CLEVELAND, Ohio — Downtown Cleveland has a serious problem with its connective tissue, and it’s not a new one. For decades, public spaces and places between its office towers, sports facilities, and public buildings have remained hard, gray, dull, and mean-looking.
In downtown, as in too many other parts of the city, the public realm caters first and foremost to automobiles. And much of downtown remains cut off from the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie, the city’s greatest natural assets. That’s a serious liability for a city trying to reverse decades of decline.
As Mayor Frank Jackson prepares to step down in January after an unprecedented 16 years in office, there’s a fresh opportunity for change.
Jackson’s successor, 34-year-old nonprofit executive Justin Bibb, a political newcomer, is poised to reboot how the city views its public realm, downtown and elsewhere.
“For far too long we have had a traffic engineering department that has prioritized cars over pedestrians,’’ he said during the fall campaign. “We need to be a city that embraces protected bike lanes, that embraces walkability.’’
To be fair, downtown certainly improved on Jackson’s watch, thanks to the city’s efforts and to changing demographics.
As downtown’s residential population grew to 20,000, Perk Park and Public Square got renovated. Warehouses and offices buildings were transformed into apartments.
New buildings began rising from surface parking lots that have scarred the city for decades. And Jackson helped convince Sherwin Williams Co. to build a new skyscraper headquarters scheduled for completion in 2024 off Public Square rather than move to another city.
But the outgoing mayor also leaves behind a legacy of frustration.
“On bike and pedestrian infrastructure, we’re behind other cities by 20 years,’’ said Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack, who represents downtown.
Jackson’s failures are epitomized by the Jersey barriers and concrete planters his administration installed in Public Square in 2017, marring an otherwise beautiful, $50 million renovation completed in 2016.
The barriers were meant to address new worries about pedestrian safety and homeland security that surfaced when Superior Avenue reopened as a bus route in the square after having been closed during and after the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Regardless of the motivation behind them, the barriers came to symbolize the administration’s stubborn tolerance for ugliness in the heart of the city, and its lack of interest in quickly finding a fix, such as installing safety bollards.
Michael Deemer, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Downtown Cleveland Alliance, said in an interview that it’s crucial for the city to improve streetscapes and spaces between buildings so it can continue to attract new residents and companies. And he points to federal COVID relief and infrastructure bills as a possible source of funding for better public amenities.
“I think those resources create a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really invest in legacy cities like Cleveland,’’ he said.
Big new projects proposed for downtown show that private sector power brokers want to see better connections to the river and the lake.
In May, Dee and Jimmy Haslam, co-owners of the Browns, proposed extending the downtown Mall over the dead zone created by the Ohio 2 Shoreway and lakefront railroad lines to create a stronger pedestrian connection to the lakefront and FirstEnergy Stadium.
In September, Bedrock Cleveland unveiled a 30-year vision for completing the unfinished western face of the Tower City Center complex by extending it down to the Cuyahoga River at Collision Bend. The concept centers on a grand staircase cascading from Huron Road to the riverfront.
Bibb, for his part, has said he’s open to considering whether to shut down Burke Lakefront Airport and turn it into a park or development site, an idea Jackson rejected.
Bibb should also follow up on the best ideas left behind by the Jackson administration, including that of building dedicated bike lanes on Superior Avenue from Public Square to East 55th Street as the first leg of a citywide network called The Midway.
What else should be on the new mayor’s to-do list for downtown?
The following suggestions are intended as a conversation starter, not an exhaustive tally. Consider it also an invitation to share responses or other new ideas by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. That said, here are 10 ideas, big and small, for making a better downtown:
1. Preserve and reuse the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Terminal. Built in 1897, the terminal is a Gothic Revival treasure located overlooking the Cuyahoga River at Canal and Carter roads. It served until 1933 as the city’s main passenger rail station when it was replaced by the Union Terminal at Tower City Center. Now owned by Sherwin-Williams Co., the B&O building has been vacant for decades, but it has outstanding potential to become a vital part of the future Canal Basin Park, a 20-acre public space taking shape nearby on Columbus Road Peninsula as the northern terminus of the 101-mile Towpath Trail. In 2018, the nonprofit Canalway Partners, which helped spearhead the trail, signed a memorandum of understanding with Sherwin-Williams to explore revitalizing the old terminal as a hotel related to travel on the trail. Tom Yablonsky, vice president of Canalway Partners, said those discussions are “in a holding pattern’' while the big paint company builds its new headquarters at Public Square. Sherwin-Williams didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
2. Turn the parking lots in front of the U.S. courthouse tower into parks: In 2002, when the U.S. General Services Administration finished building the 24-story Carl B. Stokes U.S. Courthouse tower overlooking the Cuyahoga River at Huron Road, it left the project with a mangled northern edge at ground level, where rail tracks for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s Waterfront Line and rapid transit Red Line enter the Tower City complex below grade. The canyon created by the tracks cuts between the courthouse tower’s entry plaza and two parcels owned by the GSA along the south side of the Detroit Superior Bridge at Huron Road that total 1.7 acres. Since 2002, the GSA has leased the properties to a parking lot operator, leaving an eyesore in front of a building named for one of Cleveland’s greatest elected Black officials. It’s time to fix this scar by turning the parking lots into park spaces that terrace down to Canal Basin Park.
