"It just grew"

Anatomy of a commerical strip

A quintessential Coshocton-Road moment:

Pulling away from the Wendy's drive-thru with your Biggie fries and Diet Coke, you signal left, because your next stop is the drive-up cash machine at First-Knox National Bank. You wait for a gap in the traffic so you can make your left turn. And wait. And wait. And finally, swearing in frustration, you turn right . . . and maneuver into the left lane . . . and turn left into the parking lot of Quality Farm and Fleet, where you circle to reemerge at the street so that you're now able to make an easier right turn (though you still have to wait), allowing you to go the way you originally wanted to go--that is, left.

You can get there from here, but only if you start out in the wrong direction. That seems to be how prosperity and convenience have evolved on Coshocton Road.

Everybody in Knox County, from the Mount Vernon old-timer to the Kenyon newcomer, knows Coshocton Road, the commercial strip that has spread relentlessly outward from the east side of the city, replacing wooded hills with shopping centers, fast-food joints, supermarkets, discount stores, and sun-baked acres of parking lot. Everybody shops here. Everybody eats here. Everybody complains about the traffic. Everybody blinks at the newest arrivals, sprouting up without warning. Ryan's Steak House, Staples, Sabo Ford. Everybody wonders where it will end.

Any examination of growth and land-use issues in the Mount Vernon area--and of how that growth affects Kenyon--has to take into account this stretch of all-American clutter. How did Coshocton Road get that way? How will it shape the future? Is Coshocton Road the inevitable face of progress? Or is it a cautionary tale?

From the Gambier perspective, cautionary tale would be an understatement. Ruth Woehr, a member of the village's planning and zoning commission, notes that before undertaking its recent overhaul of the local zoning code, the group distributed a survey to Gambier residents. In the responses, one of the themes that emerged loud and clear was: "Don't let what happened to Coshocton Road happen to us."

Woehr elaborates: "There's no character to that road, there's no sense of place. It doesn't consider the natural landscape--they just clear-cut the trees. It's a completely vehicle-driven area; there's no room for the pedestrian. For me, the worst of it is that it's not on a human scale, and it's ugly. As a human being, you feel discounted. There's no place to sit in the shade, no place to get a drink of water, no place for children to play, no place where people can `neighbor' with each other."

Woehr, who is married to Associate Professor of Religion Joseph A. Adler, appreciates the convenience of being able to buy groceries, rent videos, and take her teenage daughter shopping all in the space of just over a mile. And her daughter's crowd is happy to have anything close by that remotely resembles a mall.

But, having pondered city and town planning issues as part of the Gambier zoning rewrite, Woehr can't help but feel that Coshocton Road could have turned out differently. "They could have done more to tailor development to the landscape. They could have required service roads, so you could go from store to store without having to get back on the main drag. They could have put in sidewalks, kept more green space, left more trees. They can't stop development, but they can set guidelines for how it's done. They weren't strong enough about that. They didn't think hard, or carefully."

As for who "they" are, the history of Coshocton Road's transformation involved a series of decisions and nondecisions by developers, business owners, city officials, and, at some level, the public. Local politics played a role, as did chance and historical circumstance. Nobody actually set out to make Coshocton Road what it is--which is to say that nobody gave much thought to the big picture.

"There was no real plan," says Robert Durbin, the president of the Knox County Board of Commissioners. "It just grew."

D urbin and other county natives remember Coshocton Road as rolling farmland and forest, a scenic approach to Mount Vernon from outlying villages like Millwood and Danville. Travelers coming into the city from the east could pause at the top of the hill on Coshocton Road and look out over an expanse of trees to glimpse the spire of the Knox County Courthouse in the distance, downtown.

As late as 1951, about the only thing out on Coshocton Road besides farms and a smattering of homes and small shops was WMVO, the local radio station, started that year by prominent Mount Vernon attorney Charles Zelkowitz and his wife, Helen. The Zelkowitzes had bought a 163-acre farm at the top of the hill and in fact broadcast their programs from the farmhouse, within sight of some grazing Hereford cattle.

Closer in to town, on 120 acres now occupied by two shopping centers and part of Hiawatha Golf Course, the Piar family ran a dairy farm. "I could sit on the porch of the old farmhouse and I'd count a car, then I'd have to wait two or three minutes before I'd see another car," laughs Don Piar, who was in high school then and who now grows corn and soybeans south of Mount Vernon. "Many a time, I'd look up the road just to see if I could see a car coming."

