Bowery Project Work Begins Just in Time to Save Downtown Akron Buildings

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

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With all of the complex financing finally in place, serious prep work began Friday on the $42 million Bowery redevelopment project.

And it is happening just in time. People familiar with the blighted downtown block said the row of buildings, which have not been weatherized, have deteriorated to such a state that this winter would have pushed them to the point of no return.

Friday morning, the official groundbreaking took place inside the largest of the buildings, the former Akron Savings & Loan at South Main and Bowery. Plans call for turning that structure, also called the Landmark building, into upstairs apartments and likely a grocery store fronting on Main Street.

The ceremonial groundbreaking in the unheated building was actually more of a wallbreaking. Officials put on goggles and hardhats and then slammed hammers into sheets of plasterboard put up for the occasion. Afterward, construction workers started their own preparations.

That’s because on Monday, the hammering will be for real. That’s when construction starts in earnest on the six-structure project intended to rejuvenate downtown Akron and bolster the historic Akron Civic Theatre that bookends the row of buildings at Lock 3.

The project also involves putting up a new box office and administration building on the Lock 3 side of the Civic and installing a giant video screen on the theater’s exterior wall to broadcast performances going on inside. The theater lobby will also be renovated. The Whitelaw building on the other side of the Civic will be turned into a 225-seat performance venue managed by the theater.

The developers say an average of 150 workers will be on site to get the Bowery done by a year from now because the project needs to meet a critical deadline imposed by the use of historic tax credits.

A lot of people had their fingers crossed regarding the often-delayed project as complicated financing finally fell into place.

Those complications continued even after the groundbreaking ceremony was announced — bad weather stranded critical documents in Memphis for a day this week, meaning officials in Akron were still signing off on paperwork well into Thursday to complete everything.

“I thought it was fragile right up until yesterday. There were so many different things that could have gone wrong,” said David Lieberth, former Akron deputy mayor and local historian who is part of the Bowery Development Group partnership. He served as Friday’s master of ceremony.

Lieberth said afterward that he wondered at times if some of the setbacks would prove fatal to the project.

“We had hoped for groundbreaking in September, and then October. It took that much time and it was that complex. It was constantly a moving target,” he said. But the partnership team headed by DeHoff Development and Welty Building Co. along with other public and private supporters proved strong enough to solve the issues, he said.

A previous development team had tried for eight years to redevelop the properties but was handicapped by obstacles that included the Great Recession, Lieberth said.

“Literally, since 2004, I’ve been hoping we could get this project done and save these buildings,” Lieberth said. At least one structure, the old Whitelaw building next to the Civic, had been eyed for demolition years ago, he said.

The Bowery Project buildings “are downtown Akron,” Lieberth said. “Now it appears likely that we will be able to save all of them. There may be some portions of the buildings that may not be able to be saved. But still the facades will be kept intact.”

Friday’s speakers included Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, who shortly after taking office in 2016 made the Bowery Project a top priority of his administration. The Bowery was seen as critical to begin turning downtown Akron into a place where people wanted to live, play and work.

“It really has been a labor of love,” Horrigan said. “Failure was not an option. ... This is the heart of what is going on down here. It really is the catalyst for what else will be going on.”

The standing-room-only audience sipped coffee, munched on Dunkin’ Donuts and commemorative packets of nuts from long-time downtown business The Peanut Shoppe.

Besides Horrigan, other speakers included Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro; Don Taylor, Welty Building; Bob DeHoff, DeHoff Development; Chris Burnham, Development Finance Authority; Kyle Kutuchief, Knight Foundation; and Candice Carlyon, Akron Civic Theatre.

The Knight Foundation is giving a $4 million grant to the Civic for the Whitelaw building renovations and the theater’s new construction, while the GAR Foundation is giving the theater a $1 million grant to help pay for its interior renovations. Both grants are tied to the Bowery development getting completed.

Taylor, part of the Bowery Development partnership, said after the ceremony that there is no doubt the Bowery project will get done.

His company, Welty Building, has lots of experience in rehabbing and renovating old buildings and will deal with whatever turns up during the Bowery work, he said.

“With old buildings, there are always surprises,” Taylor said.

Lieberth, in his comments at the ceremony, noted that the Bowery Project includes redoing the back of the buildings to turn Lock 4 into a destination site.

But he said that’s not a new idea.

“Akron has a strong preservation ethic,” he told the audience. “I can tell you from my own research that the dream of revitalization of these buildings is older than almost any of us realizes.”

He found a July 1968 front page story in the Akron Beacon Journal about the idea of transforming the backs of the buildings between Bowery Street and the Civic Theatre, he said.

“They even had a name for it. They called it Cascade Alley,” Lieberth said. “So, this is history but it is a long time coming.”


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