Won't yu be my neighbor?

By Diane Smith Record-Courier staff writer Published:

The West River Neighborhood, one of Kent's oldest areas, has gone through many changes since its days as an industrial and residential neighborhood, and even more within the past five years.

Several people have moved out of the neighborhood or out of town. Industrial and commercial buildings are vacant or have gone on to house new businesses.

So, as the city works to draft a land use plan for the neighborhood, officials plan to ask the current crop of residents if they'd still like to see residential housing on Mantua Street and Park Avenue and businesses along Gougler Avenue and West Main Street.

A neighborhood meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the First Christian Church on West Main Street. Residents will have a chance to view the city's general land use plan and decide if the results of a 4-year-old survey still reflect what they'd like to see.

"Council and the administration want to redevelop that neighborhood," said Councilman Jerry Fiala, whose ward includes the neighborhood. "But we want it to be palatable to the residents who live in that area."

Redevelopment of the area became an objective in 1991 when a group of residents approached council asking for something to be done about the run-down condition of their neighborhood.

Many were concerned about the impact of the Triangle Project, which included the reconstruction and widening of Gougler and Mantua, said Blanche Mills, one of the original group members.

The group filled out surveys to identify their neighborhood conditions and state what kind of development they would like.

"We were supposed to have wonderful planning," she said. "But they've done nothing. It looks pretty ugly."

However, since 1991, the Downtown Kent Corporation, a non-profit group, has bought nearly $1 million worth of buildings in the neighborhood through a city-backed line of credit as part of the city's landbanking program.

Landbanking is a redevelopment tool that allows the DKC to buy the parcels and tie them together, making them more attractive to developers.

Now, it looks like development might actually take place.

West Shore Development, a Kent-based organization managed by former economic development coordinator Jack Crews, has proposed purchasing the Kemp Building at 110 Gougler Ave. for "a commercial use, with a retail orientation, which could possibly include more than one tenant." The agreement is expected to be discussed at council's meeting Monday.

Howard Boyle, chairman of the DKC's development committee, said many national retailers are starting to look at towns with as few as 10,000 residents, leading him to believe Kent's development potential is even higher because Kent is a larger city.

"We're in a good position to attract national and regional retailers in that area," he said, noting the Triangle area is well traveled. "No matter what you're selling, there are going to be an awful lot of people looking at your sign."

The city's community development department will present two possible scenarios for development, based on the 1991 survey.

One calls for medium-density residential development along most of North Mantua Street, commercial uses, like that of the Kemp proposal, along Gougler Avenue and open space along the river.

The second plan was similar to the first, but divided the commercial area into commercial and "limited commercial," where developers would have to go through a planning process similar to the one used for conditional uses.

The neighborhood meeting is necessary because the neighborhood has changed significantly over the past several years, organizers said. Many residents sold their homes and moved out of the neighborhood or out of state. That includes Barbara Myers, the group's former coordinator.

Helen Laney of North Mantua Street said the DKC has offered to buy her house, but didn't offer enough for her to buy another home elsewhere, so she decided to stay. Her 140-year-old home was once a neighborhood bakery.

Many other former single-family homes in the neighborhood are now rental units, she said, and the neighborhood and nearby downtown were filled with shops used regularly by neighborhood residents.

"When I moved here, I didn't drive," she said. "We had a five-and-ten, drug stores, grocery stores, all a five-minute walk from my house."

The neighborhood also housed the headquarters of Gougler Industries, a building that now houses Dale Adams Enterprises. Gougler Industries is now located on Lake Street in Kent.

However, large landmarks like the former Bissler furniture store and the Kemp building remain vacant.

Laney and Mills expressed an interest in retail development neighborhood residents would use, like a bakery, delicatessen, grocer or community theater.

Mills said the retail buildings should be designed to fit in with the neighborhood.

"I don't want them to make it tacky," she said.

Mayor John Fender said he has not had a chance to talk to neighborhood residents since his election campaign last fall, when many residents questioned the lack of progress on the neighborhood redevelopment. He said he welcomes the chance to hear more from the residents.

"Maybe there wasn't enough community input," he said.

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