100 years in, the metroparks looks to expand and improve in significant ways

The Cleveland Metroparks has established a new beachhead in the City of Cleveland by assuming management of its long-neglected lakefront parks. Many Northeast Ohio residents already have celebrated the improvements that have been made, including cleaner beaches, more lifeguards and new trash/recycling receptacles.

Yet the Metroparks’ footprint is expanding across Northeast Ohio in other ways, too, as it seeks to implement its ambitious Emerald Necklace Centennial Plan. The agency’s new priorities include adding green infrastructure, strengthening connections between reservations and communities, boosting its role in Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs, plugging the gaps in the regional greenway system, and focusing on the lakefront.

These are much-needed improvements. During its nearly 100-year existence, the Emerald Necklace largely has consisted of drive-in, drive-out parks in the outer suburbs that weren’t well-connected to each other or the city. That’s starting to change as the Metroparks focuses on creating more connections and adding urban parks.

“Ten years from now the Metroparks will continue to be a top asset in Northeast Ohio, but we’ll also re-embrace our connections to the community and the lakefront,” says Brian Zimmerman, Cleveland Metroparks CEO. “There will be exponentially more opportunities for the community to access the Metroparks. With 16 million visitors annually, we’re looking forward to growing that number across Northeast Ohio.”

To support its ambitious work plan, the Metroparks is seeking on November 5th to pass a 2.7 mill levy that is part renewal, part increase. The agency, which will celebrate its Centennial in 2017, has said the increase is necessary to counteract falling property values, maintain the quality of existing reservations and fund ambitious new projects.

Recently, Fresh Water surveyed some of the park's new projects to get a feel for how the agency is realizing a more sustainable, connected future for Northeast Ohio.  

West Creek Reservation

The new Watershed Stewardship Center at the 324-acre West Creek Reservation in Parma opened this summer. The center represents a new kind of nature center that educates visitors about ecology and conservation while also stirring them to action.

Stewardship Center Manager Gayle Albers likes to say that it is a “boots on the ground” kind of place -- and she means that literally. School children from across the region traipse through a recreated wetland, learning about ecosystems while hunting frogs. Recently, a first grader got so excited that he jumped off the wooden planks and into the mud. His teacher tugged him out by the arms, pulling him clear out of his boots.

The LEED-certified Stewardship Center, a $12 million facility built with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, explains water stewardship through education programs, hands-on displays and a building that functions as a living laboratory.

The building alone is worth the trip. Upon approach, the roof appears to be one with the surrounding forest. This illusion is a byproduct of the center’s green roof, a living sustainability lesson that filters rainwater while helping to insulate the building.

In addition to classes for school-age kids, the center offers rain barrel and garden workshops for adults, a resource room to help homeowners integrate sustainable landscaping features, displays that demonstrate how water flows throughout the West Creek watershed, and an aquarium filled with native fish.

Rivergate Park

Many cities in the U.S., including our Rust Belt neighbor Pittsburgh, have embraced urban riverfront recreation opportunities, thus creating attractive new green spaces, fostering a more vibrant city, and spurring development. Thanks to the Rivergate Park project, Cleveland soon will join this trend.

“Rivergate Park is an example of really embracing the natural resources that Northeast Ohio has, and using the river as a conduit to get to Lake Erie,” says Zimmerman. “Rivergate will be a hub for rowing, cycling, skateboarding and kayaking.”

The master plan for Rivergate, located on Columbus Road in the Flats and slated for a spring 2014 unveiling, shows a walking trail and boardwalk that encompasses plenty of dock space for kayakers, rowers and other recreational users. The Metroparks also will build a new parking lot, and the City of Cleveland plans to finally open Crooked River Skatepark, which has been in the works for years. Rivergate Café also will keep regular hours once the park is fully open.

Kirk Lang, the new Executive Director of the Cleveland Rowing Foundation, says that the organization’s Rivergate Park headquarters attracts 1,000s of regular users per year, including six scholastic programs and four colleges. He anticipates the transformation of the area into an “urban recreational campus” that will spur more Flats redevelopment.

