By Nick Shook
Beacon Journal staff writer
Read full story on Ohio.com
Two Cuyahoga Falls natives are hoping to bring long-term energy to a portion of the city’s Riverfront Pedestrian Mall with a Better Block experiment like one that was so successful in Akron’s North Hill area last year.
With a $10,000 grant from Torchbearers, Samantha Coldwell and Getta Cornici are working with the Texas group Better Block Foundation and the city of Cuyahoga Falls to conduct an event Aug. 26-27 at the north end of the mall.
Founded by Jason Roberts in Dallas in 2010, Better Block grew out of frustration with the bureaucratic process by flipping the power into the hands of the locals.
Roberts and friends pooled resources to construct pop-up retail shops, placed shade trees on sidewalks, assembled outdoor seating under those trees, added bike lanes, narrowed streets and temporarily filled vacant storefronts with coffee and art shops to transform blighted, overlooked neighborhood corridors into vibrant, walkable communities.
Hundreds of people turned out for and embraced the event, the idea soon received media attention, Roberts posted a do-it-yourself guide online and Better Block spread all over the world.
With funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Better Block came to Akron in May to remake the corridor along Main Street at Cuyahoga Falls Avenue. Kyle Kutuchief, Akron program director for the foundation, called the North Hill event Roberts’ largest scale project to date, one that pushed the limits of what the group thought it could accomplish.
Residents worked together to paint a green bike lane, narrow Main Street to slow traffic, add shade trees along the street, used hay bales to convert a parking lot into an Italian market, built a bocce ball court in what was once a right-turn-only lane and used discarded pallets to build seating along the street.
“It was a home run,” Kutuchief said.
Coldwell and Cornici learned about Better Block at an event at the Akron Civic Theatre, even before the North Hill event.
“When Getta and I heard about the [possibility of a] grant through Torchbearers, we made eye contact across the room,” Coldwell said. “We came up to each other and I said, ‘I want to do a Better Block in Cuyahoga Falls’ and she was like ‘So do I!’ ”
The Riverfront mall has seen a gradual decline, and the city hired Columbus-based urban planner MKSK to study opening the mall back up to automobile traffic.
Because the city is considering elimination of the pedestrian mall, the Falls Better Block group must plan its event with that transition in mind.
“There are these interesting, large concrete kind of stanchions [along the center of the mall],” Roberts said. “It creates these weird pinch points, but I do think there are ways for us to probably edge them, put some benching, some landscaping around them. Those are going to go away, anyway, so I don’t want to do too much around them.”
Rather than worry about a pedestrian mall that will disappear, though, Roberts is focusing on the storefronts, which compete with parking structures and office space.
“We need to hopefully develop concepts here that make it irresistible for people to want to be there,” Roberts said. “That’s part of the problem right now is there’s not an irresistible invitation.”
Coldwell and Cornici, friends since the ninth grade at Cuyahoga Falls High School, have traveled Europe together and hope to incorporate a bit of that flavor.
“I see a European-style block,” Cornici said. “I look at it as a historic district. I want to see string lights, an outdoor restaurant with lots of outdoor seating. I want to see lots of retail, pop-up shops, lots of vibrancy.”
Cornici is excited about the partnership: “The city is focusing on streets and infrastructure and Better Block is focusing on the people.”
Ownership by people who get their hands dirty gives Better Block experiments a better chance of taking root, they said.
The first Better Block resulted in pop-up shops becoming permanent and strict city ordinances being loosened.
“I don’t want it to be an expo or a two-day thing,” Cornici said. “We’ve built an amazing team, not only because we want our weekend to be successful, but because we want our pop-up shop to feel comfortable to take the next step.”
“The Riverfront area is beautiful,” Coldwell said. “It has old historic buildings, almost that old European feel and we just want to see people down there again.”
Nick Shook can be reached at 330-996-3854 or firstname.lastname@example.org.