GREATER AKRON — Several proposed and under construction housing development projects are one way City of Akron officials are hoping will grow the city’s population.
Some of the projects have been met with opposition from residents, who have voiced their concerns to the Akron Planning Commission and Akron City Council.
Deputy Mayor for Integrated Development James Hardy said not only does Akron want to grow its population, but also its housing stock that would draw people to the city.
According to the city’s Planning to Grow Akron report released in 2017, the city’s peak population occurred in 1960 with 290,000 residents. Since 1960, the city has lost 31 percent of its population, and in 2017, the population was 198,000.
The report states a goal was to grow the city’s population to 200,000 by 2020 and then to 250,000 by 2050.
Hardy said the city is waiting on the 2020 U.S. Census data for an update on the current population.
He said Akron’s infrastructure was built to serve 300,000 people, and with a current population under 200,000, taxes and fees go up for remaining residents to cover the shortfall.
“We don’t have 100,000 less sewer lines,” Hardy said.
Akron City Councilman Shammas Malik (D-Ward 8) said the city “absolutely” needs to grow its population. He echoed many of Hardy’s sentiments.
Hardy said between 2010 and 2017, the city demolished on average 500 homes per year. He said since 2017, the number of home demolitions has been reduced “substantially,” with 200 to 250 homes currently demolished each year.
The Planning to Grow Akron report in 2017 also stated the city was only building 10 new homes each year.
“We now have over 1,200 units available, under construction or in development,” said Hardy, referencing new housing since 2018.
He added the housing stock in Akron is still relatively old and the floor plans may not be what people are looking for in today’s market.
“As the baby boomers exit homeownership, it is increasingly difficult to sell to millennials,” Hardy said. “People in their teens and 20s — the buyers of tomorrow — are not looking for what we have to offer.”
While Akron features more older homes, he said, the city does offer a lot of what people want around a neighborhood, such as parks, shopping and restaurants.
City officials plan to release the Planning to Grow Akron 2.0 report in March, which will show an overview of housing since 2017. Hardy said while new construction has “skyrocketed” downtown and with new larger housing developments, the problem still exists with vacant lots in neighborhoods where homes were demolished.
Hardy added it is “really difficult” financially to make new home projects in existing neighborhoods work.
“We don’t have enough affordable housing in the city,” said Hardy of a problem he believes is not unique to Akron. “We desperately need federal housing reform.”
Last fall, a group of citizens concerned about development in Merriman Valley formed the Preserve the Valley group. Carolyn Spivak Colbow, a spokesperson for the group, said it is “not anti-development.”
“We want to find a way for citizens to be involved more in the process,” she said.
With Planning Commission and City Council committee meetings taking part in the middle of the day online via the Zoom videoconferencing application, it can be “difficult” for citizens to be part of the process, she added.
The group has approximately 12 core members and 400 newsletter subscribers. She added that anyone who wants to be involved with the group should visit preservethevalley.com.
Residential property tax abatement program
In an effort to spur housing construction in the city and increase the city’s population, Akron City Council approved in 2017 a residential property tax abatement program that provides tax breaks for new residential construction and renovation projects valued at approximately $5,000 or more.
According to city officials, the abatement allows owners to pay taxes solely on the pre-improvement assessed value of the residential property for 15 years after improvements are completed. At the end of the 15 years, the property will be taxed at its post-improvement assessed value.
Schools and other property tax-funded organizations will continue to receive all tax revenues they currently receive, according to city officials.
Akron Public Schools Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer Ryan Pendleton said the district is supportive of the city’s residential tax abatement.
“Prior to the tax abatement, there was very little new construction,” Pendleton said. “A good, healthy and vibrant community depends on growth.”
He said if the district was in a growing suburb, the school board and administration might have a different perspective on the tax abatement.
While the district has to wait 15 years for the extra tax revenues, the abatement also provides the opportunity to grow the district’s student population, he said. Currently, the district’s student capacity is between 80 and 85 percent, with room for additional students without needing to expand the district’s buildings footprint, he said.
“Any new construction gives an opportunity for a family to move in,” Pendleton said.
Pendleton also said the district received the first positive property appraisals since 2008, which he said is a “good sign.”
Riverwoods Golf Course development
The 76-acre site at 1870 Akron-Peninsula Road was the former Riverwoods Golf Course & Driving Range. The property is now owned by Petros Homes Inc., which is proposing to construct 197 townhomes, with 169 of them being for rent and 28 for sale.
Petros CEO Sam Petros said a combination of factors made the property attractive to the company, including the demand in the market and the 15-year residential tax abatement being offered by Akron.
He said there are some people who “really love” the valley and are “stewards” of the valley.
“The idea of living in the valley is very attractive,” Petros said.
He called the style of one-story townhomes proposed “attractive,” with no common shared areas and featuring an outdoor patio.
Petros said the target market for the new townhomes is professionals and those who are semi-retired.
According to the proposed plans, 45 acres of the property would be dedicated public open space. Petros said this project should be the “poster board” development considering the amount of green space being preserved. Without the tax abatement, Petros said, the development would not have been able to happen.
Hardy said the city doesn’t have a lot of ranch-style housing and these townhomes would be ideal for those over age 60.
Malik added he is recusing himself from discussions and voting on the Riverwoods project due to a potential conflict with the law firm for which he previously worked.
