Historic preservation is something that rises to the top of the list every time we run City Council strategic planning sessions and it’s a mainstay in community survey results.
It makes sense — Kent has a number of buildings with genuine historic significance and architectural interest and the community doesn’t want to see those disappear. Our heritage says something about who we are as a community, and as much as we want new investment and the jobs they bring, we don’t want to lose our roots and sense of place in history.
That’s why we adopted the tag line “the best of the old with the best of the new” for planning Kent’s downtown revitalization.
Progress for us wasn’t going to be defined by a bunch of shiny new buildings; it was going to be measured by how well we integrated new investment while honoring the investment that preceded it. The last thing we wanted was a block of new buildings to look like they were air-lifted and dropped adjacent to the dowtown.
In hindsight, one of the best things we did was to invite the existing property owners in the downtown to join us around a table for 6-9 months to lay out a path for re-investment that worked in conjunction with and complemented the existing property base. We learned from failed examples of downtown developments that literally turned their backs on Main Street and tried to do their own thing at the expense of the existing businesses.
We vowed to not let that happen and that’s in part the genesis of the Acorn Alley concept that physically connects Main Street and the older business district to all the new stuff that we’re building next to it. That physical connection carries over into a shared parking, and a seamless use of sidewalks, street furniture, lighting and landscaping in a grid pattern that is meant to feel as it was all planned together despite the 50 year gap that separates the buildings construction.
Physical connection and complementary architecture is a prominent theme in Kent’s downtown revitalization — from the Kent State University campus esplanade extension to Acorn Alley and the renovation of Alley 3 (adjacent to Woodsy’s Music Shop) — our goal is to create synergy between the old and the new that makes them both better than ever.
Although the new construction is getting a lot of attention right now, it would be a mistake to overlook all the renovation work on older buildings that preceded it and has occurred right alongside it. A walk down our two most prominent streets in the older business district, S. Water Street and Main Street, reveals building after building that have undergone a facelift in recent years. Sue Nelson Designs, Franklin Square Deli, Water Street Tavern, Rays Place, the Arthur Properties, McKay Bricker Gallery (WW Reid building), City Bank Antiques, Fuller Design, the Phoenix Project…the list goes on and even around the block to include the Pufferbelly.
These are great examples of re-investment in some of the most important streetfront buildings that have come to represent Kent’s past, present and future.
To that end, the City has tried to promote property restoration and re-investment by offering grants and loans for facade improvements and architectural studies. The City lent an employee and spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars to help Main Street Kent (and it’s historic preservation agenda) get off the ground and get a foot-hold in the downtown. The City worked with the downtown property owners to come up with the re-development blueprint for downtown and we partnered to hire an architectural consultant to develop Kent’s first historic architectural design guidelines for properties in downtown Kent. The City later integrated those historic guidelines into our City Code and created an Architectural Review Board to evaluate project plans in the downtown for conformance to the goals of the design guidelines.
On the heels of all these efforts to honor our historic heritage, we are planning to present a proposal to City Council this week (February 1) to become recognized by the Ohio Historic Preservation Office as a Certified Local Government.
Becoming a Certified Local Government has been on our radar screen for a 2-3 years. It was something that we were gradually building the elements of and now we’d like to finish what we’ve started. We believe that the CLG status is consistent with City Council’s commitment to historic preservation as it formalizes a process to preserve our historic resources, and we think now is the right time to get it put in place.
Pending the approval of the Ohio Historic Preservation Office for our CLG application, the passage of our draft Ordinance, and the designation of a historic district in our downtown we’re making a commitment to honor our heritage buildings and give the residents in our community a voice in the process for influencing the future of those historic properties (something that we did not have with the demolition of the Robin Hood last year).
We’ve already created the blueprint for historic preservation in our downtown with the passage of our downtown design guidelines and creation of the Architectural Review Board; obtaining the CLG status carries those efforts through to their natural conclusion with the official designation of an historic district and transitioning the Architectural Review Board from an advisory role to a regulatory role.
The CLG status also affords property owners within the designated historic district to be eligible to apply for historic grants and it enables them to take advantage of federal and state historic tax credits. As we’ve seen, the greatest challenge for the preservation of our historic buildings downtown has not been the desire to restore them, but rather having the funds available to to perform the restoration. We hope that the new potential revenues resulting from the CLG status will perhaps tip the scale economically to make the restoration efforts affordable for the property owners.
While we may want to expand the historic district in future years, we decided to start with a relatively small area where we knew property owners would most benefit from the availability of the new revenue sources. The district can be expanded, reduced, or even eliminated, in future years by Council resolution — so there is flexibility in the historic designation which we thought was important given the regulatory nature of this new program.
There are many cities in Ohio and in our region that have obtained the CLG status from the state and they have found the historic designation an effective way to honor their architectural heritage, e.g., Hudson, Aurora, Alliance, Barberton, Berea, Green, Loraine, Medina. We have talked with a number of these cities, we’ve talked with the staff at the Ohio Historic Preservation Office, and we’ve talked with some of the property owners in Kent as part of our due diligence before recommending taking this final action.
When we make regulatory changes like this, we typically work intentionally slow and methodical in order to solicit a lot of community feedback as we work to devleop the best proposal possible for City Council consideration. Ideally, we would have preferred a 2-3 month process to work through all the small details of the Ordinance but it was brought to our attention that the next cycle of historic grants and tax credits is upon us and property owners have until March 31 to get their applications in for the state or they would have to wait potentially until 2013 before investing in any renovation work — and that includes the old hotel.
After waiting 20+ years to get that old hotel under renovation we felt it was critical to not hold up the old hotel renovation by another year, so rather than trying to get our CLG program perfect from the start, we’ve taken a different approach to create the basic outline of the CLG, build some flexibility into the program so it can be refined through the lessons of experience with it, and get it approved now so that the property owners within the district could seek the funds this year.
The Ohio Historic Preservation Office (OHPO) has already given us some feedback on our proposed CLG application and their feedback was positive. There are multiple state reviews that have to occur so there are no guarantees for approaval at this point, but the OHPO staff have indicated we’re off to a good start and they offered to do whatever they can to help us get through the state review process as quickly as possible in order to support the proposed old hotel renovation, as well as other projects that may arise in the district.
From the start of our downtown revitalization efforts, we stated publicly that our success depended upon our ability to integrate the best of the old with the best of the new — I’m proud with what we’ve achieved in integrating new investment and new buildings into our downtown, now we think it’s time to finish what we started and formalize the preservation of Kent’s historic resources in the downtown through the Certified Local Government and historic district designation.