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Wednesday, June 20th, 2012
By Eric A. Johnson, Ph.D.
If you don’t believe in the power of urban residents to help themselves — and help struggling American cities in the process — let me tell you a story about Akron, Ohio.
Like many traditional cities, the loss of manufacturing jobs hit Akron hard, and the Great Recession only deepened the blows. But today in Akron, residents in the city’s oldest neighborhoods are engaged in block groups, faith groups and now even a group to explore the possibility of imposing a property assessment (on themselves) to raise money for neighborhood improvements.
Here, residents are discovering that by joining together, they can collectively counter negative forces that result in crime, blight and a sense of hopelessness.
Recently, Akron’s University Park Alliance hosted a Neighborhood Summit that drew a crowd of 300 for five hours on a Saturday to discuss the future of a 50-block area at the center of Akron. With computers and keypads supplied by The University of Akron, we followed the format of the national nonprofit America Speaks for polling citizens on their priorities for their own communities.
It is probably no surprise that “safe streets” ranked No. 1 in the voting. In second place: “Neighbors helping neighbors,” in affirmation of block groups and faith groups serving as agents of change. (If Akron residents are feeling the impact of these groups lately, it’s because they’re seeing how they can leverage City Hall by banding together in groups. In one case, a report to City Hall resulted in the boarding up of a home where activity had posed a threat to neighbors.)
The scope of citizen commitment we are seeing in Akron, and the extent that people are willing to give of themselves, touches me deeply.
When we asked Summit participants about their income, 18 percent reported annual household income of less than $25,000. An additional 20 percent reported annual household income of less than $50,000.
Yet when we asked how many would be willing to explore the possibility of a yearly property assessment for five years, to raise money for neighborhood improvements, a resounding 83 percent said yes.
At UPA, our philosophy is that urban revitalization must take place within the context of robust civic engagement. Just as cities assess their institutional assets, such as those emanating from universities and hospitals, it is equally important to draw on the dynamic power of human assets.
The way to build strong, healthy neighborhoods — supporting schools and families — is by coalescing the most positive influences in the neighborhood at all levels, from neighbors to civic and business leaders. In University Park, we’re especially fortunate to have numerous faith communities that form a basis for people coming together across social, racial and economic lines.
During our Summit, we talked about how urban neighborhoods could ill-afford to wait for local, state or federal government solutions. That is a self-defeating strategy. Rather, if citizens embrace the full potential of democracy, they have the ability to generate a collective strength that could amaze them.
Often, people rally around crisis. But opportunity is also a rallying point — and an exciting one. In Akron, we closed our Summit with residents saying what they’d do to support an additional property assessment for the University Park neighborhoods.
The prospect of a new tax? They cheered the idea.
Thursday, May 10th, 2012
Dear University Park friends,
The University Park Alliance (UPA) staff extends our deep thanks for the amazing prayer service held in support of our work on the recent National Day of Prayer. We especially thank the host of the event, Pastor Ron Shultz of Family of Faith United Methodist Church on East Market Street.
It means everything to us to be worthy of this high expression of community support, with Rev. Shultz and fellow University Park pastors leading friends and neighbors in song and prayer for the success of our urban revitalization efforts. These prayers remain in our hearts. They are prayers that guide our work as we join with city officials, business and institutional leaders and neighbors alike to improve safety, housing, wellness and job opportunities in the 50-block area that comprises University Park.
As we carry out this important work, we are ever mindful that it takes all of us working as a team to overcome challenges and negative influences. Civic engagement is essential to achieving the goal of community transformation.
We at University Park Alliance are committed to the neighborhood and its people. By choosing to pray for our work, you expressed your commitment to the work at hand. We hope to see you all at our Neighborhood Summit on June 16 from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Quaker Square. Lunch and childcare will be provided. The nonprofit America Speaks will help facilitate the event with technological assistance from The University of Akron. The purpose of the Summit is to celebrate our progress to date, shape new initiatives, and provide a forum to connect neighbors with leaders in the City and from anchor institutions within University Park.
Register online at www.surveymonkey.com/s/UPASummit
With faith in a common mission, we look forward to achieving success together for the benefit of all who live, learn and work in this great place we call University Park.
Eric Anthony Johnson, Executive Director
Carol Murphy, Chief of Staff
Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012
People still ask why I came to Akron. I tell them that the longer I’m here, the more evidence I see that Akron has the components to attract talent, as well as national attention, on the merit of economic redevelopment potential that stands to become a model for traditional American cities seeking a new and prosperous future.
Because I wasn’t born here, I weighed the possibility of living and working here with detachment. Having spent my career in cities around the country, I understood the pitfalls of urban redevelopment plans — and there are plenty of them.