Piar's father began selling off land in the early 1950s, in part because he was getting on in years and wanted some respite from twice-a-day milkings, in part because of economic and regulatory pressures that were forcing dairy farmers to buy bulk milk tanks and enlarge their herds. One of the buyers was a developer from Chillicothe, Ohio. Don Piar remembers returning home from military service to see excavations under way in what was once a pasture with a little stream running through it.

The Mount Vernon Shopping Plaza, the first of the shopping centers, opened on that site in 1962, with a Big Bear supermarket, a Woolworth's store, and an array of other shops. "It was a popular place," recalls Piar. "Downtown Mount Vernon was congested; it was hard to find a parking spot. People were happy to get away from that congestion. Out at the shopping center, they felt free. They loved it."

Many long-time observers of the Mount Vernon scene point out that commercial development more logically might have taken place southwest of the city, along Harcourt and Columbus roads. Those roads led to Columbus and had the additional advantage of being flat and thus easy to build on. What that area lacked, though--and what the hillier tracts along Coshocton Road had--were nearby water and sewer lines. Quite simply, development followed the availability of water and sewerage.

The water and sewer lines served neighborhoods on the eastern side of the city. During the 1950s and early 1960s, new homes went up on the hillsides just south of Coshocton Road, many of them nice enough that people referred to the area, puckishly, as "Mortgage Hill." Not far from the site of the Mount Vernon Shopping Plaza, the Zelkowitzes sold lots for what was known as the Highland Park subdivision. Big Bear and the other stores that decided to locate in the new shopping center undoubtedly took into account the nearby residential development. So did First-Knox National Bank, which opened its Coshocton Road branch, across the street from the shopping center, in 1965.

In the years since then, new developers and individual business owners have readily paid to extend the water and sewer lines out to their locations. These property owners typically welcomed annexation to the city as a logical step, so that Mount Vernon pushed east from the "natural" boundary of a creek called Center Run to its current "natural" boundary on the hilltop at Upper Gilchrist Road, near the radio station and the site of the new Holiday Inn Express that opened earlier this year.

To the southwest, by contrast, Clinton Township had no interest in the city, according to Thomas McLarnan, county commissioner and former city councilman. In part, this was a traditional matter of protecting political turf, McLarnan says. In addition, several factories gave the township a strong tax base of its own. Residents didn't want to pay city taxes for services they felt they didn't need.

Among those services were water and sewerage. Only in the last two years have sewer lines been extended into some sections of Clinton Township close to Mount Vernon. Water lines are expected to follow soon.

The face of Coshocton Road changed gradually after the first shopping center opened in 1962. But in the 1980s change began to accelerate. The Kroger Company, which originally had a supermarket downtown and later moved to the north side of the city, relocated to Coshocton Road in 1981.

"The new Kroger was a big deal," recalls Mary Suydam, who had come to Kenyon two years earlier with her husband, Professor of Psychology Michael Levine. "There were bands playing. They gave out prizes. People lined up. I remember thinking, `This is only a grocery store.'"

The new supermarket was startling in at least two ways. Mount Vernon residents were awestruck by its size. One local joke had it that you could go into Kroger a baby and come out ready to collect Social Security. In addition, rather than locating close to existing development, the company had carved out a site in the woods relatively far up the road.

At first, the location hurt the store, says McLarnan, who in addition to his elected post is Kroger's associate manager. But the opening of Knox Community Hospital in 1983 just across the road from the supermarket helped business, as did the development of an apartment complex nearby. Also, shopping traffic was now coming not only from Mount Vernon to the west but also from Apple Valley, a residential and recreational community in Howard Township, east of the city.

Laid out around an artificial lake, the lots in Apple Valley started to sell in 1972. Today it is the fastest-growing residential area in the county, with close to sixteen hundred homes.

The 1980s also saw the arrival of the fast-food restaurants, drawing yet more traffic to Coshocton Road and decisively altering its appearance with their towering signs. The county courthouse is still faintly visible from the top of the hill, but what claims the attention of drivers today is a clamorous visual beckoning to eat burgers, pizza, and tacos.

