Every week, half-a-million drivers see the Cuyahoga Falls pedestrian mall from Route 8. The area was once a thriving downtown, but these days it draws crowds only occasionally during summer festivals. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia looks at the plan to bring cars and – the city hopes – shoppers back to Front Street.
These days, the steady flow of water is about the only sound on Front Street’s pedestrian mall. Old and tired fountains sit at the north and south ends of the two-block area. People are few and far between, except at Flury’s Café, where owner Kim White is cooking coconut pancakes, blueberry pancakes and sausage and eggs.”
The cozy, kitschy diner moved to this location last year, after decades in a more residential spot, and White says, “even though the street isn’t open, we are busier, just because we’re on a busier street.”
Back in time
With easy access at the corner of Portage Trail and Front Street, she’s seeing the kind of traffic that Mayor Don Walters wants for the entire pedestrian mall. That’s why he’s been championing a plan to re-open the entire street to auto traffic for the first time since 1978.
“The downtowns were dying because everyone wanted to go to the large shopping malls. Unfortunately, [in] the downtowns, a lot of the merchants left [and] the customers left also. And no one knew what to do at the time.
"So we closed our Front Street mall for two blocks and put in a pedestrian mall, thinking that would be the niche we need to bring people back downtown. That was 40 years ago. And I believe about 39 years ago they started to talk about opening it back up.”
Retail has almost totally deserted Front Street. Along with Flury’s Café, there’s a popcorn shop, a couple bars, and several antique stores still at street level, with office space above. Remnants of the signs for long-gone stores like Woolworth’s and The Whistle Stop remain, as does the vintage sign for Levinson’s, which is still very much in-business after almost a century. The store sells uniforms to public safety personnel, and owner William Burch says sales grow every year. But he has mixed feelings about the redevelopment plan.
“We rent the building. We’ve rented the building and we’ve probably paid for it eight times over the
hundred years, but I can see our rent start to go up. We’re a destination shop, so we need to be wherever is halfway reasonable. But as far as for the city: yes, I think it’s good for the city.”
Shopping on foot
The feasibility studies commissioned by the city say so as well. A 2013 Fresno State study found that only about 11 percent of pedestrian malls have proven successful, usually in college towns or resort areas. And ideally, those malls should not totally impede car traffic. So opening Front Street back up is good for everyone, according to Mayor Walters.
“If this is done properly, possibly a rent could double, and your business could triple.”
The plan calls for more than just adding traffic lanes. There will be tree-lined sidewalks. At the corner of Broad Boulevard, the popular fountain for kids – with its jumping and squirting water streams – will remain. So will the clock tower and outdoor ice rink.
Walters says the three free parking decks will stay put – a good thing since a new hotel is also part of the mix. Details on that are still being worked out, as are plans to turn the long-empty Falls Theatre into a micro-brewery.
What’s in store
But all of that is contingent on the plan actually going forward. Over the summer, City Council approved the first phase of engineering and design work, which Walters says is already underway.
“The utility/underground things will start first. We don’t want to put a road over a 50-year-old water line or sewer line. That’ll all happen first, and then the road will go in, we hope, by fall of 2018.”
Late last month, residents got a preview of what a reinvigorated Front Street might look like.
The non-profit Better Block Foundation moved in with live music, pop-up shops, food vendors and a “yarn bomb” – hundreds of yards of yarn that spelled out “I Love Cuyahoga Falls” on the circular parking structure.
Carol McDonald lives in the Falls and says, seeing what was happening during Better Block, the redevelopment should be a success.
“If there were a nice little restaurant to come to, and a place to sit out and have a drink or whatever, and a store that I’d like to go to, I’d come.”
Better Block aims to show residents the possibilities that await their neighborhoods.
Roberts says Better Block’s events often lead to positive change but sometimes face hurdles to progress.
“A lot of those challenges are really based with policies that the cities have. Because, usually, the people are ready to go after these projects.
"Sometimes there’s absentee property owners that we have a hard time getting a hold of. So things like that can be the problems that constrain these projects from having any momentum after that.”
Roberts sees no such problems in Cuyahoga Falls, where Walters says the city is already talking to merchants about moving in when work is complete.
“If you go to Easton in Columbus [or] Legacy Village, those are essentially new, fake downtowns. Well, we have a real one. Problem is, no one can get to it.”