Green Ribbon Coalition resumes dialogues around downtown lakefront development and the stadium

As the Cleveland Browns close in on their first serious title run in several decades, an even more exhilarating victory looms for Clevelanders: A fully developed lakefront with public access to the water, featuring parks and green space connected to downtown for the first time in the city’s history.

When Art Model and the Browns left town in 1995, Cleveland Mayor Michael White’s administration and the city got caught with their pants down, but we had the first opportunity to discuss replacing the facility since Cleveland Municipal Stadium opened in 1931,” says Dick Clough, founder and executive board chair of  Green Ribbon Coalition (GRC). “But there was not enough discussion about whether that was the best location for a new stadium because everyone was so desperate to bring the Browns back to Cleveland and start playing that the city rushed to build FirstEnergy Stadium.”

Before the city invests millions of dollars in harbor development, Clough contends, there should be a public discussion regarding whether the stadium should remain. The city also needs to evaluate what can be done with that prime piece of real estate to enhance the lakefront—whether the stadium is there or not.

GRC will kick off that public debate on Thursday, June 3 when it restarts its series of forums around its mission to envision “an accessible, connected ribbon of neighborhood, community and regional parks, trails, and nature preserves along the Lake Erie waterfront.” The series was interrupted last year by the pandemic.

 “Should the Browns Stadium be Part of the Harbor,” the GRC Possibilities Dialogue forum on Thursday June 3 from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. will examine whether the timing is good to consider relocating the stadium, since the Brown’s current lease with the City of Cleveland will expire in 2028. The panel will feature the following participants:

· Allison Lukacsy-Love, AIA, AICP, director of planning and development for the City of Euclid
· Linda Sternheimer, director of urban planning and development, Port of Cleveland 
· Lillian Kuri. executive vice president and COO, Cleveland Foundation 
· Mary Cierebiej, executive director, Cuyahoga County Planning Commission

The panelists will also consider whether there aren’t higher and better uses for the 55-acre parcel of prime lakefront property than a stadium that is only used for eight home games a year and a few other special events. Most of the year, it remains closed, taking up valuable space for lakefront development.

Other topics planned for discussion by the panel include:
 
  •  Besides Voinovich Park, where do we have public lakefront access in downtown Cleveland?
  • How can this space support increased programming associated with neighboring institutions at the Harbor?
  • What other Cleveland institutions are best-suited (or better-suited) to be a prominent part of our Lakefront and Harbor?
  • The stadium scale overpowers everything else in the neighborhood. What new development fits the space?
  • What percentage of the Stadium-North footprint could and should be retained as open-green space—50%, 75%, 100%?

Clough, who laments the loss of the once lavish Donald Gray Gardens immediately north of FirstEnergy Stadium, now marked only by a couple trees and a plaque to commemorate the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936-37, has a lush vision of his own for that 55 acres.

“I’d love to see the entrance to the gardens with fountains, walkways, and green space there, as a real park for people who live downtown,” says Clough. “Maybe there could be an amphitheater, a mini-Blossom Music Center, and use the Mather ore boat as the stage, a performing arts venue with the audience on the grass by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.”

Additionally, Clough says, GRC wants Cleveland residents to contemplate the fact that the 55-acre parcel is large enough to create a significant destination on Lake Erie’s shore just north of downtown. In fact, it is sizable enough to hold the following:

· Westlake’s Crocker Park
· All of Wade Oval in University Circle
· Six Public Squares
· Fifty West Side Markets
· 1.5 Chicago Navy Piers

“Because it’s such a vast, undeveloped space right now, people struggle to realize the magnitude of it,” says Christian Lynn, PLA, a member of the GRC Design Collaborative Team and an associate principal, planning and landscape architecture practice lead for AECOM Cleveland.

Lynn, who will host the GRC forum, adds that in a city of Cleveland’s scale, 55 acres is a “significant amount of space that’s proximate to our downtown core that limits the highest and best use of the space,” he says, noting that this is especially the case since FirstEnergy Stadium is so rarely active.

“I am struggling to understand why that is the best place for it,” says Lynn, who will also present his illustrations of potential designs for the immense site north of the stadium.