The largest commercial installations have been built only within the past six years. In 1992, Glimcher Realty Trust, a Columbus-based developer that owns 120 malls and shopping centers in twenty-four states, sliced away the wooded hilltop on the south side of Coshocton Road to create Knox Village Square, luring K-Mart and the Big Bear supermarket from their older Coshocton Road locations. Two years later, on land purchased from the Zelkowitz family that was part of the original radio-station farm, Wal-Mart sliced off the north side of the hill.

What remained of the hillside was clear-cut and terraced to make way for Ryan's Steak House, a discount supermarket called Aldi, and the new Dick Sabo Ford dealership, scheduled to leave its downtown location before the end of 1998. In a sense, these stores along with Wal-Mart and Knox Village Square form a portal to the commercial strip and a gateway to Mount Vernon. Just as travelers entering the city from the Columbus side pass a sign that says "Welcome to Mount Vernon, America's Hometown," those arriving via Coshocton Road are greeted with the Ryan's slogan, "Now Carving 3 Meats Nightly."

C an Mount Vernon support all of these retailers? Companies don't make major investments in an area without doing their homework--studying such data as traffic counts, housing starts, the growth and age range of the local population, and the average household income. "We see very strong market potential in Mount Vernon," says Marie Izzo Cartwright, vice president for corporate communications and marketing at Glimcher Realty Trust. "Mount Vernon is still growing."

As for the possibility that commercial development has expanded beyond the capacity of the population to support it, Cartwright says, "Competition is healthy. More stores bring in more traffic. If a retailer is good at what he does, he will get some of that business."

Joseph Mortellaro, who owns the two McDonald's restaurants in Mount Vernon, points out that Kenyon, Mount Vernon Nazarene College, and Apple Valley provide a consumer population that doesn't show up on the city census. McDonald's opened its first Mount Vernon restaurant in 1982, on the south side of town. The presence of Kenyon was one factor in the decision to open a second restaurant in 1986, on Coshocton Road.

Until recently, the public seemed to welcome every new commercial arrival with enthusiasm, a giddy excitement over the novelty of seeing national chains turn up in rural Knox County. The stores and restaurants represented not only new buying opportunities but also a kind of affirmation. "Everyone was big on having McDonald's," recalls Mary Suydam. "You hadn't arrived as a real town if you didn't have a McDonald's."

Indeed, on the day of its grand opening, the first Mount Vernon McDonald's set a Columbus-area record for sales, according to Mortellaro. "People in the regional office still talk about it," he chuckles. When Taco Bell opened on Coshocton Road in 1989, the line of cars waiting at the drive-up window backed up into the street, creating a traffic jam.

Unfortunately, heavy traffic is now the norm on Coshocton Road. Mount Vernon Mayor Richard K. Mavis says that studies in the late 1980s showed traffic counts of about eight thousand cars per day. "Now," he adds, "we believe that on a busy afternoon in the summer, the traffic on Coshocton Road approaches thirty thousand cars per day."

Mortellaro voices a common complaint in noting the near impossibility of making a left turn on Coshocton Road. "People can't turn left to get into McDonald's, or turn left to get out. It hurts our business. And it's dangerous. There are going to be accidents out there."

Coshocton Road already has the most accidents of any roadway in Knox County, according to records of the Ohio Department of Public Safety. In 1995 and 1996, there were 187 accidents on Coshocton Road, or 37 percent of all accidents in the county.

In an effort to alleviate congestion, the city has drafted a Coshocton Road Improvement Plan, which would widen the road to five lanes (including a center turning lane) along the easternmost part of the strip. The $3.8 million plan, which Mayor Mavis says could begin next year, would also involve the installation of curbs and sidewalks, as well as storm sewers and "detention ponds" to improve drainage, a perennial problem that became especially severe during heavy rainfalls this past summer.

In addition, the city is trying to convince business owners to connect their parking lots and give up some parking-lot space for service roads, so that shoppers could go from store to store without always having to re-enter Coshocton Road. Individual interests, though, have made this idea more complicated than it might first appear. For example, Mavis says, the Kroger Company opposes any service road linking its parking lot to Wal-Mart's because the connection would also open access to Aldi, a competitor.

