Akron and Cuyahoga Falls Present Merriman Valley Master Plan
After months of planning, Akron and Cuyahoga Falls presented their vision for the Merriman Valley: a lush gateway to Cuyahoga Valley National Park with thoughtful planning of the conservation district, pedestrian infrastructure, roads tree-lined and an outdoor recreation economy – with 50-foot oars and the world’s largest interactive canoe.
The master plan, presented Wednesday in a virtual meeting with more than 250 attendees by Chicago-based architecture firm Farr Associates, has been in the works since July. Akron and Cuyahoga Falls paid the company $ 200,000 to gather public comment, research the area, and envision a new future for the neighborhood that straddles the two-city border.
Merriman Valley, which has access to the Cuyahoga River, Summit Metro Parks, the Ohio & Erie Canal towpath, and the National Park, is riddled with the consequences of poor planning and a competitive annexation between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls before this collaboration. Despite the natural beauty, urban planning consultant Doug Farr called the built environment of dangerous sidewalks and walkways, heavy traffic and unsightly buildings a “disaster.”
âTo be a gateway, we have work to do,â Farr said.
Cities envision the Merriman Valley as an ecotourism destination
The future of a thriving Merriman Valley rests on the need to make the site a destination for people not only regionally but nationally, the cities said.
Millions of people visit Cuyahoga National Park every year for hiking, kayaking and biking. The cities hope to attract even more visitors to the area in the years to come when a Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad depot opens on Merriman Road in 2023. Akron and Cuyahoga Falls both want to take the planning opportunity to capture these tourists and stimulate local economies.
What’s missing, Farr said, is a “postcard moment.” He cites several towns adjacent to national parks, such as Estes Park, Colorado, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as inspiration, noting their quaint architecture, walkability, and businesses suitable for both locals and tourists.
Farr’s renderings show a reimagined Merriman Road in which traffic is fluid and without signals. With heavy traffic and a lack of crosswalks, crossing Merriman Road on foot or by bicycle can be dangerous. Illustrations on the plan include the world’s largest canoe running along an elongated median green space that separates the route where cities are considering community events such as yoga classes or concerts.
âWe imagine people taking the train and staying for a few days kayaking or hiking,â Farr said. âThis is all good, but is it memorable? [The worldâs largest canoe] would be something particularly memorable when people are leaving.
Additionally, the plan envisions the creation of a waterfront park as a venue for outdoor concerts and other events.
The Theiss Road property, a 45-acre green space in the valley that is currently for sale, was particularly absent from the planning area.
Earlier this year, the city extended its request for tenders to conservation efforts after strong intervention and activism from environmental activists condemning further land development in the area. Akron Director of Planning and Urban Development Jason Segedy said Mayor Dan Horrigan will make his selection for this property early next year.
Updated zoning codes could transform current and future development
Responding to residents’ strong concerns about development and conservation at previous public forums, Farr made several recommendations to preserve existing green spaces and develop neighborhoods with environmental factors in mind.
Recommendations included the introduction of a continuous natural corridor that crosses the valley, bridges and creature crossings to avoid road accidents and scenic drives with grasslands or native trees set back 100 feet on both sides. from the street.
Both cities have developed new residential housing in recent years much to the dismay of many current residents, who have strongly criticized new developments in the area.
To guide future residential developments, the plan describes âsustainable neighborhoodsâ that would discourage clearcutting and promote pedestrian and cyclist access. The neighborhoods would also maintain the current tree canopy, allow stormwater to seep in naturally without additional infrastructure, and minimize light pollution for night sky viewing.
The updated zoning and codes would also encourage the redevelopment of aging commercial buildings into two to three story structures. Segedy wants a more thoughtful urban design to make the neighborhood look and feel “a lot more like a city” compared to the “sprawling mess of disconnected buildings, which is largely how it works today.”
âThe project is wonderful,â said Karen Zampelli, president of the Merriman Valley Neighborhood Association. âIt was a great collaboration between the cities and they did a great job including us in the process. I wish we could innovate tomorrow.