Earlier this month, Jimmy and Dee Haslam, owners of the Browns franchise, and the city announced their plans to develop the real estate around FirstEnergy Stadium, the team’s home since 1999, after it was built to replace the previous facility, Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Their expansive design incorporates a land bridge to continue the Mall down to the waterfront and add other lakefront amenities to the north of the stadium.

The land bridge idea was first proposed by the Green Ribbon Coalition in 2019, Clough proudly points out, was later acknowledged by Steven Litt, art and architecture critic for “The Plain Dealer,” and has since been adopted by the city of Cleveland over an alternative iconic footbridge concept.

“In light of the recent articles about the Haslam’s plan, we’re going to have an exciting dialogue just in reaction to the drawings they had commissioned,” says Lukasy-Love, who will moderate the June 3 forum panel discussion. “We want to bring the conversation back to the idea of the land bridge and what to do with the land north of the Browns stadium, then take it a step further hypothesizing the potential for both public and private development, if the stadium were no longer where it currently sits. Now that the articles and design are front-of-mind for the public, the timing is perfect to generate a great dialogue.”

In her role with the city of Euclid, Lukasy-Love spearheaded the Euclid Waterfront Improvements Plan for the past five and a half years. She plans to offer context from their work to focus on best practices to provide and develop public access around Cleveland’s lakefront assets, whether it’s having opportunities to wade into the water ankle deep or have a put-in place for a kayak. Currently, Voinovich Park is the only pocket park on the lake with water access for downtown residents.

“I’m excited to moderate this panel, especially with three female leaders in our community who are definitely voices who will be able to weigh in on this development as it comes to fruition,” Lukasy-Love says.

Patrick Nortz, CPG, PE, principal, Otisco Engineering Ltd. and a member of the GRC Design Collaborative Team, believes the city needs to open that area on the lakefront with park space, not a lot of commercial apartment buildings.

“We don’t have a good green space there tied to downtown, and that would be the ideal place to put it,” says Nortz. “I’m envisioning a central facility, whether it be a pavilion or beach house, surrounded by green space and walkways that tie it back to downtown or any other trails that extend out from there.”

Nortz is also anxious to learn the results of the Cleveland Harbor and Eastern Embayment Resilience Study (CHEERS) that will outline a plan for additional parkland and habitat along Lake Erie’s shoreline. Funded by a $125,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Cleveland Metroparks is leading the project in collaboration with the Port of Cleveland, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, the Ohio Department of Transportation, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and the City of Cleveland.

Ultimately, the goal is connect public access to the lakefront from Wendy Park on Whiskey Island to the North Coast Harbor and all the way east to Dike 14, the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve. “We want to make downtown Cleveland a destination for more than for the Rock Hall and the stadiums,” Nortz adds. “Let’s have more of a place where people just want to picnic, swim, hike, bike, and hang out for the day.”

Jeff Homans, who chairs the GRC Design Collaborative Team, believes the fundamental focus for all of the future plans to development the lakefront needs to be equity.

“It’s not realistic to think that any development that occurs on the lakefront can all be green, because we need something that generates income, too,” says Homans, vice president of AECOM, Cleveland. “If we can establish a revenue source that is generated by new development in the vicinity of the North Coast Harbor and the Browns stadium and share some of that revenue to make improvements for the benefit of the neighborhoods to the east, we’ll come closer to real equity across the whole lakefront for all of the residents, not just the downtown piece.”

Clough and others believe there is a better location for Browns stadium near the Gateway Sports and Entertainment complex on the former rail yards along Orange Avenue. The next GRC Possibilities Dialogue forum will focus on this question as a follow-up panel discussion on a date to be announced in July or August. 

Read more articles by Christopher Johnston.

Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,000 articles in publications such as American Theatre, Christian Science Monitor, Credit.com, History Magazine, The Plain Dealer, Progressive Architecture, Scientific American and Time.com. He was a stringer for The New York Times for eight years. He served as a contributing editor for Inside Business for more than six years, and he was a contributing editor for Cleveland Enterprise for more than ten years. He teaches playwriting and creative nonfiction workshops at Cleveland State University. He wrote The Way I Saw It, the memoirs of Marc Wyse, co-founder of Wyse Advertising. His book, Shattering Silences: New Approaches to Healing Survivors of Rape and Bringing Their Assailants to Justice (Skyhorse) will be published in February 2018.