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Published: Wednesday, 2/5/2003

Group strives to spruce up city

‘We want to provide some harmony,' says Bob Seyfang, retired architect and developer, at Design Center headquarters on North Huron Street behind a tabletop model of downtown Toledo. ‘We want to provide some harmony,' says Bob Seyfang, retired architect and developer, at Design Center headquarters on North Huron Street behind a tabletop model of downtown Toledo.

Toledo soon may see the last of “big-box” stores on acres of empty asphalt and cookie-cutter fast-food restaurant structures.

The city does not have to settle for “cheap and ugly” in order to get something ‘new,'” said Bob Seyfang, retired architect and downtown developer.

He and about 15 like-minded volunteers recently opened the Toledo Design Center, a city, county, and university-backed organization meant to promote design and planning excellence throughout the city by educating the public and involving them in the design and planning process.

They want residents, not just academics and architects, to take note and speak up when a not-so-nice building is proposed for their neighborhood. They also want receptive authorities to hear what the people say before they make deals or give permits to developers and builders.

This is not just another ivory-tower think tank. Members of the Design Task Force include prominent people from the city and Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commissions, Downtown Toledo, Inc., the Downtown Toledo Parking Authority, Central City Main Street program, Bowling Green State University, the University of Toledo, and local landscape designers and architects.

“This is a valuable resource for business owners and community groups. They can come here for design ideas without this being a controlling entity,” said Stephen Herwat, executive director of the Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commissions. “And the universities now have a place for students to do studio work.”

The “studio” is at Design Center headquarters, 311 North Huron St. in downtown Toledo in a corner of a former department store. Most visible so far is its educational component. A huge scale model of downtown Toledo covers a wide tabletop, product of a Bowling Green urban studies class, made for an architecture conference held in Toledo last October - the same time the Design Center first opened its doors.

“Bowling Green has the urban design component, and the University of Toledo has a policy-oriented geography program. We offer the two a place to come together and combine their strengths,” Mr. Seyfang said. “Their faculties are now seeing when and how they can join their classes together here at the center.”

“When nobody cares or nobody knows what to ask for, mediocrity creeps in,” Mr. Seyfang said. “We're just starting to get some design standards together for builders and planners to use.

“We play right into Mayor Ford's ‘elegant city' idea, and it's not just new buildings - it's restoration, in-fill, those empty lots between existing buildings, the ‘missing teeth' in the city's smile,” he said. “We want to provide some harmony, in streetscapes, lighting, signs ... everything that works together to make a town vibrant.”

So far, the Design Center is running on goodwill and individual donations, Mr. Seyfang said, and a scramble for reliable funding is taking up much of its energy. Its headquarters is donated by owners of the Spitzer Building. The city plan commission offered $50,000 of start-up money, “but we haven't seen any of that yet,” he said. “We need to figure out some funding, an ongoing, sustainable revenue source.”

Design Centers have positive impact in cities like Chattanooga, Tenn.; Pittsburgh, and Seattle, Mr. Herwat said.

The region abounds in examples good and bad. “I was traveling between Ypsilanti and Detroit not long ago, and I saw a Home Depot store there,” Mr. Seyfang said. “It was wonderful, with nice plantings, a fa ade broken up with interesting details. ... It showed me yes, it can be done. Show the developer your community has standards, and they'll come up with something really appealing.”

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