The failure to look beyond individual interests lies behind many of Coshocton Road's problems. Individual businesses may have provided adequate drainage for their own sites, but little or no thought was ever given to what might happen if heavy rains fell on the whole vast expanse of asphalt and treeless hillside. Joseph Mortellaro knows what happens: water streams down the slope from Knox Village Square, crosses the road, and floods his restaurant. This past summer, Mortellaro had two inches of water in McDonald's and had to close down temporarily. It is true that the storms of late June and early July were unusually intense. But the McDonald's had flooded five times previously as well.

"The city fathers did not have a vision," says Mortellaro. "They didn't plan. They didn't look toward the future."

Mavis, a county commissioner from 1975 to 1995 before becoming the city's mayor in 1996, agrees that regulations for development have been inadequate or poorly enforced. Only since 1984 have developers been required to submit storm-water-management plans, with the goal of slowing runoff so that it never exceeds flow rates under normal conditions. "Before I came," Mavis says, "not all of the storm-water systems were reviewed by an engineer. The city just signed off on them."

Mavis also found that little effort had been made to enforce regulations limiting the size of signs. "It was common policy to approve large signs," he notes, "because the owners would say, `Hey, the other guys have it, I need it too.'"

Mavis says that when he took office he even asked the city law director about the possibility of imposing a building moratorium on Coshocton Road. He was told it was out of the question. "In America, if someone wants to sell property, and someone else wants to put up a building that conforms to existing zoning regulations, government can't step in and stop them."

Local government and the local economy have benefited from the development on Coshocton Road in that the stores provide jobs and thus city income-tax revenues, while sales taxes go toward the county's operating budget. But, Mavis acknowledges, "If you surveyed citizens in the county and asked what we've gained and what we've lost because of the growth on Coshocton Road, most would probably say we've lost some of our rural integrity."

Many people are frankly appalled by what has happened on Coshocton Road. "If you'd have told me back then what it is now, I'd have thought you were insane," says Don Piar, thinking back to the occasional car that passed his family's farm in the days before the shopping centers. "It's not normal, what you're seeing out there, all the growth in one spot."

Psychology professor Michael Levine, who lives less than a mile from Coshocton Road, finds it shameful that, in a place "where most people seem to appreciate the rural, small-town atmosphere," local officials could allow unfettered development. "If it was a mindless development process, as it sometimes appears to be, that's really sad. If it was not a mindless process, if some group decided that this is their vision of what Knox County should be, that's even sadder. I'd rather believe in chaos than in that."

The truth is that planning has been virtually nonexistent on Coshocton Road. And some wonder whether the public would have supported planning anyway, if it meant restricting how property owners developed their land or spending tax dollars on greenbelts and service roads. "The trouble is, no one wants to pay for planning," says William A. Stroud, former chair of the First-Knox National Bank and a Kenyon trustee emeritus. "It takes money to put in a beautiful roadway. This just is not a community that's going to let you spend money like that."

W hat of the future? Mayor Mavis believes that the strip has gone as far east as it's going to go. "Upper Gilchrist Road serves as a nice cut-off point for the city. We shouldn't have commercial development beyond that."

In fact, as Coshocton Road continues east from the city border and through Monroe Township, the land is zoned suburban-residential. This zoning classification still holds at the intersection where Route 308 (Kenyon Road) turns off toward Gambier. Starting about half a mile beyond the turn-off, however, and going on for two miles in the direction of Apple Valley, the zoning changes: a strip of land 200 feet wide on each side of Coshocton Road is zoned commercial.

It may be that this change reflects nothing more than a decision, when the Monroe Township zoning code was first adopted, to accommodate some preexisting businesses. The area features mostly homes and open land as of now. But Apple Valley continues to grow, and the long, narrow shape of this nearby commercial zone suggests that if a new business district ever develops here, it will take the form of a classic commercial strip.

Meanwhile, with the new sewer lines southwest of the city and water lines coming soon, development may shift in that direction. Such a shift, Mavis hopes, will ease the pressures on Coshocton Road and "allow us to recapture some of the control we lost during the last several years."

Mavis feels that future development in and around the city will reflect greater attention to planning than was the case in the past. "We've learned a lesson on Coshocton Road. We've all become a little more tough about enforcement."

Indeed, the Clinton Township zoning code now addresses aesthetic as well as traffic and drainage issues for developments along major thoroughfares. The code limits the number of driveways along major routes and encourages the use of service roads. Parking lots must incorporate landscaping, including trees, to reduce heat and water runoff as well as to soften the visual impact of large paved areas. Free-standing signs can be no taller than eight feet.

