Akron investing another $2 million in Summit Lake

by Doug LivingstonAkron Beacon Journal

No one came knocking on Sandra Saulsberry’s door for approval six years ago when “a guy from California” wanted to paint a mural and make Summit Lake more friendly to a mostly younger crowd.

Saulsberry and her neighbors balked at the plan after a long history of well-intentioned visionaries swooping into their Akron neighborhood talking about what’s best for them. But in the six years since, the 30-year resident of Summit Lake has been on a journey with the Civic Commons, a Knight Foundation-funded collaborative that engages residents on reimagining public spaces and fostering community.

Saulsberry was initially leery of these latest philanthropists, architects and civic leaders. She even said she Googled for dirt on Dan Rice, who’s overseeing the project as president and CEO of the Ohio and Erie Canal Coalition. Eventually, Saulsberry said Wednesday from the eastern shore of Summit Lake, she trusted them and, more importantly, let them trust her.

“You know,” she said with Rice, Mayor Dan Horrigan, Council President Margo Sommerville (whose ward includes the lake) and Akron Program Director Kyle Kutuchief with the Knight Foundation all sitting behind her, “when the Civic Commons did do this park right where we’re standing, I came down one evening and just sat on a swing at sunset.

“It was such a beautiful day,” she said. “In the midst of it, a large bird flew over the sunset and I thought, wow, if I had a camera and took that picture and put it on Facebook and asked someone, ‘Where do you think I was vacationing at?’ they would have never dreamed that was a scene from Summit Lake.”

That’s a still frame from the photo album that has become the community-led vision for reimagining Summit Lake. And with $2 million in support announced by Horrigan on Wednesday, that vision has never been clearer now that the first two phases of this $10 million-plus project are fully funded.

City Council has been asked this month to approve the $2 million allocation from the federal American Rescue Plan Act as part of an annual spending measure that funds city government for the first three months of 2022, until the entire annual budget is ready.

Last year, council unanimously approved $3 million for the Summit Lake renewal project, which includes a $3 million trail around the lake that spins off the Towpath Trail, a bridge from the community center playground to a new north shore boathouse, canoe launch area and pavilion, and a full extension of the floating boardwalk to span the width of the lake, connecting Summit Lake and Kenmore while allowing boats to pass under an arched walkway.

Building bridges, building trust

Residents like Saulsberry say they see the plan as truly for and by people who’ve stayed near Summit Lake for decades, enduring urban renewal projects that cut them off from economic opportunity and private disinvestment that’s led to more demolitions and empty lots than there are standing houses on some streets.

A century since the upper class flocked to a Ferris wheel, boardwalk and tiled swimming pool of “Akron’s Million Dollar Playground” at Summit Lake, the next chapter of recreation — of place-making and community-connecting, of bringing people of various walks of life together to foster empathy and understanding — is being written with local residents instead being handed to them.

“I learned so much about trust,” Saulsberry said. “Do I allow people to come into my space and see who I am as a resident? And that’s still an issue in this neighborhood, that we don’t trust people. Well, trusting people who come to your community and open their hearts and ask, ‘Well, what do you want?’ and not ‘what I want to give you’ — that’s invitation right there to know that ‘I’m not out to take anything from you. I’m coming to bring. And I’m going to bring what you like, what your family will enjoy.’”

Rice and architects with City Architecture presented preliminary designs Wednesday. Wayfinding markers staked around the lake that morning flapped in the breeze, allowing the more than 100 community stakeholders in attendance, including County Councilwoman Veronica Sims and City Council members Jeff Fusco and Ginger Baylor, to place the location of the new pavilion and boathouse or the bridge that will carry people off the Towpath Trail to the north shore.

Juleian Curtis with City Architecture led the many community meetings that shaped, and reshaped, the planning. For example, a west shoreline amphitheater that might have been a destination for people living elsewhere was rejected by local residents, whose opinions took priority.

Curtis recalled that as an undergraduate at Kent State, he was assigned to reimagine Summit Lake. It was 2011, before the Reach Community Center was built, before a studied declared the water clean enough to boat and fish (and getting cleaner), before Civic Commons got involved and installed benches, picnic tables and a public space that fills with farmers markets, bands and festivities in warmer weather.

“It’s even better than we imagined it would be,” Curtis said, looking at a giant poster board of the preliminary plans he helped design.

Timeline for construction

Rice and the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition, along with the city and other partners in the Civic Commons, are overseeing a total of $40 million in improvements at Summit Lake and Lock 3, a downtown park set for a complete overhaul next year.

At Summit Lake, the $3 million trail is in the final design stage, Rice said. The plan is to bid the work in early 2022 and break ground in the spring or early summer.

The rest of the Phase I and II improvements at Summit Lake — the boathouse, a parking lot for boat trailers and another for guests, a bridge and pavilion, and an open lawn area for community events — will undergo nine more months of design. The plan is to leave as many trees as possible to serve as a natural sound barrier with the interstate not far away.

Construction would commence in 2023 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony toward the end of the year.

Phase III of the Summit Lake Vision Plan will then shift focus to the Kenmore shore, where Rice said $5 million to $7 million in potential upgrades are still being sorted out by residents.

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.

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