More student housing is taking shape on Cedar Street.

Akron Children’s Hospital plans to begin a major expansion project soon that will include a six-story parking deck on Exchange Street.

The city of Akron is marketing the biomedical corridor that includes the area around Children’s Hospital and Akron General Medical Center.

With all of these changes on the horizon, Akron leaders are wondering if the traffic flow in this part of downtown needs to be altered.

Akron is having a study done that looks at whether Cedar and Exchange streets, the main routes in and out of downtown from the city’s west side, should be returned from one-way to two-way. The streets were switched to one-way in the 1970s.

“There’s a lot of change on those streets,” said Public Service Director Rick Merolla. “We need to see if we need to change our traffic patterns.”

The city is using federal funds for a $445,000 study by GPD Group in Akron that will include an examination of traffic flow, accident data, new standards for road widths and lane widths and signalization. GPD also will talk to the businesses in this area about whether they would favor the change. The study, which was included in the city’s capital budget, is expected to be done by the end of the year.

If the study shows positive results for converting Cedar and Exchange to two-way streets, Akron then would need to find the money for the project.

“I don’t think it would be inexpensive,” Merolla said.

One-way change

Cedar and Exchange were switched to one-way so long ago that no one in the current administration recalls the rationale for the change.

Deputy Mayor Dave Lieberth, who is considered Akron’s unofficial historian, suggested calling retired Planning Director James Alkire.

Alkire, who retired in 1990 after serving as planning director since 1968, recalled that city leaders were concerned about saving the major retailers downtown, Polsky’s and O’Neil’s. He said they thought people might be more inclined to go downtown to shop if they were able to get in and out easier, which one-way streets facilitate.

“We were trying to provide better access to keep retail,” said Alkire, who still lives in Akron. “Obviously, we didn’t do that.”

Alkire said merchants on the one-way streets weren’t happy about the change, saying that this would make it more difficult to access their locations.

Lieberth said the thinking about downtowns has changed, with cities taking “traffic calming measures,” such as Akron putting in extra-large curbs at the corners of Main Street and Exchange and adding more diagonal parking along Main. He thinks having Cedar and Exchange one-way has been detrimental to the development of retail on these streets.

Business backing

The idea of a return to two-way has the support of several of the businesses along Cedar and Exchange, including Akron Children’s Hospital.

The hospital is in the final planning and fund-raising stage of a major expansion project. Hospital leaders declined to discuss details of the project at this point, though they have said the hospital would like to replace its neonatal intensive care unit, renovate or replace its emergency department, expand operating room capacity, add parking and expand the electrical substation.

The Akron City Council recently approved plans for the first phase of the project, which will be a six-story parking deck at Exchange and Locust streets that will provide parking for the hospital’s 1,156 employees. The deck, expected to cost about $18 million, will eventually be connected to another new building across Exchange via a sky walk.

Linda Gentile, the hospital’s vice president for professional development and support services, said the hospital has patients, family and visitors who come from different parts of Ohio and western Pennsylvania and many of them have a difficult time with the one-way streets.

“It seems like it would make sense to make it as simple as possible to get in and out of the downtown area,” she said.

Akron General Medical Center officials say they haven’t yet discussed this potential change with city leaders.

“Our campus has been designed to conform to the current traffic flow,” said Jim Gosky, a hospital spokesman. “We would have to look at the impact this would have on our campus. It’s too preliminary to make judgments on whether this would improve or impede traffic flow.”

Some of the smaller businesses in the area like the idea of a return to two-way.

“I’m all for it,” said Tim Del Medico, one of the owners of Chez-Del, a home furnishing store with a location at 480 W. Exchange St. “I think that was a good economic corridor to downtown. When it went to one way, it all got bypassed. There are now four to five lanes going by all these locations.”

Larry Temo, owner of Temo’s chocolates, remembers when street cars came up the street. His family has owned its candy shop at 495 W. Exchange St. since 1947. Temo said he’s gotten used to the one-way flow of traffic but thinks a return to two-way could help businesses, because it would slow down traffic.

“The way it is now, there’s a lot of speeding on Exchange Street,” he said. “From 4 to 6 p.m. or in the morning, they are going by here in a 25 [mph zone] at 40 to 50 mph. It’s easy to bypass all of the businesses when you are going at that speed.”

Crash data

Safety is one reason city leaders are examining whether a change is needed in this area.

Lieberth said police officers point to Cedar and Exchange as two of the Akron’s most dangerous streets, and he’s personally witnessed four accidents.

“It’s treacherous,” he said. “Traffic flies through.”

Exchange from Rhodes Avenue to Dart Avenue has the second highest accident rate in Akron and the fourth highest in Summit or Portage counties, with 53 crashes from 2008 to 2010, according to the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study.

Dave Pulay, a transportation engineer for AMATS, said many of the crashes involve side swipes or rear-end collisions caused by drivers trying to turn into the driveways of the businesses. Pulay, whose organization isn’t involved in the two-way study Akron is having done, has his own view on the one-way/two-way debate. He thinks one-way moves traffic more efficiently.

“In the world of traffic engineering, what you want to do is have the signals timed so when cars move down a street, they hit the signals when they turn green,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to sit through the signal timing on a one-way than a two-way street.”

Despite the problems with crashes on Exchange Street, Pulay thinks one-way streets often are safer, because motorists only have to check traffic going in one direction rather than two.

When the study is concluded, Merolla said cost and the availability of funding will determine whether the city proceeds.

“If we’re talking $20 million in improvements, we’ll probably put it on hold,” he said.

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com.