Mill District

The Mill District names an arts and cultural area on N. Water Street in Kent, Ohio. Early on, N. Water Street and the iconic Mill were identified as an opportunity area in the Kent Public Arts Master Plan created in 2014. N. Water is a rich and vibrant neighborhood that boasts coffee shops, art galleries, yoga, and dance—but the area is also known for its vacant lots and buildings, and lacks of many basic infrastructural elements such as crosswalks or streetlights.

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The challenge

To address the challenges on the street, we began by looking at a variety of placemaking projects and opportunities with stakeholders, and conducted a neighborhood business survey to see how people viewed the street both physically and ideologically. Through the survey, we found that there was a shared desire for change and revitalization in the community, as well as a new opportunity to unite the business owners and community members with a shared sense of place.

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Vision casting

From the outset, we formed a strategy to help guide a new discussion with community members about the street and its potential:

Focus on history—
Named after the iconic Mill established by the Williams Brothers in 1879, the Mill District is a downtown Kent area for visitors, business owners, artists, and community members to reflect upon the rich heritage of N. Water Street.

Look forward—
The Mill District has a rich history, but also a spirit of creativity and community. The district is an area of Kent known for its tight-knit arts culture, but is also home to longstanding businesses, coffee shops, bars, and a range of other services—proving that the area can act as a foundation for diverse growth in business and arts culture. The area is positioned to be a unique space for placemaking and thoughtful, historical renovation

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Community vision workshops

In order to address many of the challenges shared by the community, we partnered with the City of Kent to host a Better Block brainstorming workshop to discuss the street’s potential future. Attendees shared their ideas through a group brainstorming session that considered placemaking elements on top of a map of the street. This encouraged the community to consider design, the arts, and placemaking as foundational elements within the city’s development as a part of the street’s revitalization, which is still in its earliest stages.

Mill District naming

Early on, as we considered our role in the neighborhood and the challenges which were being voiced for the street, we chose “Mill District” as the name for the neighborhood to pay homage to the historic mill. The hope was to establish a sense of place and vision for the unique businesses, arts, and cultural district within the city of Kent.

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The Mill District branding

Along with the name, we designed a flexible brand system for the street based on old images of the iconic mill, known as one of the most recognizable buildings in Kent’s skyline. We considered images from the Kent Historical Society, such as sign paintings, window painting, business signage, and era-specific grain sacks. We became inspired by the rich visual history of Kent and especially N. Water Street.

While there’s lots of history in Kent, the town is also known for its eclectic blend of artists, folk music, and coffee shops, which we wanted to honor through expressive applications of the typography, color, layout, and the overall design system. The primary typeface for the brand—Mission Gothic—is designed by James T. Edmondson, Riley Cran, and Trevor Baum. Its forms are inspired by the antique hand-painted lettering and typography found on signs and windows during the early to mid-1900s.

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The outcome

Thus far, the project and naming has been well received within the community, and has been published numerous times by local newspapers as a positive revitalization project. Additionally, we have continued to partner with the City of Kent to host Mill District meetings with the community to explore the street’s future.