Five months into a vacant registry program for commercial properties, the city is appointing citizens to oversee the effort as hundreds of property owners are put on notice.
The city’s main arteries — Arlington Street, Kenmore Boulevard, Main Street, Copley Road and Market Street — are clogged with dozens of empty, or mostly empty, businesses. The registry, created in June with legislation, is designed to identify each empty industrial or commercial space and require owners to submit plans for future use. The program is funded by a registration fee and penalties collected from owners who don't participate in the revitalization of eyesores scattered across Akron.
The program, modeled after others in Ohio cities, was embraced by City Council members whose residents complain regularly about crumbling buildings that attract crime, blight and depress nearby property values.
Ward 1 Councilman Rich Swirsky, a co-sponsor of the legislation creating the program, said his community has torn down vacant buildings for years, routinely planting community gardens in their place. But, “you can only have so many gardens,” said Swirksy, who has shifted the focus to finding new economic development uses for old factories and office buildings.
John Valle, Akron’s director of Neighborhood Assistance, is supervising the registry. His team of housing inspectors has mailed 305 letters ordering owners to detail plans for the vacant buildings they own in Akron. Analysis of 271 property addresses on the registry shows that 91 percent are owned by Ohio companies or individuals. About 30 percent are located outside Akron, though that number could be higher as companies sometimes list post office boxes in the city to receive legal paperwork.
Ward 5, which covers South and East Akron and much of downtown, had the most vacant buildings at 54, followed by 36 in Ward 3 (Summit Lake and Lane-Wooster), 35 in Ward 2 (North and Chapel Hill) and 34 in Ward 9 (Kenmore). Densely residential areas had few. Ward 4 (West Akron) had 15. Ward 8 (Northwest Akron) had 1.
In the first month of mailing out notices, the city has collected $2,000 in registration fees on six properties. A second round of mailings capturing even more vacant properties is scheduled for late November. "We know there's more," Valle said, imploring residents to help his staff identify vacant buildings by calling the 311 hotline or using the city's online portal.
The first round of properties were compiled from Akron Fire Department records and a 2015 Thriving Communities from the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, which has advocated for responsible property ownership and rehabbing instead of always demolishing.
Valle has high and immediate hopes for the effort. “We’re hoping to have some quick wins,” Valle told council Monday as he and Chief of Staff James Hardy announced Mayor Dan Horrigan’s inaugural appointments to the Vacant Commercial or Industrial Appeals Board.
The June law gives the board the power to order owners to repair or tear down buildings. The panel also will hear appeals made by owners who disagree with city violations under the new program.
The appointees are:
Lauren Alexander, an Akron native and licensed realtor who, prior to earning a master’s degree in Public Administration at the University of Akron, studied the history, culture and architecture of Chicago as a sociology researcher.
Greg Burke, captain of Kenmore’s Highland Park Block Watch. Burke obtained a real estate license after retiring from the Nye Rubber Co., where he was a union officer.
Ellis Polk, a firefighter, medic and, since 2007, an investigator with the Akron Fire Department. Polk is a state-certified police officer and past board member of Local 330 of the firefighter’s union.
Renee Nied, who steers business expansion and site selection as an economic development consultant with FirstEnergy Corp. Nied recently moved to Akron, where she’s engaged the city after listening to downtown development plans.
Scott Rowland, a 31-year employee of Lamar Advertising Co., which places billboards. Rowland is leaving the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.