3. Create a seamless jogging loop between downtown and Ohio City. The Jackson administration blew an easy win in 2019 when it led a $13 million project to resurface 2,200 feet of Huron Road on the west side of the Tower City complex, overlooking the Cuyahoga River. The city rebuffed a proposal by real estate broker Conor Coakley and other advocates who wanted to see one of the road’s six lanes turned into a recreational path for use by joggers and bicyclists. The lane would have been part of a 3-mile loop connecting downtown to Ohio City and West 25th Street via the Detroit-Superior and Lorain-Carnegie Bridges. The Lakewood firm of AoDK Architecture expanded on the idea with renderings showing how the western edge of Ontario Street, which also overlooks the Cuyahoga River, could be turned into a spectacular linear park. As the Jackson administration winds down, the Ontario Street sidewalk opposite Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse is edged with chain-link and weeds, and the repaved stretch of Huron Road behind Tower City Center remains a wasted opportunity.
4. The aforementioned examples show that
a comprehensive pedestrian safety and bike plan . The Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, NOACA, awarded $250,000 to the city in 2020 for a “connectivity study’' that could incorporate those features. The scope and timing of that project are still being developed, Grace Gallucci, NOACA’s executive director, said in a recent interview. The plan is important because downtown is emerging as the hub of a growing network of regional bike trails, including the Towpath and connectors proposed from Slavic Village and Opportunity Corridor on the city’s East Side. Numerous downtown streets, including Lakeside and Superior avenues, are oversized for the amount of traffic they carry and should be retrofitted with bike lanes.
5. More trees, please. Michael Deemer, of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, said that it’s time to revisit the condition of downtown’s streetscapes. Special attention is needed along Euclid Avenue, where improvements installed as part of the $200 million rapid transit HealthLine are showing age 14 years that project was completed. Deemer said he’d also like to see a fresh look at whether more trees could be planted or installed in planters, even in areas where below-grade sidewalk vaults have prevented that in the past. “The overall pedestrian experience in downtown needs a strong look,’’ he said.
Smart parking needed: It’s ridiculous that visitors and commuters need to raid coin jars for quarters before heading downtown. The city needs to replace downtown’s outmoded, coin-operated parking meters with smart-parking pay stations, and/or an app-based system usable via mobile phones.
7. Outdoor dining needed: Other cities with real winters have figured out during the COVID crisis how to facilitate safe outdoor dining within heated and partially enclosed huts installed in parking lanes. If Cleveland followed suit, it could help boost restaurants hammered by the pandemic.
8. Elaborate on the Haslam plan: The idea of extending the downtown Mall north to the Cleveland lakefront is well worth exploring, but it isn’t big enough in its vision for reconnecting downtown to Lake Erie. As it explores the Haslam proposal, the city needs to consider the long-term possibility of downgrading the Shoreway from an interstate-style freeway to a lower-speed boulevard. It also needs to consider extending streets such as East 18th Street north to the Shoreway from the upland bluff occupied by downtown and the Campus District, the neighborhood immediately to the east. Such connections could make any future development or park at Burke Lakefront Airport truly part of the city, rather than a place cut off from downtown by a highway.
9. Make special events easier: A persistent lament during the Jackson years has been that organizers of special events found it extremely difficult to obtain multiple permits required by City Hall. That was true across Cleveland, but it’s perhaps especially hurtful in downtown, and specifically, on the Mall. The nonprofit Group Plan Commission has kept Public Square humming with outdoor events, while the Mall has often felt moribund. It’s time to change that.
10. Cap the Innerbelt at East 22nd Street and Euclid Avenue. When it was built in the 1950s, the Innerbelt freeway carved a giant trench between downtown and the adjacent majority Black Central neighborhood. “It’s like a racist moat,’’ said Mark Lammon, executive director of the Campus District community development corporation. The Ohio Department of Transportation, which is in the midst of a decades-long project to rebuild the Innerbelt, could do a better job of fixing that problem by widening the surface-level bridges over the freeway trench to include platforms or caps that could support landscaping or buildings. Examples of such projects in Ohio include planting beds that flank streets extending over Forth Washington Way in Cincinnati to connect the city’s downtown to the Ohio River waterfront. In Columbus, the High Street Bridge over I-670 is flanked by shops that hide the highway below. In Cleveland, one upcoming phase of the Innerbelt re-do includes plans for at least a partial cap over the freeway at East 22nd Street but that design needs improvement. Another cap should be added in the future where Euclid Avenue crosses the Innerbelt trench. The city and other entities may need to raise money to add these improvements to the Innerbelt project, but it would be well worth the cost to integrate downtown, and the opportunities it represents, with struggling communities next door.