For more than 50 years, the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes has stood as both an environmental haven and educational resource on 20 acres that were once proposed as highways to connect Cleveland’s eastern suburbs to downtown.
Now, the Nature Center is about to undergo a $2.5 capital improvement project to renovate the All People’s Trail (APT)—built in 1983 and perhaps the focal point of the preserve—to make repairs, expand the trail, and better serve everyone who comes to enjoy the offerings.
APT Hub rendering“It’s not just about renovating an aging infrastructure, it’s about creating an inviting, open, welcome, and inclusive environment for people of all ages and abilities across the region to experience,” says Nature Center president and CEO Kay Carlson. “It’s about creating a legacy for future generations to enjoy.”
The last major renovation to the Nature Center was in 2003 with the expansion of its building.
Spanning one-third of a mile, the elevated boardwalk that overlooks the marsh and other native habitats within the Nature Center—including Doan Brook, a floodplain forest, and parts of Lower Shaker Lake—is now closed as renovations begin. Following yesterday's invitation-only groundbreaking ceremony, the APT will remain closed until this fall.
Nature Center officials have fundraised more than 80 percent of the renovation costs, which will cover expansion of the trail by two feet to accommodate two wheelchairs or two strollers to pass; an ADA-accessible entrance; elimination of all steps; mesh fencing; and a trail map at the N. Woodland Road trailhead. Certain public areas will also be expanded, such as the main hub area overlooking the marsh (which will double in size) and the gazebo area for classes and visitors.
“The main objective is to provide larger gathering spaces for students,” explains Carlson of the expanded gazebo and hub. “We will have space for 25 to 30 students and their teachers. Currently, they have to spread out onto the trail.”
Architectural model of the new gazebo to be constructed at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes
Each year, the center sees 40,000 visitors and 14,000 students through educational programs for area school districts (reaching 5,600 Cleveland Metropolitan School District students through the Applied Science for Kids program). According to Carlson, 60 percent of the students who come to the Nature Center through educational programs are from low-income or impoverished areas in Northeast Ohio.
The new APT was designed by Akron-based Environmental Design Group and is being constructed by Mentor-based Signature Bridge.
Carlson says the original APT was designed to last 30 years and the new trail should last between 50 and 100 years. After looking at multiple building materials, Carlson says they decided that wood remains the best option.
The APT renovation is the latest in a series of capital improvements to the nature center that kicked off with the opening of the Lavelle Family Amphitheater last fall. After the APT is completed this fall, projects in 2020 will include restoration of the Stearns Trail and construction of a new children’s nature play area and treehouse; transformation of all trailheads to include native landscape design and public art; and construction of a four-season pavilion for year-round classes and public/private events.
North Woodland Trailhead Connection to APT renderingIt's all part of continuing to realize a vision that has been in place since the late 1800s, when the 300 acres that make up the Nature Center and surrounding Shaker Lakes parklands were donated by the Shaker Heights Land Company to the City of Cleveland with the stipulation the land remain free and open to the public.
And if it weren’t for a group of civic-minded nature lovers who lived in the Heights during the 1960s, what makes up the Nature Center and the surrounding Shaker Parklands nature preserve would today be asphalt highways—cutting Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights and other east side communities to connect I-271 to I-490 and downtown.
But instead of highways, the Nature Center was founded in 1966 by a grassroots community group determined to stop the highways and preserve the area's natural history. “It could have all been lost,” says Carlson. “In the 60s when highways were proposed, citizens banded together to form the Nature Center at the intersection where the Clark and Lee Freeways would go.”
Carlson says regular programming will continue throughout the summer, including the 37th Annual Plant Sale on Saturday, May 11, and the Nature Center’s summer benefit, Flyways not Highways, on Saturday, June 1. However, she says parking will be limited during construction and visitors may have to park on surrounding residential streets and walk into the Nature Center.