PORTAGE PATHWAYS: Kent traffic woes spurred call for action in 1964

By Roger J. Di Paolo | Record-Courier Editor Published:

The news seemed like an answered prayer for one of Kent's most pressing issues 50 years ago.

Parking -- or the lack of it -- was a concern in the downtown business district, still vibrant in 1964 but facing competition from relatively new retail developments such as University Plaza on the city's south side and the Stow-Kent Shopping Center, which was drawing customers from the west side.

The announcement in May 1964 of plans for two large parking lots, both tied to private development in the downtown area, was welcomed by city officials and the downtown business community. "After years of delay, indecision, negotiations, procrastination and efforts of numerous committees, Kent has finally come alive in the field of downtown, off-street parking," the Record-Courier observed.

A parking area with space for nearly 100 cars was in the works between East Erie Street and East College Avenue, tied in with plans by the A & P supermarket for a $100,000 modernization and expansion of its South Water Street location.

Another parking lot, with space for 92 cars, opened in the area east of North Water Street along Columbus Street, behind the new home of First Federal Savings and Loan Association. The lot was a joint venture of First Federal, Home Savings and Loan Association and Portage National Bank.

Parking was to be available to the public for up to two hours, free of charge -- a departure from parking elsewhere in the business district, which was metered.

The addition of almost 200 parking spaces was a positive development, but as the Record-Courier observed, it was only a start as far as meeting Kent's needs for the future.

"Much remains to be done in Kent. And we need to move immediately!" an editorial stated, citing traffic congestion as one of the most pressing problems and predicting that would continue to be an issue even with the new lots.

The answer, according to the R-C, was to move forward with plans for a bridge over the Cuyahoga River and the two railroads running through the downtown area. "The need for the project is becoming more acute almost daily as the number of cars increases and the population gains."

The bridge project had been in the works for more than a decade. A bridge route that bypassed the downtown area had been chosen after much discussion, but funding for Kent's share of the state project remained unresolved.

The key to funding, in the R-C's view, was passage of a city income tax that would generate funds not only for the bridge but for capital improvements, including "a program to eliminate the atrocious condition of city streets."

Voters had turned down an income tax hike in 1963, and while Kent City Council had the authority to impose a tax of up to 1 percent, it had shown no inclination to defy the wishes of the electorate.

"Kent cannot afford further delay in meeting its needs," the R-C observed. "Problems will become only more complex and pressing. The community must act now!"

Action on a city income tax came sooner than expected, but only because of a tragedy.

The Crain Avenue Bridge collapsed on Dec. 18, 1964, giving way under an overloaded truck, killing a motorist and injuring several pedestrians.

That forced City Council's hand. A city income tax was instituted, in part to pay for a replacement bridge but also to provide funds for the downtown span. Voters affirmed council's action in 1965.

It took a full decade, however, before motorists were able to drive on the new bridge. The Redmond Greer Memorial Bridge opened on Nov. 13, 1975. By that time, however, the passenger train traffic that had tied up the downtown area had ceased.

One of the parking lots that opened in 1964 remains in service 50 years later, although the First Federal Savings and Loan Association is no more. The unmetered lot behind what is now Townhall II is in great demand among visitors to the revitalized downtown area.

The revitalization effort that began a few years ago claimed the other parking area in the vicinity of Erie and College. The A & P closed its doors on South Water Street in 1975, and the block where it was located was razed in 2010 for the Fairmount Properties development. While parking remains available on part of the site, the improvements there that made headlines 50 years ago are only a memory.

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