and grocery shops so people can get a taste of Manhattan brought to Akron.”
Face of the future
Spicer Village and Northside Lofts aren’t alone. The art museum is undergoing massive changes, Canal Park is still one of the premiere minor league venues in the country and the university is discussing plans for new athletic facilities.
Together, it will all revive downtown Akron and make it a desirable place to live and work.
“It’s cultural diversity, it’s arts and entertainment, it’s lots of things areas with vibrant economies have in common,” Testa says. “This project is a large step with some of the other ones going around. The new art museum, the library, baseball ... all of those things help attain and attract residents. And ultimately, business will follow.”