New Public Square recalls Cleveland's historic vision with fresh modern feel

As the refurbished statues of Moses Cleaveland and 1901 mayor Tom Johnson overlook Public Square, one would think that the pair would be impressed with the modern transformation of the plaza that originally served as a common pasture for livestock and later a grid for moving from point A to point B within downtown’s epicenter.
Almost complete, the fences that have been hiding Public Square since renovations began in March 2015 will soon come down and a new six-acre green space will be unveiled before the Republican National Convention begins July 18.
But the revitalization was not solely for the sake of the convention, says Nora Romanoff, senior project director for LAND studio and part of the Group Plan Commission charged with transforming the heart of Cleveland’s downtown.
“We didn’t just do it for the RNC,” says Romanoff. “We did it for Cleveland.”
The plan for a new Public Square has been years in the making. LAND studio initiated a conversation about it back in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2010 that officials started to move forward on the $37 million project.
The view from the north-east corner of Public Square in 2011
The view from the north-east corner of Public Square today
“At the time, the Square was not pedestrian friendly and it was hardly a destination,” recalls Romanoff. “It wasn't until 2010, when investment in the city and the region started to ramp up, that the current process really started to move.”
Mayor Frank Jackson convened the Group Plan Commission in 2010 for the prime objective of improving the city’s public spaces and leveraging those investments. “When the RNC was announced, the project was well positioned to really ramp up,” says Romanoff.
The Group Plan hired New York-based landscape architect and urban design firm James Corner Field Operations (JCFO) to create a new Public Square that respects both the vision of the Group Plan of 1903 while creating a modern-day public space that focuses on people. The result is a pedestrian-friendly sprawling city center that caters to just about every lifestyle. Since 2015, Veronica Rivera, project manager and an associate with JCFO, has been living downtown just steps from the site to oversee the project’s transformation.
“The goal of [the project] was to re-invigorate the historic center of Cleveland - a center point that held so much untapped potential,” Rivera explains. “To achieve this, we set out to connect what used to be four separate under-used quadrants into a unified whole to truly capitalize on the space available.”

Aerial view of Public Square, courtesy of LAND Studio
Rivera describes the Square’s three new components.
--The perimeter gardens run along the outside of the square and features 30 species of grasses and perennials and more than 12 types of shrubs and flowering trees such as dogwood and Eastern redbud. “In the future it will only get better,” Rivera says, referring to the fact that the new plantings will mature, grow and bloom. “There’s always something to see, always different colors.”
--Geometry figured into the ribbon promenade, designated the Key Bank Promenade on account of the KeyBank Foundation’s $4 million grant – the largest gift in its history. “Circulation and desired diagonal connections where major drivers of the geometry,” Rivera says. “Generating the ribbon promenade served as a strong framework for the design of the square.”
The promenade is made up of granite cobblestones in an infinite arcing pattern that winds throughout the square, lined by a curving and escalating wall. “The walls in Public Square are sculptural features that are used to articulate the otherwise flat six-acre park,” explains Rivera. “The walls form numerous elements such as  lounge chairs, overlooks and planting beds, and are designed to make your eye move along the promenade – slowly unveiling the different areas of the park.”
--The third component makes up the civic spaces, which include the event lawn, or the Gund Foundation Green, named for that foundation’s $5 million grant, with an overlook hill and a concert hill. The civic plaza, or the Cleveland Foundation Centennial Plaza, named after the $8 million grantor, is home to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and has a café that will serve beer and wine.
Adjacent to the café tables is a water feature with a one-quarter-inch deep mirror pool that reflects the city skyline. “At the north edge is a jet crescent with 117 arcing jets that dance and invite visitors to interact with the feature,” says Rivera. “Each jet is individually lit, which creates a great visual center point in the plaza every evening.”
The event lawn civic space The design and its components give each area a unique feel. “My favorite aspect is our play with topography and the geometry of planters, seating and walls as a manner to achieve a balance between grand civic spaces, and intimate gardens and paths,” says Rivera.
Other grants that financed the renovation include $2.5 million from the Mandel Foundation and $3 million from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD).
Part of the plan involved a $7 million investment in a green infrastructure system that will process up to three million gallons of storm water a year that is collected in a 50,000-gallon chamber under the square.
“The water collection is treated and pumped from the tank to a series of pipes that water the plantings,” explains Romanoff. “In the wintertime that captured water is pushed to the sandy soils below grade.”
Previously, Public Square was located above a tangle of ducts and wiring for more than 20 utility companies. About $13 million was spent merging and relocating those works. “It looked like a bowl of spaghetti,” recalls Romanoff. “We did the utility work primarily because there was an opportunity with the demolition of the old Square to access and upgrade utilities below. This meant improved infrastructure in the duct banks below with better constructed and better located manholes for future access.”
Accommodating the utilities and the water treatment systems together was fascinating to Rivera. “I think the overlap between systems is most interesting to me,” she says. “We have such large infrastructure below – massive utilities, as well as complex water harvesting systems – yet we managed to integrate all of these components into the design. It was an interesting juxtaposition of systems to coordinate and detail.

The refurbished statue of 1901 mayor Tom Johnson now sits on the north center section of the square
Portions of Ontario Street are now part of the plaza, and the section of Superior Avenue that used to intersect the square has been reduced from 77 to 48 feet wide and will only be accessible to busses and bicyclists. Drivers will have to navigate around the square to continue east or west on Superior.
Donley’s Construction is the general contractor on the project, although Romanoff says the company hired multiple subcontractors.
While officials have not yet released the official opening date of Public Square, Romanoff promises a nice rollout of events in the near future. Additionally, the Cleveland Orchestra will return to the Square on Friday, July 29.
As Rivera wraps up her year-long stay in Cleveland, she says she is pleased with the completed plaza and looks forward to people putting it to good use. “My hope is for them to embrace it, make it theirs – that they fall in love with it and see the great work that so many Cleveland hands put into building this park for them,” she says.
“I can’t wait to come back and be completely surprised when people are using it in ways I could not have foreseen,” she adds. “That would be the best of all. I hope people use it, for their day-to-day [lives] – not only when events occur, but on their lunch breaks, to walk the dog in the evening, or bring the children to play. I want to be surprised.”
Romanof expressed pride in the team that brought the project to fruition and is amazed by the spectacular support the city has shown for the project.
“This project is a labor of love on every level,” she says. “It was a huge, civic movement that acknowledged that Cleveland deserves a very special place. While I was involved from the beginning, I am still stunned by the beauty of the Square each time I am there. I cannot wait for others to feel the same thing."

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
Signup for Email Alerts