Stow -- In a couple of years, the Stow-Kent Shopping Center may look drastically different than it does today.
The Kent Road shopping center is the target of a major redevelopment initiative being spearheaded by city officials and the plaza's property owners.
The entirely retail plaza has been the bane of city officials for nearly 15 years -- roughly the time Stambaugh's Home Improvement closed, said Planning Director Rob Kurtz. That business occupied a large building in the back corner of the lot that has been empty ever since.
The plaza is less than 50 percent occupied, Kurtz noted, making it the most vacant of any of the city's major retail areas.
The goal is to transform the all-retail plaza into a mixed-use development featuring a housing component and possible office spaces that would complement retail stores, said Mayor Sara Drew.
"One of the goals of the city and of the developers is to make sure whatever we have there is inherently more sustainable than what's there now," said Drew.
While some of the plaza's stores, such as anchor-tenant Macy's, are doing particularly well, Kurtz said, some others have been "struggling." He said part of the reason is because people's shopping habits have changed since the plaza was built in 1959.
Having the plaza function as a strictly retail center is an old-fashioned approach to development in a modern economy, Drew said.
"Whenever you get a single use, if for some reason that single use falls out of fashion, it's harder to redevelop it. The whole idea behind the mixed use is it's more sustainable because then we're not dependent upon one type of operation to be in there," said Drew. "Having a grouping of retail and service operations there that can be supported by residents will be great."
The city has been working with the plaza's owners, market experts, public transportation groups and the business sector, among other entities, to evaluate ways to redevelop vacant commercial properties.
Because the Stow-Kent plaza is highly visible and predominantly unoccupied, restoring vitality there has become a top priority for the city, Kurtz said.
The Stow-Kent Center is owned by Rob Risman and Stuart Graines. Risman is the owner of Cleveland-based Burton Carol Management LLC, and Graines operates Cleveland-based GMS Management, which manages the property.
"This is a major project for us, and a very high-priority one," said Risman, who called the city's mixed-use vision for the plaza a "great, forward-thinking idea."
The groundwork for the redevelopment was laid in the summer when the city approved an overlay district that permits the mixed uses in the retail zone. About the same time, the property owners pursued a market feasibility study -- and Risman said the results were promising.
Risman said he and Graines have been working with engineers and architects on potential site plans, adding that he hopes to review possible preliminary site plans with city officials sometime in January.
He said it's too soon to specify what the housing component may be yet, but said market studies show higher-end senior housing may be a viable option. He said the housing would likely be apartment-style homes, but nothing is finalized yet.
"Right now, we're still in the planning stages," he emphasized.
In the big picture, Drew and Kurtz said they'd like the former Stambaugh's building demolished, which would create space to link housing that would be located in the back of the property on land off Lake Run Boulevard -- some of which already belongs to Risman and Graines -- to the shopping center.
Drew said the city would also like to see the massive "sea of asphalt" parking lot developed with more aesthetic, landscaped open space and possibly some outbuildings.
She said a "really key part" of the redevelopment is enhancing pedestrian traffic.
Drew loosely compared the vision for Stow-Kent plaza to the First and Main Hudson development, noting how that area features mixed uses with strong pedestrian access.
The city has been in talks with PARTA, the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study and the Metro Regional Transit Authority to identify potential for bus access that would cater to both the new plaza and the surrounding areas. Both Portage County and Summit County bus companies already service that portion of Stow around Kent Road, which is unique to the rest of the county.
Walkways and bike paths between the housing and retail areas are other options being explored.
Drew said the city has even been in talks with Kent State University, too, to consider coordinating bus traffic between the university and the Stow-Kent Center area after it's redeveloped.
She emphasized that however the vision for Stow-Kent Center comes to fruition, all stakeholders will be involved.
"Any successful redevelopment has to be a public-private partnership," Drew said. "We're focused on a model where the city will be a cooperative partner, but we're not going to be owning this. It is our intention and our goal to help provide a partnership and public services that enhance this development and make it a success."
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