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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Better Block project to transform Akron's North Hill: See a map, what's on tap

Better Block North Hill.jpg
A schematic showing what North Hill will look like during the BetterBlock street festival this week. (Team BetterBlock)

AKRON, Ohio -- Head to Akron's North Hill neighborhood this weekend and you might be surprised by the pop-up shops and bike paths erected by Better Block.

Friday-Sunday, May 15-17, the vacant storefronts and barren sidewalks will disappear. Volunteers, with support of the city and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, are transforming North Main Street into a vibrant arts district the immigrant neighborhood has not seen in decades.

The Better Block project, an idea that originated Dallas, Texas, is demonstration imagining a revitalized area, and making that happen.

Small businesses will overtake North Hill weekend, buttressed by new landscaping, reconfigured bike-friendly streets and new plazas. Organizers hope the event will help neighbors and visitors alike to imagine a new future for the neighborhood, and maybe just some of those popups will decide to stay. 

Here's five things you can do in North Hill, only this weekend.

Eat and drink at brand new places: New dining options include a new art gallery espresso cafe, the Stray Dog Diner and a specialty dumpling restaurant. A new plaza will also beckon food trucks from around the region. 

Stroll on shady, tree-lined streets and sit in plazas: Better Block will transform the intersection of North Main Street and East Cuyahoga Falls Avenue into a roundabout, adjoined near a wide plaza that will feature seating and a court for bocce ball, the hand-ball sport enjoyed by Romans and 21st century hipsters alike. 

Volunteers will bring in 30 new trees, four of which will find permanent homes. 

Ride your bike all the way downtown: A simultaneous street fair will turn North Main Street into a bike friendly, pedestrian centric thoroughfare. Main will be closed off to automobiles North of downtown Akron throughout the weekend. 

Another nook will feature a small-goal soccer tournament. 

Experience new, local shopping: Anchored by Neighbors Apparel, a year-old business founded by Tessa Reeves, shops will have a three-day lease on life during better block. 

Neighbors specializes in hand-made garments sewed primarily by Bhutanese refugees who have settled in the North Hill neighborhood, using fabrics that have been imported from southeast Asia. A bike shop will also open its doors.

There will be an open air market featuring local vendors and farmers just off Main Street. 

Just imagine: Jason Roberts, the man who founded Better Block in Dallas three years ago, wants you to see what your neighborhood can be. 

If the pop-up businesses do well enough this weekend, organizers hope owners may muster the courage to set up shop permanently and start a wave of new business that can turn North Hill into a bustling business district. 

"If we create the environment just temporarily we can watch what happens. People were saying lets make this stay lets make this stick," Roberts said. "We call it speed dating for cities."

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