Yet in Akron, I saw something rare. To borrow from a buzzword, I saw “intelligent optimism” on the part of city leaders planning an economic revitalization. Akron enjoys solid planning, backed by years of effort to draw on an existing knowledge base, to develop a new economic base that is global in reach. Importantly, a talented development team and collaborative leadership backs the local effort.
Recently, the scope of Akron’s potential came into clearer view with a new analysis that builds on a 2011 Tripp Umbach, of Pittsburgh, assessment of existing economic activity among anchor institutions. The latest data, coming in a pair of studies by Tripp Umbach and Tetra Tech of Arlington, Va., indicates that $2.5 billion in current spending in the core of Akron — just as a result of anchor institutions — has the potential to increase to $4.3 billion a year by 2030 with implementation UPA’s strategic plans.
The Akron Beacon Journal, a voice of critical commentary, referred to the studies as lending “a measure of concreteness to the opportunity and the promise.”
The promise is further bolstered by the presence of the global real estate firm KUD International, which signed a master services agreement in 2011 to develop projects outlined in UPA’s master plan to revitalize four districts in downtown Akron.
As an investor, KUD’s CEO Marvin Suomi also came here as an outsider. Suomi’s optimism over Akron’s economic future developed out of the due diligence that his company applied in assessing Akron’s potential to grow economically.
My prediction: Expect more outsiders to come to Akron. There is opportunity here.
We now enjoy a clear and accelerated strategy to execute a vision that will forever change our city. Intelligent optimism, in Akron’s case, emerges out of planning followed by action and investment with an eye toward transformational change.
Tuesday, January 17th, 2012
The news site MSN Real Estate just cited Akron, Ohio, as one of the five “most promising” real estate markets in the nation, defined by those markets expected to suffer the smallest slides. The forecasting firm Local Market Monitor made the picks.
The MSN report notes that Akron’s average home price of $148,508 fell by 4% in the last year, and that the local market should hit bottom this year followed by a modest 2% gain in 2013. “Jobs — especially manufacturing jobs — are coming back to Akron,’’ the report said. “Like many Midwest cities, there was no housing boom here to speak of. Values are down just 13% from the peak, about a third of the hit the U.S. as a whole suffered.”
On its face, the fact that Akron’s real estate market is to drop less than most others across the country may seem nothing to feel good about. A city doesn’t grow with soft real estate market. But if you look beneath the surface, there is reason for those of us in Akron to see opportunity ahead. The ranking also is affirmation of our economic recovery as we separate ourselves from the pack of traditional manufacturing cities stuck in the doldrums.
As the Harvard urban economist Ed Glaeser points out in his book Triumph of the City, not every once prosperous city can be restored to economic strength. But some cities can be saved.
The issue for cities today is who can and who cannot produce goods locally and sell them globally.
In Akron, we are maintaining and building a job base in traditional industries while creating new-economy jobs through the development of a vibrant medical industry.
On the traditional side, we’ve added jobs as a result in the uptick in the auto industry, plus we have Goodyear, Bridgestone Americas and nearby Diebold all building new corporate facilities here with a combined capital investment of $360 million.
On the new economy side, the business and university leaders in Akron have come together around a plan, primarily funded by the Knight Foundation, to leverage the economic synergy of our four major anchor institutions — The University of Akron, Summa Health System, Akron General Health System and Akron Children’s Hospital — to build a competitive city with a diverse economy. Seeing this potential, KUD International is now the project manager and major financial backer of the redevelopment of University Park — the 50-block are surrounding The University of Akron and bordering Akron’s three major hospitals. That signals hundreds of millions in capital investment beginning in 2012 and continuing through this decade.
Rather than coincidence, Akron’s ranking among MSN Real Estate’s Top 5 cities is a result of years of planning and proactive leadership in this city, which then led to new investment in the local economy.
University Park Alliance is particularly focused on revitalizing real estate in a 50-block area around the university. It is an area of great opportunity. Call us at 330-777-2070 if you are interested in learning more.
Tags: Anchor Institutions, Collaboration, Knight Foundation, Placemaking, real estate, The University of Akron, University Park Alliance, Urban Neighborhoods
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Friday, December 2nd, 2011
If you want to get a glimpse of what’s possible in the area of urban redevelopment, take a trip to Milwaukee. I was among a group of business and civic leaders from Akron who recently visited that city to gain insights into their successes and learn how they are tackling ongoing challenges. It was an energizing experience for two reasons. One, I was impressed by what our gracious hosts had accomplished. Two, I knew Akron was embarking on much the same path, with what I believe to be great promise for the future.
