For almost four decades, Cuyahoga Falls’ Front Street was known as the heart of the Ohio city. In 1978, the two-block stretch of main street was converted to prioritize people over vehicles. A pedestrian mall, however, proved unsuccessful, leaving the city with a struggling business district and an underutilized riverfront. As demand for accessible downtowns rose, the strip offered presented 215,000 square feet of prime real estate – in an area closed to vehicle traffic.
In February 2016, the city embarked on a $13.7 million project to revitalize the property. Paid for by general obligation bonds, the project included asphalt pavement and utility upgrades coupled with aesthetic improvements and new recreational amenities. The reconstructed downtown district not only caters to retail and professional offices, but also offers residents and visitors a signature public space to enjoy for years to come.
A large part of the project’s success was the Community Development Department’s ability to communicate Mayor Don Walters’ vision of what was needed to city council members, residents, and business owners.
Building A Case, Gaining Buy-In
During the planning phase, the department hired third-party consultants to determine how the change would impact housing, revenue opportunities, traffic flow, and historic properties and landmarks. Research included a residential market study, retail market analysis, a downtown circulation plan, and a historic architectural survey report. All indicated retail growth could not happen without opening the pedestrian mall to two-way traffic.
The city held public meetings and open planning sessions to share these findings and seek input on how best to transform the area. All stakeholders were invited to participate in a “Better Block” survey to identify quick, inexpensive, high-impact changes. City, business, and community leaders went on a fact-finding bus tour to see how other Midwestern cities converted former pedestrian malls, traveling to the Village of Oak Park, Ill., and Indiana cities of South Bend and Valparaiso for a crash course on lessons learned and best practices.
At every step, Community Development kept the process transparent, posting all studies and economic reports, survey results, site-visit videos, maps, and FAQs on the city’s website. Residents were invited to provide feedback through the site.
“It was the most organized, planned-out project I’ve worked on,” says Bryan Celik, P.E., CCM, senior construction manager with H.R. Gray of Akron, Ohio, the design/build contractor who oversaw the project. “From a taxpayer standpoint, it was refreshing to see the city do its due diligence. They did the research to prove it was a good investment, which made it an easier sell to the city council. They had all their ducks in a row.”
A Hybrid Plan
The various studies and public discussions led to the development of three potential options. The most promising features were selected from the three plans based on community needs and ongoing development opportunities throughout the corridor.
In July 2016, the city awarded a design and engineering contract for up to 40% of the project to Osborn Engineering and the subconsultant team of City Architecture and DLZ, all based in Cleveland. In addition to balancing pedestrian and vehicle traffic, the team’s streetscape concept preserves historical elements such as a clock tower the city’s owned since the 1890s.
In March 2017, the city awarded a design-build contract to H.R. Gray to complete the remaining 60% of design and build the project, with Hammontree & Associates of North Canton, Ohio, managing project design, surveying, and landscape architecture. Although some of the design elements were somewhat prescriptive, such as hardscape and landscape items, other details were left to the design-build team to complete, such as fountains.
“When the project got to H.R. Gray, there were not a lot of ambiguities,” says H.R. Gray’s Celik. “The city knew what they wanted, and we went with it.”
To convert the pedestrian mall into a two-way street with wide sidewalks, the team ripped out everything from between the buildings lining the walkway in the mall. Five feet of space was left open so the public could enter businesses, which stayed open during construction. The team then added infrastructure, such as lighting with dedicated outlets and grease traps conveniently located for vendors, to support community events.
The new, 25-mph road allows for bicycles as well as pedestrian sitting areas. Parallel parking for up to 63 cars was added on both sides of the street. Road pavers were installed for the crosswalks and tree lawn, which aesthetically tie into the downtown area’s historic nature.
The team also replaced an aging spray fountain with a decorative concrete fountain and installed an interactive splash pad to make the area family-friendly. Other improvements included:
- Resurfacing four asphalt streets and adding Americans with Disability Act-compliant curb ramps, new sewers and upgraded traffic control devices where necessary.
- Multiple changes in traffic patterns, including modifying two one-way street corridors to support bidirectional traffic.
- Lighting and façade improvements at three public parking garages and adding a new stair tower and elevator to one structure. The stair-tower enclosure and elevator were constructed with light-permitting glass, to give them a modern, aesthetically pleasing, open-air feel.
- Replacing a second, existing city fountain and adding programmable red, white, and blue LED lighting.
An alternative project delivery method was chosen because bringing design and construction functions together streamlines construction by minimizing change orders, thus minimizing inconvenience to residents and businesses. Because the area is the city’s main venue for festivals and other entertainment, city officials also wanted to minimize disruption to the community events schedule.
Design-build also enhanced collaboration between public officials, stakeholders, designers, and contractors. Having the design-build contractor as the single point of contact minimizes the potential for details to get lost as they travel through multiple communication channels. H.R. Gray held weekly meetings with the subcontractors and biweekly meetings with the owner and other project stakeholders. Working with the mayor’s office, the firm conducted two hard hat tours attended by approximately 200 people.
H.R. Gray also worked with a public relations consultant to build relationships with business owners and address any issues. The design-build team coordinated construction activities so shoppers could access storefronts during business hours.
“The construction teams were very conscientious,” says Sandi Saffles, who owns the Yum Yum Sweet Shop with her son. “They were always onsite, so if I had a problem, they were always around to help.”
Encouraging Private Investment
Because most buildings in the district are privately owned, to encourage private investment (and participation) in the revitalization effort, the city began offering Community Development Block Grants to business owners for façade and signage improvements.
The city also designated the downtown area a Local Historic District, and the National Park Service listed the area on the National Register of Historic Places. With this new status, private-property owners can apply for state and federal historic tax credits of up to 45% for expenditures on historic renovations of their downtown buildings.
Since 2017, there have been five historic tax-credit projects in the area totaling more than $10 million in private reinvestment. “We were tearing off the front of our building while they were tearing up the street,” says Saffles. “We all worked together for the betterment of downtown Cuyahoga Falls.”
A New Brand
The former pedestrian mall is now known as Downtown Cuyahoga Falls. Its “The fun flows here” tagline pays homage to the Cuyahoga River, which runs parallel to the area’s new street.
The area boasts 10 new retail and restaurant establishments. Community Development employees are working with other building owners on historic tax-credit projects and with retail establishments interested in relocating. An entertainment district created within the area allows for 11 new liquor licenses.
Construction began in spring 2017 and, despite a very rainy spring, the project was completed in 13 months – and under budget, with H.R. Gray returning $15,000 in unused funds.
Front Street opened in February 2018. Landscaping and other finishing elements were completed in May 2018, just in time for the city’s summer festival season. Cuyahoga Falls celebrated with a grand-opening parade in early June.
Bryan Celik, P.E., CCM, Senior Construction Manager with H.R. Gray in Akron, Ohio can be reached at [email protected] or (330) 379-3200.
Find out more about H.R. Gray by visiting their website, www.hrgray.com.