“Once the park opens, the rowing scene and waterfront scene will explode,” he promises. “More people will want to get on the docks and in the water. The growth is amazing.”

The Towpath Trail

Although the half-mile section of the Towpath Trail along Scranton Road in the Flats has been touted as an urban recreation project (which it clearly is), Ohio Canal Corridor Executive Director Tim Donovan says it’s really about improving access to the river. “This is a project that’s driven by river restoration, not the Towpath Trail,” he says.

When the project opens in the spring, visitors will be able to bike, run and walk along a multipurpose path and see what the Cuyahoga River looks like when its bulkheads are removed and the shore is returned to its natural state. Already, numerous birds are returning to the area, including cranes and herons, suggesting a rebounding fish population.

The project is a partnership between Cuyahoga County, the City of Cleveland, Ohio Canal Corridor and the Metroparks. When finished, the Metroparks will manage the Towpath.

Donovan says he’s confident that the Metroparks will be a good steward of the section of the Towpath that runs through Cleveland. “When you ask yourself questions about building new trails and parks, the chief question is how do you build and maintain it,” says Donovan. “I don’t think there’s a better answer than the Cleveland Metroparks.”

Ultimately, the Towpath will function as a spine that connects city parks and greenways such as Rivergate Park, the Lakefront Reservation and Wendy Park at Whiskey Island.

The Metroparks Zoo

Zoos have origins as private collections of exotic animals, yet they’ve evolved into major conservation organizations. Now, many are taking the next leap, becoming cutting-edge green organizations that not only educate, but also practice what they preach.

The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is no exception. Executive Director Chris Kuhar says it has become a regional classroom for STEM education, a major conservation and research organization that aids international efforts, and a community catalyst that is contributing to the local sustainability economy.

“This year, we procured a percentage of our produce from local farms, which not only reduces our carbon footprint but also puts dollars into communities closest to us,” Kuhar says. “We also have a compost program which produces a great product called Zoo Poo. There’s such a high demand, we can’t produce enough. It sells out right away.”

The zoo’s master plan calls for it to become a zero-waste facility that ultimately will help demonstrate cutting-edge sustainability methods to the entire Northeast Ohio region. “There are lots of places in Cleveland doing great sustainability stuff, but we have 1.2 million people coming through our doors, and the opportunity to talk to them about it.”

Acacia Reservation

Sandwiched between two busy east side thoroughfares -- a stone’s throw from Legacy Village and Beachwood Place -- the former Acacia Country Club easily could have become yet another shopping mall. But it didn’t, thanks in no small part to Virginia-based nonprofit The Conservation Fund, which bought the 155-acre property for $14.5 million and donated it to the Metroparks.

Today, Acacia Reservation is a model of a golf course returning to its natural state, with paved pathways winding through prairie grasses that slowly are taking over the greens.

“The community has overwhelmingly embraced it,” Zimmerman says of the new park.

What’s Next

While the Metroparks’ recent expansion efforts have been ambitious, Zimmerman says he's confident the agency can effectively maintain its existing properties and invest in new properties over the next decade, assuming that voters pass the 10-year levy.   

“This is an opportunity for voters to reaffirm how we are conducting business,” he says.

Ann Zoller, Executive Director of LAND Studio, says that the Metroparks’ leadership on urban parkland is a vivid illustration of the agency’s catalytic impact on Northeast Ohio. LAND Studio is partnering with the Metroparks on the creation of the Lake Link Trail, which ultimately will connect Rivergate Park to Wendy Park and Whiskey Island.

“The Metroparks put a flag in the sand along the lake, and that will catalyze additional waves of impact, not just in the surrounding neighborhoods, but in the entire region,” Zoller says. “They haven’t been afraid to lead. It’s game-changing for Cleveland.”

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is a journalist, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in many regional and national publications. He is Managing Editor of Fresh Water Cleveland and Editorial Director of Issue Media Group. He has earned Master's degrees in English/Creative Writing and Public Administration from Cleveland State University. Originally from Cleveland Heights, he lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood with his family.
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