Milwaukee is taking advantage of its own unique resources. The city is reinventing itself by systematically drawing on assets that already are part of the town. The Milwaukee River runs through the city’s heart, a characteristic the city has done well to capitalize on.
Milwaukee now has its vibrant RiverWalk along three miles of the central city. RiverWalk beautifully defines what’s new and promising about Milwaukee. You’ll find high-end housing, stores, restaurants and open walkways for art shows, music and festivals. This is the kind of place where people want to work, live and spend their time.
What was the critical first step to producing RiverWalk? Key community leaders came together and worked through the planning. City leaders talked to each other. That’s how the complex became a reality. While collaboration may seem to be a simple concept, it doesn’t happen everywhere. This kind of collaborative approach is what Akron and Milwaukee have in common.
Too often, communities are disrupted by siloed agencies, government bureaucracy and a divided business and nonprofit leadership. Communication is inconsistent.
In Akron, as in Milwaukee, a unified vision drives redevelopment efforts. With this kind of sharp focus on a viable future, University Park Alliance recently attracted KUD International, a leading international real estate developer, to be the project manager on the revitalization of a 50-block core area of our city.
This is a tremendous victory for our community, but it didn’t occur overnight. It is an outgrowth of years of city leaders talking to each other, weighing possibilities on how to parlay existing assets into new opportunities, and then creating the right structure to enable success.
UPA exists for this reason. We were created as a real estate development corporation to advance deals — such as the one with our new real estate development partner, KUD.
Akron’s leaders were so persistent in the need for this type of new organizational structure that they convinced the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to provide the necessary major funding.
This is the new-economy approach. It’s about leaders coming together, assessing unique strengths that already exist, developing creative financing and ultimately, creating and executing a master plan for implementation.
Yes, RiverWalk is a fantastic achievement other cities no doubt hope to emulate in one form or fashion. You’ll see if you visit. Akron, too, is building its own success. In the coming months and years, Akron and UPA will host leaders from other cities, and share our secrets to redevelopment success. Of this, I am quite sure.
Tags: Akron Beacon Journal, Collaboration, Community, Leadership, Placemaking, Urban Neighborhoods, Vision, Walkability
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Friday, July 8th, 2011
You may have noticed we keep repeating ourselves. We talk about collaboration. Collaboration. Collaboration.
For us, it’s not a buzz word. In our view, a group effort will drive the success of economic growth — and new jobs — in the core of Akron. Why? Because the work of repositioning a former industrial city for a resurgence is far too complex for any single institution to accomplish alone. As a recent guest viewpoint in the Houston Chronicle explains, economic vitality is about “the creative genius of great research universities converg(ing) with the business and societal ingredients that fuel creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship and new business development.”
In Akron, we have clearly identified anchor institutions that are contributing to economic redevelopment.
For example, The University of Akron — and notably its world-class College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering — give us the intellectual power to develop new products. Combined with research initiatives at three local hospitals, the city is able to focus new product development on the biomedical industry.
But even this synergy is not enough, as scientists need business leaders to draw the venture capital that enables innovative new products to achieve market success — and create new jobs.
Government, in its pivotal role, offers incentives for new business development, and creates the right physical settings for new industry.
Within this mix, the role of University Park Alliance is to create a great community, with attractive residential housing, shopping, entertainment and other amenities to coincide with business growth.
Collaboration is really about pooling resources for the greatest impact. It’s also about understanding, to borrow a quote from the National League of Cities’ blog, that a rising tide lifts all ships.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, in a forward to one of its studies, went so far as to say that the “most important lessons from resurgent cities concern leadership and collaboration.”
We at UPA deeply believe that to be true, as leadership paves the way for collaboration. If you sense excitement in Akron right now, it’s because change is in motion. Keep following this blog as we document progress each step of the way.
Tags: Anchor Institutions, Collaboration, Placemaking, The University of Akron, UA Research Foundation, University Park Alliance
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Monday, June 6th, 2011
If you’ve read about University Park Alliance in the news, you know about our initiative to develop a 50-block area around The University of Akron. We have key parts of the plan in place, and importantly, we have the backing of anchor institutions in downtown Akron, plus investment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
As we see it, there is no better timing in recent history to turn a vision like ours into reality. Increasingly, people are choosing to live in cities.
Last year, in an article titled “Back to the City”, Harvard Business Review identified a “major shift” away from suburban sprawl — not just because of changing tastes, but because of real problems related to suburbs. One study showed that measured against a number of daily activities, commuting had the worst effect of all on people’s moods.
Imagine what those moods will be like if gasoline goes to $5 a gallon.
In addition to young workers, aging Baby Boomers are part of the migration back to cities. The reasons are pretty clear. As kids move out and retirement approaches, there is a lot to like about smaller, low-maintenance homes, less yard work and less expensive lifestyle.
