Front Street Cuyahoga Falls

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Shortly after I moved to the Akron area, I was at a social event and met someone who worked in the neighboring community of Cuyahoga Falls. When she found out that I was in the historic preservation field, she asked me what I thought would be positive and/or effective for the downtown area. The first thing that came to my mind was to reopen Front Street, which had been closed to auto traffic and converted to a pedestrian mall decades ago. Fast forward seven years, and I don’t want to take credit, but…. Front Street is now open to traffic! In all seriousness, I had nothing to do with this fantastic project, but it is reflective of the things we have learned in the historic preservation field. We may value “old things” and enjoy the experience of historic buildings and districts, but as a profession, we must also look forward to anticipate the implications of our decisions and actions, and be ready to admit when something isn’t working or change is needed.

Converting downtowns to pedestrian-only use came into vogue in the 60s, 70s and 80s as a way to try to compete with shopping malls. I can understand the thinking… cars are fast, dangerous, loud and dirty. Parking downtown can be difficult. Shopping malls were shiny, clean and new, it never rains inside, and everything is a known element. But by and large, pedestrian malls have failed. The only one I’ve ever been to that has any life is in Charlottesville, Virginia. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw tumbleweeds rolling across the ones I’ve visited. In contrast, my husband and I went to Front Street recently on a Saturday night and it was abuzz with activity. People were walking around. You could hardly find a parking spot on the street (but they planned for plenty of convenient garage parking), and the restaurants had lines out the door. There are new shops going in and the ones that were already there are seeing a bump in business. This is an exciting development and means great things for the historic buildings downtown, including occupancy, tax credits, investment and renewed appreciation by residents and visitors. I did talk to some people who worried about rising rents, and if you read the comments sections, you can always find the naysayers (don’t ever read the comments sections).  But the City of Cuyahoga Falls pressed on, raised the money, did the work and from what I’ve seen so far, it was worth it.

Speaking of shopping malls, downtowns and preservation (or lack thereof), the current trend in shopping now seems to be outdoor shopping areas that look like downtowns, but are brand new, plopped in the middle of a wide open space with acres of parking all around — think Easton in Columbus. Now, I’m not going to say I don’t enjoy a nice outing to Easton, but I am kind of conflicted about it. Why do we flock to fake downtowns when we have the real thing languishing?  People obviously like the historic architectural allusions, the outdoor aspect, the vibrant street life feeling, etc., but some seem to prefer a sanitized version. Is there room for both downtown and fake downtown?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on pedestrian malls, real downtowns, fake downtowns, and reopening streets. Do you know of any successful pedestrian malls? What draws you to or drives you away from downtown business districts?

For more info on the Cuyahoga Falls Front Street project, check out these links:

City of Cuyahoga Falls Downtown Transformation

Cuyahoga Falls Reopens Front Street to Traffic

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Courtney is the owner and principal of Aurora Research Associates, LLC, an historic preservation consulting firm.

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