cleveland is within striking distance of nation-leading public space status

Just two years ago, the growing home foreclosure crisis and sudden credit crunch brought on by the Great Recession looked like the jab-hook combination that would knock Cleveland out for good. Downtown private development plans that had promised new life in the Flats, the Warehouse District, and elsewhere grinded to a halt. In our neighborhoods, entire blocks were infected with the fast-spreading and often fatal disease of abandonment.

As the region's population dived, pessimism rose -- except among those who long have been advocating for wholesale changes in the way we think about public space, from grand Public Square to the tiniest green patches in far-flung city wards. These folks saw the perfect opportunity for Cleveland to again be seen as a model city -- this time in creative land reuse.

Thanks to the patience and persistence of organizations like ParkWorks, Cleveland Public Art, and Downtown Cleveland Alliance, issues like walkability and livability are shifting from liabilities to Cleveland's best hopes for salvation. Right now, some of the best landscape designers in the country are not only working in Cleveland, but loving the challenge of re-imagining the public spaces between the buildings of a major city that is struggling to find its post-industrial identity.

"They're not used to this architecture," says Ann Zoller, executive director of ParkWorks, a park and public space advocacy group. "They are blown away by our raw bones."

The "Emerald Necklace" of the Metropark system -- winner of two gold medals from the National Recreation and Park Association since 2001 -- is a true Northeast Ohio treasure. But aside from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, the system's assets lie largely outside city limits. And downtown especially has suffered from a lack of a unifying vision for many years.

"We've had three [consecutive] mayors with three different lakefront plans," laments Greg Peckham, executive director of Cleveland Public Art.

Today, the massive Euclid Corridor project is completed, the decades-in-the-making Towpath Trail is knocking on downtown's back door, and there are plenty of signs of life on East Fourth and West Sixth streets. Still to come is additional $1.5 billion in investment -- in the long-planned Medical Mart and convention center, Dan Gilbert's downtown casino, and a revived Flats plan.

The moment that Zoller, Peckham and others have dreamed about for years finally has arrived.

Among the potential game-changer projects, the closest to groundbreaking is Mall B, the grassy area above the subterranean convention center. Plans from Seattle-based LMN Architects and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol call for an expanse of green public space that rises gently from south to north. LMN's work on the Vancouver Convention Centre West earned the firm a 2010 Urban Land Institute Award for Excellence. GGN was behind the gorgeous and peaceful Lurie Garden in Chicago's beloved Millennium Park.

"Millennium Park has been talked about to death," says Zoller, "but it does work; it is a destination."

As the Plain Dealer recently reported, the latest designs for the Mall include few Millennium Park-style amenities, such as fountains or sculptures, which would require a level of support not feasible by the roof of the convention center. But David Abbott, executive director of the Gund Foundation and member of Mayor Jackson's Group Plan Commission, stresses that there is no cause for alarm.

"We've known all along that we're dealing with parameters dictated by circumstances, such as the convention center being below ground," explains Abbott. "But I don't view that as a problem because there's plenty of space [in the area]."

"I'm also a little bothered by these constant references to Millennium Park," he adds. "We need to do something that's uniquely Cleveland."

Further off, but arguably more important, is a long-overdue reconfiguration of what should be the heart of downtown: Public Square. In 2008, ParkWorks and the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, a local nonprofit, took the lead on mulling the square, which Plain Dealer architecture writer Steven Litt described as "a dead zone flanked by skyscrapers and filled by bus stops." Somewhat more charitably, Zoller refers to the square as "primarily a place people walk through. It's not really a destination."

But that could change. Internationally renowned landscape architect James Corner of New York worked with Kent State University's Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative on innovative new Public Square plans. One would replace a stretch of Ontario Street with trees, while another would connect the square's quadrants with hill-like bridges that ferry pedestrians over roadways. Corner was the innovator behind New York's popular new High Line, a park built atop a former elevated train bridge.

Conger Moss Guillard, a landscape architecture firm in San Francisco, is working on a master plan for Whiskey Island's Wendy Park, the only public park in Cuyahoga County boasting direct access to Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. Among the plans is the matter of connecting Wendy Park to Canal Basin Park and the Towpath Trail via pedestrian and bike paths.

Peckham of Cleveland Public Art calls this plan "a must-do" for the city -- and he's hopeful that the city will get it done.

"The quality of open spaces is a measure of the desirability of a city," says Peckham. "Parks and park systems really matter to people." In this regard Cleveland arguably is behind Pittsburgh and that city's "aggressive" riverfront park development plan. But, he adds, our city is poised to jump "leaps and bounds" beyond other Rust Belt cities if and when our elected and appointed leaders begin to work with passionate private and non-profit advocates to think outside the blight.

ParkWorks' Zoller is pleased to be in the thick of it.

"When you look at the investments made in these ventures in other cities, they've all turned out to be smart investments," she says. And with so much attention focused on downtown right now, this is our chance to get it right.

"We have to make sure that the casino is connected to the Flats, is connected to the lakefront, is connected to the Mall… If we miss this train, I don't know when the next one is coming."

Like what you see? Subscribe to have Fresh Water, Cleveland's fresh new e-zine, delivered weekly to your inbox.

Photography by  Bob Perkoski
- Public Square
- Greg Peckham Executive Director of Cleveland Public Art
- Ann Zoller Executive Director at ParkWorks
- Public Square
- Mall B
- View of Downtown from Wendy Park

Signup for Email Alerts