My prediction is that once the tide turns, growth will occur naturally and spontaneously as retailers follow consumers. Already, the trade publication National Real Estate Investor has suggested real estate investors expect changing strategies from retailers.
In Akron, we’re ready to go. Our plans are for just the kind of mixed-use, dense development that is drawing people back into cities around the country. See this article in the Akron Beacon Journal for an overview of our vision.
At best, an urban setting offers such interesting variety that it creates its own dynamic. On one hand, diverse people of all ages live in nice homes, in safe neighborhoods, and within walking distance to stores, schools, parks, restaurants and other amenities. On the other hand, urban neighborhoods offer the promise of a simpler way of life — where you might even sit on the front porch on a summer evening.
Contact us today if you’d like to learn more about commercial and residential real estate opportunities in University Park.
Tags: Akron Beacon Journal, Anchor Institutions, Baby Boomers, Knight Foundation, National Real Estate Investor Journal, Parks, Schools, Suburban Sprawl, The University of Akron, University Park, University Park Alliance, Vision, Walkability
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Friday, May 27th, 2011
Welcome to the University Park Alliance blog. I’m Eric Anthony Johnson, executive director of UPA. My job is to help lead Akron’s collaborative effort to build upon our industrial heritage and stimulate future economic vitality.
As an urban development entrepreneur, I believe strongly that a community must create a sense of place that promotes engagement, connectivity and a clear identity. Akron is an amazing city with new and growing investment in higher education, community schools and healthcare. We enjoy support from our partners in philanthropy that other communities could only hope to achieve. Considerable medical and bio-technical research already is underway throughout our region, especially within the University Park area. UPA will draw upon this hospital- and university-based research to help attract new business, build new neighborhoods and promote Akron’s core.
In this space, we will discuss just how all this can be done. Together, let’s engage in a community discussion, the type that passionate Akron area residents participate in on a daily basis.
Let me initiate the discussion by explaining UPA’s role in transforming the urban neighborhood in the University Park area, which encompasses 50 blocks surrounding The University of Akron. We are working to:
- Collaborate with The University of Akron, Summa Health System, Akron Children’s Hospital, Akron General Health System, Akron Public Schools, the Austen BioInnovation Institute and others to support new research and biomedical-related entrepreneurs;
- Stimulate new home construction and renovation, at times working with developers and other times assisting homeowners;
- Facilitate additional shopping and entertainment in close proximity to neighborhoods and major employers.
A big ambition? You bet. While it won’t be easy pulling all this together, it is doable, especially given an infusion of private investment in recent years that essentially serves as venture capital for a new business direction for Akron.
In University Park, for example, support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will allow us to jumpstart neighborhood renewal with incentives to qualified investors and projects. We believe the timing is perfect, and that our efforts will lead to spontaneous growth.
Sure, some will always prefer the suburbs. But others prefer an urban lifestyle, and their numbers are increasing. In a May 2010 article in Harvard Business Review, titled Back to the City, writer Ania Wieckowski describes a major shift toward urbanization involving both young workers and retiring baby boomers “actively seeking to live in densely packed, mixed-use communities that don’t require cars.” The change can be traced to many factors: evolving tastes, changing needs of empty nesters and high gasoline prices, to name a few.
In Akron, we see a ready market. Consider that anchor institutions alone within University Park — including the three hospitals, the Akron Public Schools and the university – employ more than 15,000 people. How many might think hard about giving up that half-hour drive home to a yard and big house that is equally time consuming — not to mention expensive?
Recently, at UPA’s sold-out annual luncheon, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros praised our redevelopment strategies. Tapping the university to drive growth in neighborhoods, and conversely, allowing neighborhoods to complement the university, is a powerful and promising combination, he said.
Cisneros also pointed out what all of us working at UPA already know: That this whole effort is only possible because of the commitment from an amazing group of community partners, plus the investment from Knight Foundation and others.
With my life’s work in urban redevelopment, I believe in the mission at hand. As I see it, the pieces to the puzzle already exist: Community institutions committed to working together, financial investment in research, innovation and commercialization, existing expertise in medical and biotech sectors — and a collective spirit of resilience that helps define the character of Akron.
Within this puzzle, the challenge for UPA is to build the University Park neighborhood — piece by piece, and watch the new landscape emerge.
By now you’ve probably come to understand who I am: A champion of urbanization. An increasing number of Akron residents should have the choice of a high quality urban lifestyle. Soon, they will. And yes, I live in University Park.
If you are interested in urban living as a choice, and if you would like to follow the progress of reinvestment in University Park, please subscribe to this blog.