Cuyahoga Falls -- City Council Feb. 13 unanimously approved the creation of a Downtown Historic Overlay District along the city's riverfront area downtown.
During a public hearing Feb. 6, Planning Director Fred Guerra explained a historic overlay district is an area established by the Planning Commission and City Council which may contain within its geographic boundaries structures or sites of architectural or archeological significance. The criteria to set up such an area is in the city's General Development Code, he said.
This historic district is bordered on the north by Stow Avenue, on the south by Chestnut Boulevard, on the west by Third Street north of Broad Boulevard and Second Street south of Broad Boulevard, and on the east by the Cuyahoga River.
"We wanted to make sure this district included not just historic buildings but land that could be developed," Guerra said, adding historic preservation will play a part in the city's proposed Downtown Transformation Project to open up the pedestrian mall and improve circulation on Front and Second streets by making them two-way roadways.
"The District has many benefits," the city's senior planner, Nick Sugar, told the Falls News-Press on Feb. 16. "It will preserve the existing character and value of historically significant buildings located in downtown Cuyahoga Falls. It will encourage rehabilitation through available grants and tax credits. It will also ensure new development is compatible with our existing structures. Designating a historic district will connect our residents and visitors to the rich history of our city."
Determining factors in the Historic Overlay District, Guerra said, include the importance of the district, property, structure or landmark to the education, tourism, economic development, aesthetic integrity or civic pride of the community.
Preserving the existing character and property values of historically significant parts of the city is important, Guerra said, and incompatible changes will be discouraged. Investment in and improvement of historic properties and areas will be encouraged through a controlled environment.
Within the Historic Overlay District, business and economic development will be promoted by preserving the character of buildings and areas that have a special environment that appeals to residents and visitors.
The National Trust for Historic Places website (https://savingplaces.org/stories/10-on-tuesday-10-benefits-of-establishing-a-local-historic-district#.WKb08m8rJpg) lists the reasons for a historic district, Guerra told the Falls News-Press. "We also see it as an investment tool for property owners and developers because of the 20% federal rehabilitation tax credit and the 25% Ohio historic tax credit. Also, as we are recruiting new businesses for downtown, we are finding that small businesses (and consumers) are attracted to real/genuine historic places. Therefore, we must protect and improve our downtown asset."
Guerra noted the proposed districts do not limit new construction."New construction guidelines are being created to guide new design and rehab, just as we currently do today for all other new construction within the city," he said.
The Design and Historic Review Board (DHRB)will review and approve new construction and rehabilitation within the Local Historic District, Guerra said, and no federal agency will review projects unless the owner desires federal tax credits. The DHRB is an arm of the Planning Commission, he added.
Work began on establishing this historic district in 2007 with the Cuyahoga Falls Historic Preservation Plan, Guerra said. In 2016, the Historic Architectural Survey Report was completed for the city through a grant, he said. Zoning in the area includes mixed use districts allowing for residential, office, civic and retail uses, all compatible with a historic overlay designation.
Guerra noted the city received word on Jan. 17 it was receiving a $22,000 grant to complete its application for a Downtown National Historic Register District nomination. "By the end of the year we'll hopefully have a local historic district and a national historic district," he said.
A preservation ordinance was passed by City Council in 2014 that allowed the city to establish its Historic Design and Review Board and designate properties for local and national districts. The first property to receive a historic designation was the former Falls Stamping and Welding at 1701 S. Front St. That site was renovated and re-named The Foundry by its owner and occupant, TRIAD Communications.
The planning director pointed out TRIAD's project to repurpose a vacant factory into a vibrant advertising agency received state and national historic tax credits.
Guerra said another example of historic preservation/repurposing is the Falls Theater at 2218-2220 Front St. which was designated a historic local landmark. The site is in the early stages of redevelopment from a vacant building to one with mixed uses that reportedly will include a brew pub, retail and apartments. That project has earned state tax credits and the owner is working on getting the building on the National Register of Historic Places, Guerra said.
"The district is very representative of Cuyahoga Falls," Guerra said. It includes Church Square that has three historic churches -- First Christian, First United Methodist and St. John's Episcopal -- within one block. It also includes the district south of Broad Boulevard which represents the city's early industrial development, he added.
During the public hearing, Guerra was the only speaker in favor of the creation of the Historic Overlay District. No one spoke against it.
During City Council's committee meeting on Feb. 6, Councilwoman Mary Nichols-Rhodes (D-4) said the historic overlay would be "so much more advantageous" than in Oak Park, Ill., which does not have a state historic tax credit. Nichols-Rhodes said she recently traveled to Oak Park with Mayor Don Walters and other city officials to tour the downtown.
Nichols-Rhodes thanked the members of the Cuyahoga Falls Historic Design and Review Board for their "hard work behind the scenes."
Council President Mary Ellen Pyke (R-2), a member of the Design and Review Board, said she is "strongly in favor" of the overlay. She said she and others on the Board did not take their role lightly and "fought" to include certain areas in the district.
"We have a very unique mall down there," Pyke said of South Front Street. "Anyone who comes down Chestnut and turns right knows it's a busy entertainment district."
Resident and business owner Sandy Saffles said she is impressed with the work that is being done to improve the downtown. She said she and her son, Keith, have purchased two buildings in the historic district and they plan to develop them. Saffles said she used to walk downtown "all the time" when she was a girl on Meriline Street. "I have fond memories," she said.
"I'm excited I just want to thank you. It will be a great thing for Cuyahoga Falls."