STOW — The Doughboy which stands as a silent sentinel at the intersection of Darrow and Graham roads will have a lot to say about how the city proceeds in its quest for a downtown, say planning experts.

While Stow has never had an official downtown, city officials are exploring options for creating one and the Doughboy statue can help define the vision, according to Tony Slanac, partner and director of planning and urban design at OHM Advisors. "We think it’s really important to focus synergy on that corner icon as a landmark, as an identity feature," Slanac told members of City Council and the public earlier this month, adding a decision on how to enhance that corner would be a first step in setting the tone for the redevelopment of the City Center campus. "It’s an important iconic expression of who you are, where you want to be," Slanac said.

Almost one year ago the Stow-Munroe Falls Community Foundation commissioned plans from OHM for a possible community gathering place around the City Center complex. That complex, which is northwest of the Darrow and Graham roads intersection, includes City Hall, the safety building, the service department building, a salt bin and a water tower. While the city center area totals about 63 acres, only about 16 acres of that is being considered for development. The First & Main district in Hudson is close in size, about 20 acres, according to Stow Planning Director Rob Kurtz.

Earlier this month Slanac and other OHM representatives shared very preliminary ideas for a mixed use development with a community gathering space, retail, residential and office. A market study conducted by DiSalvo Development Advisors indicated there is a demand for upscale rental housing/condos in Stow, and a low demand for more office space. Peter DiSalvo said between 120-150 units of upscale rental housing would be recommended, although members of a city steering committee indicated they would prefer to cap that number at 100. In mixed use developments in downtowns, DiSalvo characterized housing as being an important component. From the restaurant/retail standpoint, DiSalvo described the site as "constrained" because it is essentially encircled by shopping centers in surrounding communities. Saying he envisions "a modest amount of commercial" development, DiSalvo said he would expect that to be centered in "local and regional independent retailers and restaurateurs."

Transforming the corner of Darrow and Graham roads into Stow’s "signature" should be a first step, according to Slanac. Among the consultant’s ideas was the transformation of city hall’s lawn into a park incorporating the Doughboy statue and other means, perhaps history panels or a war memorial, "to tell the story of Stow." Playground equipment could be incorporated into the park, introducing what OHM officials referred to as a "next generation" of SKiP, but in a different location closer to the Darrow and Graham roads intersection. That suggestion prompted several members of council and the public to express concerns over safety given the proximity to the high traffic intersection. The existing walking trail is proposed to be kept, with a nature center suggested as an addition.

"… I would say over the past 20 years, surveys and conversations and polling in this community have indicated overwhelmingly the thing that people want is a central gathering space, a central downtown, the things that we don’t have," Stow Mayor Sara Kline said. "This is an attempt to be responsive to what we’ve heard over and over again, but we’re still very early in that process if we’re going to move ahead."

The city also is considering the creation of a Community Entertainment District as a way to attract development as Stow looks to create a community gathering space/downtown. As utilized in other area communities, Kline said a CED can facilitate the kind of dining and shopping experiences residents have said they are looking for.

Slanac said the land use possibilities being presented weren’t "pie-in-the-sky, Disneyland concepts," but based on what a market study analysis revealed could potentially be supported in Stow. DiSalvo Development Advisors conducted that study. OHM then applied the market study to the site, incorporating identified uses to existing features.

Among the overarching aspirations of the Steering Committee are the creation of a downtown experience and character; defining what would constitute a quality development and how to leverage private investment; and integrating an urban downtown experience with open space and neighborhood connectivity. OHM officials suggested a central organizing open space linked throughout the development; commercial uses fronting the high volume perimeter streets; locating the residential uses north on the site; and using the water tower as a landmark or branding element.

"What’s the timing before you would see a downtown?" asked Councilmember Brian Lowdermilk. OHM officials said they could not speculate on that. 

Slanac urged Stow officials to set the bar high in terms of the quality of development they seek. "If we don’t set the bar, then they’re going to come in with a model that is likely to be very cost effective which typically means you’re not going to get the materials like stone and brick, you’re not going to get architectural refinements that will enhance the experience of what we’re trying to create," he said. 

Reporter Ellin Walsh can be reached at 330-541-9419,  @recordpub.com or @EllinWalsh_RPC.