Cuyahoga Falls -- The city's downtown is undergoing a change. Again.
At one time, especially after World War II, Front Street was a bustling hub of activity. Businesses lined both sides of the roadway and cars and trucks drove to and fro, stopping at local establishments or passing through on their way south to Akron or northeast to Stow or Kent.
Business began to slow down in the 1960s and 1970s as suburban shopping malls gained in popularity. To draw people back to downtown, the city closed off a section of Front Street and built a pedestrian mall between Broad Boulevard and Stow Avenue.
Stores and shops continued to operate in a walker-friendly area no longer congested with moving or parked motor vehicles (except during classic car shows). But the city became concerned when the pedestrian mall became too quiet. Businesses were moving or closing. Shoppers were scarce. In the end, closing off Front Street didn't seem to be a good idea anymore.
Over the past three years, the administration with the support of City Council has been hiring consultants, hosting meetings and conducting surveys, all part of a serious look at eliminating the pedestrian mall and opening Front Street back up to vehicular traffic, making it a two-way street, and converting other one-way streets downtown to two-way streets.
In March, City Council approved Mayor Don Walters' Downtown Transformation Project. The city broke ground in April. Work commenced with the clearing of trees, razing of a protruding stairway on the Green Parking Deck and the demolition of the fountain at Stow Avenue and Front Street.
And while this phase of the project may sound destructive, the city is by no means planning to tear everything down to put a new street in. Living up to its name, the city's Planning Department had already been setting the wheels in motion to establish a governing body to designate, catalog, preserve and protect historic buildings in the city.
Janna Amole, chairman of the Cuyahoga Falls Design and Historic Review Board, said the city had to establish the board to be a Certified Local Government so that businesses could become eligible for certified local tax credits. That's the "official" reason, she said.
"The real reason is because we want to preserve our heritage and some semblance of the character of the old downtown," Amole said. "It all works together because the tax credits help as incentive to help restore these old buildings. When you get down to it, the historic charm and character of the old towns is what draws the people to the businesses."
In 2015, the city received a Certified Local Government grant from the State Historic Preservation Office of the Ohio History Connection to undertake a Historic Architectural Survey of 70 buildings located in the Cuyahoga River Planning Area which surrounds a section of the river, according to the Cuyahoga Falls Historic Architectural Survey Report prepared by Naylor Wellman, LLC.
The Triad ad agency's renovation and relocation into a vacant factory dubbed The Foundry on South Front Street was the first preservation project that involved historic tax credits and the Board. In 2014, both the Cuyahoga Falls Planning Commission and City Council voted in favor of creating an individual historic overlay landmark at 1701 Front St., the site of The Foundry. The historic designation allowed Triad to compete for and receive a $241,261 Ohio Historic Preservation tax credit from the Ohio Development Services Agency.
"We actually did a lot of gymnastics to get that done," Amole said. Before Triad CEO Rick Krochka proposed this extensive repurposing project, the Design and Historic Review Board was not yet a reality. But it had to be.
"That was the incentive for us to get off our duff and get this done," she said. "And that became a wonderful project."
Since its inception in late 2015, the Design and Historic Review Board has designated several local landmarks and the local historic district downtown, Amole said, and work is nearly completed to finalize the city's Design and Historic Review guidelines. Those guidelines started with a framework already in the city's Development Code and is based on federal guidelines.
"I've got to give credit to the Planning Department," she said. "They have really helped put things in order and get things done. They have a very good track record for hiring consultants to get us the help we need." Amole said one of those "excellent" consultants is Deborah Sanborn who has experience with preservation in the city of Barberton.
"She fills in the gap for the Planning Department because this isn't the only thing they do," she added.
The members of the board bring a "very good mix" of experience to the table, Amole said. They come with varying backgrounds from current and former City Council members to architects, developers and business owners.
The Board is made up of Amole (chair), Diana Colavecchio, Mark Gilles, Kathy Hummel, Russ Iona, Mary Ellen Pyke and Joel Testa.
Amole said she got involved in the Board because she has served on various city boards and commissions over the past 30 years, including the Board of Zoning Appeals and Planning Commission. "I'm an architect by trade so it seemed like a good mix," she said.
"I think it's an exciting time and I'm excited to see the things happening downtown. It's a very collaborative effort," Amole said. "The opening of Front Street is a great occurrence, in my opinion, that is well overdue, too." Proper planning was key before work began to open Front Street, she said.
"We wanted to get all of our ducks in a row so we had everything together," she said. "[City Planning Director] Fred Guerra has been fantastic in terms of doing the right things in the right order. I think it's a wonderful time in the city."
KEEPING THE LOOK OF OLD DOWNTOWN
With the promise that Front Street will open again, business owners and developers have been lining up to locate on what will be a main thoroughfare again.
A part of the Design and Review Board's job is to ensure that building owners don't make any drastic changes to the buildings.
During a recent meeting, the Board reviewed a request by Crave Cantina owner Aaron Hervey for a certificate of appropriateness for alterations he planned to make to the Jones Building, 2097 Front St., where Hervey's new restaurant is located.
Architect Alan Burge shared Hervey's plans with the board.
Sanborn said the Jones Building, built in 1901, is a two-part commercial building designed in the Romanesque Revival style. "Fluted columns support the second floor; however, based on an historic image, these appear to have been added at a later date," she said.
The current storefront, Sanborn said, consists of a garage style door replacing a set of double doors with a transom above that was also an alteration from the original storefront.
She told the board proposed alterations to the Jones Building included removing earlier alterations such as first-floor columns, second-floor brackets, recently added wood siding and door leading to steps to the second floor.
"The design guidelines address non-original elements in two ways," said Sanborn. "If an element is unique and complements the building, consider retaining it. If the element is considered inappropriate, replace with one that is appropriate."
Sanborn said in this case, the above noted elements are "inappropriate for this building and should be replaced."
Hervey told the Falls News-Press on July 12 that the Design Board approved his request for a certificate of appropriateness for the front of the building.
"All work is done other than some drivet work, and a possible awning," said Hervey, who noted he did not expect the remaining work to be finished until the Front Street is done.