The Gruen Plan for Oberlin, Ohio

The Oberlin Central District Study

The Oberlin Central District Study, prepared by Victor Gruen Associates, is eerily formulaic. While facts and figures accompany Gruenist rhetoric in the twenty-one-page document, it fails to show whether anyone at VGA took a genuine interest the Oberlin project. It may just have been a matter of urban planning algebra.

Examples of this are strongest in the opening pages. A section that apparently is meant to win the favor of the Oberlin Central District Committee is only specific that it addresses the committee explicitly.

“The members of the Oberlin Central District Committee are to be commended for recognizing the ever growing problems of Oberlin’s Central District and for commissioning this initial study of those problems. These difficulties, which in a compounded manner beset Oberlin, are quite common to almost all communities today.” [i]

This introduction gives little indication of what VGA views as the problems that “beset Oberlin.” Later, however, the document does give an explanation of the general problems that cities face across the United States. This section reads like a Gruen treatise, and could have easily been reproduced in the preliminary plans for most of VGA’s retail projects around this time. [ii]

Eventually, the plan does delve into the specifics of Oberlin’s downtown, since this is required for any sort of logistical planning. The need for growth is top priority, and anything that might restrict it is negatively characterized. Interestingly, the team from VGA writes that, “…Main Street and College Street act as two sharp knives, slicing through the central district in two directions. It causes the development of business on a considerably stretched-out basis. It disrupts and interferes with well organized growth.” [iii]

This priority is reiterated by stating that, “The purpose of this analysis is to assist the Oberlin Central District Committee in their efforts to promote a healthy, efficient, diversified, and aggressive growth.” [iv]

While growth was more than likely on the minds of members of the Oberlin Central District Committee, it seems like an overly general objective. There was probably a need for revitalization, and a desire to stay competitive with shopping centers. Growth does not directly translate into these things, but it appears that VGA equated them.

If the Oberlin Central District Study failed to communicate its vision for healthy commerce in words, it certainly succeeded in communicating it visually. Downtown Oberlin would hardly be recognizable. Under the plan, it would abandon its perpendicular layout and transform into a centralized square area of commerce.

This transformation would come with its battles. The plan wanted to reroute RT. 58 around the Central District. Traffic would flow one way around the central district, and eliminate all traffic within the business area. Because 58 is a state route, any alteration would require the favor of state officials. This change, on a local level, would necessitate building a new road to Vine Street. Additionally, to make enough room for parking, Plum Creek would need to be covered. Residents, perhaps even a large number, would likely oppose such changes.

Implementing the ideas of the Oberlin Central District Study, even in phases, would mean creating a large construction zone in the center of a relatively small community. Examine VGA’s proposed figures for the central district:

Total Ground Area Required in Square Feet
Buildings 297,500
Courts and Malls 59,000
Parking 906,000
Total 1,262,500
(Total Available in the Oberlin CD 1,310,000) [v]

Likely, most every square foot in 1,262,500 would be affected in some way during completion of the project. The members of the Oberlin Central District Committee must have asked themselves a plethora of questions. Can the residents of Oberlin weather the inconvenience that this construction would create? Would enrollment at the college suffer? Would retailers suffer in the short term for the promise of future growth? Could that growth become a reality?

Unfortunately, members who looked to the Oberlin Central District Study document for answers could not find any information specific enough to address their questions. They did, however, find the lukewarm reassurance of Victor Gruen Associates: “You have certain characteristics, advantages, and potentialities in Oberlin no other community has in this part of Ohio. Exploiting these under the forgoing chain of events and action, the healthy growth of the Oberlin Central District will be assured.” [vi]


[i] Oberlin Central District Study, by Victor Gruen Associates, 1957, pg. 1

[ii]For an example of Gruen’s writing style and recurring themes, check out http://uwadmnweb.uwyo.edu/AMS/WebCt_Mall/myweb/gruen%20collection/gruen%20text.htm

[iii]Oberlin Central District Study, by Victor Gruen Associates, 1957, pg. 8

[iv] Oberlin Central District Study, by Victor Gruen Associates, 1957, pg. 1

[v] Oberlin Central District Study, by Victor Gruen Associates, 1957, pg. 13

[vi] Oberlin Central District Study, by Victor Gruen Associates, 1957, pg. 21

Oberlin Central District Study
by Victor Gruen Associates
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