Are these restrictions sufficient to prevent another Coshocton Road from mushrooming southwest of Mount Vernon? County Commissioner Thomas McLarnan isn't so sure. "The city planners and the county planners have to work together," he says. "We have no tradition of that here. Planning doesn't make people happy. We still live with the idea that it's the last frontier and we can do whatever we want. But if we don't work together, we're never going to preserve anything."

For students, it's two cheers for Coshocton Road

C oshocton Road seems the utter antithesis of Gambier: congested, shadeless, impersonal, dominated by cars, and devoid of character, at least in the sense that it is indistinguishable from every other commercial strip in America. And yet, despite what it is--indeed, because of what it is--many Kenyon students are happy to have Coshocton Road just an easy ten-minute drive away.

Their main reason is as American as, well, Wal-Mart: shopping here is convenient and cheap. As Zachary B. Nowak '99 of Rush, New York, puts it, national chain stores may be "the equivalent of the bubonic plague for small-town life," but "where else can you buy CDs, a lamp, new shoes, shampoo, and batteries in the same store?"

Jessica A. Marfurt '01 of Tulsa, Oklahoma, expressing the feelings of many students, finds that the handful of stores in Gambier offer a very limited selection (of groceries as well as other goods) and charge "obscene" prices. "I like the strip, cheesy as it may be," she says. "With out it, Kenyon students would be poorer, emaciated from lack of decent food, and crazy from the isolated location of Gambier." She adds, though, "I would never want a place like Wendy's or Wal-Mart at Kenyon--it would ruin the atmosphere."

The strip does offer a measure of relief from Kenyon's insularity and intensity. Coshocton Road "gives us a little touch of reality outside of Gambier," says Marisha I. Stawiski '99 of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Rebecca M. Hoyt '99 of Bedford, Ohio, adds, "It gives me a little bit of the city, and I can go whenever I choose."

It is even possible to celebrate Coshocton Road. "The strip is open, with an on-the-move structure . . . an air of carelessness and freedom," says Colin H. Yuckman '01 of Bexley, Ohio. "Kenyon is a small cottage enclosed in a forest, with Coshocton Road being the road out." Yuckman sometimes thinks of Coshocton Road as "the road to freedom."

Students with access to cars go to the strip for everything from laundry detergent and toothpaste to snack foods and, yes, beer. They'll occasionally grab a meal at one of the fast-food places or stop at Friendly's for ice cream. And, like the rest of the Kenyon community, they are big fans of Hunan Garden, the Chinese restaurant run by Jianying Wang, the wife of Associate Professor of Chinese Jianhua Bai. Located in the Knox Village Square shopping center, Hunan Garden on a Friday evening sometimes feels like a sit-down version of Middle Path, its tables and booths crowded with students as well as administration, faculty, and staff families and groups of friends.

Students like the fact that the Kroger supermarket on Coshocton Road stays open all night. But for an extended study break and gab-fest at three in the morning, they head for Ike's Great American Restaurant, which John R. Sherck '99 of Bellevue, Ohio, describes as "a greasy-spoon truck-stop type of place . . . where you can have a greasy breakfast at any hour of the day or night." Kenyon students enjoy bantering with the waitresses at Ike's and observing the other late-night habitues, or what one student calls "the local color."

Ike's is "an excellent all-nighter to hit around 4:00 a.m. after a long paper," says Charles M. Walsh '00 of Louisville, Kentucky. "I would certainly call it a bright stop among the Anywhere-America dullness of Coshocton Road."

This very dullness, though, in its familiarity offers a kind of comfort to students. Kenyon is a high-pressure environment, and a dose of normality can feel welcome. Malea J. Hoepf '01 of Tiffin, Ohio, prefers downtown Mount Vernon to Coshocton Road but admits she finds Wal-Mart "such an anti-Kenyon place that it's actually refreshing. There is nothing overly intellectual or critical about it."

Students may disapprove of Coshocton Road for its ugliness and for the way it has hurt downtown Mount Vernon, but they're content to let it be. "I don't believe it subtracts from Kenyon," says Walsh. "In a way, it's a reminder of home, because every place in America has one."


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