Skepticism and lingering concerns about conservation, taxes and inclusiveness
Several residents continued to express concern over Akron’s property tax abatement program, which prompts developers to build and update the city’s housing stock.
Since 2017, any developer or owner who builds new housing does not have to pay property taxes for 15 years in order to stimulate population growth.
Despite Akron’s attempts to increase the population to 250,000 by 2050, the city experienced one of Summit County’s steepest declines in the 2020 U.S. Census, losing 4.3% of its population in over the past decade. Meanwhile, Cuyahoga Falls, which has given the green light to newer housing projects than Akron, has seen one of the largest population increases.
Past projects and potential development have mobilized a vocal conservation group called Preserve the Valley, which has organized itself against policies they fear will push to develop empty land or forests.
Many of these residents would prefer to see the policy revised to exclude the valley for new development and instead propose redevelopment cuts to re-envision what already exists.
Akron City Council member Shammas Malik, whose Ward 8 includes parts of the valley, echoed these calls to curtail redevelopment, saying the city should not push for green space development when ” so many people tell us that’s not what they want to see “. And city officials have shown flexibility; Segedy has repeatedly expressed its openness to reviewing and revising the allowance.
“[With redevelopment abatements] we are fortunate to correct a lot of spreading elements to reimagine the future, âsaid Andrew Holland, member of Preserve the Valley. âWhat if these buildings were turned over to face the river, and if the car parks became green spaces? This could be a very good opportunity, if the codes have teeth and both councils embrace them. “
Other residents pushing for conservation, like Shelley Pearsall, are less optimistic. She left Preserve the Valley after the summer town hall meetings because she said she wasn’t comfortable with the direction of the plan. She fears that development will negatively affect the region and accelerate climate change issues, such as flooding, in the valley.
âThe giant dinghy at the roundabout is the biggest dose of irony because they’re really preparing this end of the valley for some serious environmental issues,â Pearsall said. âWhen I got the call, I told my husband that we just won’t be able to be here in five years because it’s not going in a positive direction. We moved here because it was our dream to live near the national park and retire here, but I’m disappointed.
Several attendees also took issue with the Zoom meeting setup, which only allowed presenters to speak and did not have an open chat option. Instead, there was a moderated Q&A at the end, but only answers to moderator-approved questions appeared to the public.
âIt felt like a lack of transparency and more like a monologue,â Holland said. âA more fluid discussion would have been a good thing. “
Some were also concerned about the inclusion of the voices of tenants, who were grossly under-represented in planning meetings despite representing 74% of the valley’s population.
Akron City Council members Malik and Nancy Holland from Ward 1 worked to try to get those voices into the conversation. Malik reached out to tenants at Cedarwood Village Apartments and worked to get Facebook ads with geographic targets on the planning process.
âIt’s been a challenge, but we’re going to continue to defend this because we want to make sure the plan works for everyone,â said Malik. “I want this to be the first step in a much larger conversation, because we don’t necessarily have all the seats around the table, but a lot of us are trying to make those voices heard.”
City officials and Farr stressed that the project is a living document and that they are always listening to the thoughts and concerns of residents.
âA plan like this takes several months to a year to be fully adopted,â Farr said, noting that it took collaboration between cities, business owners and residents to implement the recommendations. He said he had encouraged the two cities to allocate staff and resources to implement the plan.
Community feedback will be taken into consideration to revise and refine the plan, which will be made public in early 2022. Each city will draft and present zoning code changes to their city councils in 2022 to begin work in the valley.
âI was encouraged by the vision, but it’s a vision that sets the bar very high. I hope both cities will really dig in and consider the next steps, âsaid Dallas Aleman, owner of the Towpath Tennis Center. âThere are going to be a lot of give and take between private owners and people who want to preserve green spaces. I hope that sustainable building codes and practices will be put in place to ensure the integrity of what may become the valley.
Journalist Abbey Marshall can be reached at [email protected]