Theiss, Hardy roads development
In August 2020, the city solicited proposals for residential development of a 45-acre Theiss Road site, which is bordered by Theiss Road to the north and west, with Northampton Road as the eastern border and Hardy Road as the southern border.
According to city officials, the Theiss Road property appears to have been used as farmland from approximately 1937 to 1970.
The city received five proposals for residential development of the 45 acres, with at least 13.5 acres to be maintained as open space. Last month, the city announced plans to seek full conservation proposals as an alternative to residential development proposals, and these are being accepted until March 31.
Once the conservation proposals are received, city officials will review them along with the residential proposals and make a recommendation to the Planning Commission and City Council.
Malik said he is “thankful” the city is looking at conservation proposals and said he has had a lot of “positive” conversations with conservation groups regarding the property.
“The city owns [the property],” Malik said. “We are the deciders.”
Spivak Colbow said Preserve the Valley has an online petition with over 12,500 signatures opposing a housing development for the land.
Residence at Good Park
In July 2020, Council approved a conditional-use permit to establish a residential development at the southwest corner of Mull and South Hawkins avenues.
The 11.6-acre site was home to Perkins Middle School, which was demolished.
Plans call for 82 total units consisting of 34 townhomes, 23 single-family homes and 24 custom-home lots, according to Tom Fuller, executive director for Alpha Phi Alpha Homes. Fuller estimates the project is just under $20 million.
Hardy said other new housing projects in Akron include the Crossing at Auld Farm on Diagonal Road, The Homes on Hickory off Memorial Parkway and several housing projects in Downtown Akron.
Malik added moving forward there will be a mix of housing and conservation projects.
Impact on school districts
Woodridge Local Schools Superintendent Walter Davis said the biggest concern with proposed residential development on Akron properties located in the district is a combination of Akron’s residential tax abatement and the possible influx of new students.
Both the Riverwoods and Theiss Road developments are in the Woodridge Local School District.
“When these kinds of things [developments] happen, we end up learning about them as the general public hears about them,” Davis said.
He added when development projects are proposed in the City of Cuyahoga Falls, the city reaches out, but that hasn’t been the case with Akron.
“Not knowing what is coming makes it difficult to plan,” Davis said.
He said he has had several conversations with Malik, whose ward includes Merriman Valley and the Theiss Road area, as the district has approximately 700 students who live in Akron Wards 1, 2 and 8.
“When the City of Akron seeks to grow population through residential development using schemes that offer developers and builders tax abatement, the Woodridge School District loses,” Davis said. “With no say in the matter, our board is assuming responsibility for the education of Akron resident children without tax support for the 15-year term of the tax abatement.”
Davis said the average student is in the district for 13 years, so it is possible a student who lives in a home that received the 15-year tax abatement could go through the district at very little cost to the property owner.
“There will be a loss of revenue to the school district, but yet we will be responsible for the cost of the education of these kids,” said Woodridge Treasurer Tom Morehouse. “With the way that schools are currently funded, there would be no additional money in our foundation, as the state of Ohio is currently flat funding schools regardless of any increase or decrease in [number of] students.”
Morehouse said even if a student moves into these new housing areas and open-enrolls in their previous school district, if possible, the open-enrollment dollars would still come from Woodridge. If a child opted to attend a private school, there could be transportation costs for Woodridge, he added.
“These types of abatements really are not fair to the current taxpayers of our school district,” Morehouse said. “They will be paying for the cost to educate these children.”
Davis said in commercial abatement scenarios there is often incentives or payments in lieu of taxes that are offered to the schools to offset the losses.
“Thus far, with this proposed development [Riverwoods], there has been no discussion, no talk at all with the schools about anything, let alone any financial incentives,” Davis said.
This school year, a Woodridge education will cost over $11,000 per child, he added.
“As a district that receives less than $700 per pupil annually in state aid, we are heavily reliant on property tax revenues for the majority of our budget,” Davis said.
Hardy said city officials studied tax abatements in other cities similar to Akron and felt “strongly” about it for new developments and infill housing. He added the residential tax abatement does not abate any existing taxes and school districts stand to gain additional revenue after the 15-year period.
“The tax abatement is making infill housing work,” Hardy said. “It is really helping jumpstart new construction we couldn’t get before.”
He predicts over time property values will increase, which also will benefit school districts.
“We are not in the business to harm school districts,” Hardy said.
He added it is unclear who will move into new developments proposed in Woodridge’s boundaries, but if there were an excessive number of students, city officials would be willing to work out a solution with district officials.
Valley Master Plan
Davis and Morehouse want to see a pause on development until the creation of a master plan for the valley, something Cuyahoga Falls and Akron have allocated money to do.
“We are ready to be a partner in that [the master plan],” Davis said. “It seems if we all sat down and brainstormed, we could all benefit.”
Morehouse said Woodridge is not against developments, nor Akron growing.
“I believe the more population that Summit County can have will benefit everyone in the future,” Morehouse said. “However, I believe it would be beneficial for everyone to work together. Woodridge would like to also be more informed as new developments proceed, not read about them in the newspaper.”
Malik said the master plan would be “beneficial” and “helpful” in guiding the future of the valley.
Spivak Colbow said the Preserve the Valley group would also like to see a pause on development until the master plan is completed. She added the plan will bring both Akron and Cuyahoga Falls together along with stakeholders to share a vision for the valley.
“We want residents to express their hopes and visions for the valley along with their concerns,” said Spivak Colbow, adding she would like to see a town hall meeting scheduled where residents can engage in the process.
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