'What if Burke vanished into thin air?' Panel invites us to imagine possibilities

Burke Lakefront Airport sits on 450 acres of prime Lake Erie coastline. Built in 1947, it contains an airport terminal, hangars for corporate jets, and several outbuildings and runways. It is off-limits to public access, and its annual flight traffic has declined significantly during the past 20 years.

In the 1990s, the airport averaged roughly 90,000 takeoffs and landings annually. By 2018, that number was down to 34,407, far below its 233,700 capacity, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The federal agency no longer requires the facility as a reliever airport for Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, either, because of the loss of the Continental Hub in 2014 and marked reduction in flight traffic there, as well.

In June, the FAA approved more than $20 million in grants to fund improvements at Hopkins that included $142,000 to upgrade taxiways at Burke. Nonetheless, the airport continues to lose money – approximately $1.5 to $2 million annually, according to recent estimates.

Burke airport's future is not exactly up in the air, given that officials in Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration support keeping it open because they believe it adds value to overall air service delivery in Cleveland and doing so creates certainty around other lakefront redevelopment efforts. Yet some say that keeping Burke open isn't inevitable, and with lakefront development efforts now underway at North Coast Harbor and Cleveland on an upswing, the best way to anticipate future changes is to begin planning now.

Burke Lakefront Airport
On Tuesday, July 30th at 8 am, the Green Ribbon Coalition, a grassroots group that advocates for a continuous ribbon of green along the Lake Erie and Cuyahoga River waterfronts, will host a panel discussion at Merwin's Whart entitled, “A Cleveland Lakefront Without Burke (Airport).” As the event description tantalizingly poses, “What if Cleveland woke-up one morning to the realization that Burke Lakefront Airport had vanished into thin air? Euphoria would erupt no doubt but then the question...what next?”

Dick Clough, a community activist who serves as Executive Board Chair of the Green Ribbon Coalition, says that Burke Lakefront Airport could represent a rare opportunity for the city to reclaim valuable lakefront land that might flourish with public park, recreation, housing or commercial facilities. “We haven’t built a new park on the lakefront since the turn of the 19th century, with Gordon Park in the 1890s and Edgewater in the 19-teens,” Clough reminds us.

According to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Burke opened in 1947 with a 3,600-foot dirt runway for small aircraft, after World War II interrupted earlier plans for its construction. It continued to grow as one of the first downtown airports in the US intended to attract businesses to the thriving city of one million citizens. Now hovering around 400,000 residents and with many of its Fortune 500 headquarters gone the way of telephone booths, Cleveland has substantially less need for a downtown airport.

Yet as Clough points out, there is no planning effort underway to imagine an alternative. “My concern is that if Burke were to go away, I’d like to prevent a land grab,” Clough states, recommending the prudent choice to develop a contingency plan now. “I would prefer to have our community discuss in advance what would be good development there to achieve some balance between commercial, industrial, and recreation, and prefer a focus on recreational uses.” The purpose of the panel on July 30th, then, is to generate a conversation that is “worth beginning and worth having,” he adds.

Another panelist, Theodore Ferringer, Jr., AIA, an architect and business development director at Bialosky Cleveland, also believes it’s important for Cleveland to stimulate discourse about big ideas for its future, even if they sometimes feel controversial because no one is seriously discussing them now. As Ferringer points out, the last lakefront master plan was completed two decades ago.

“We can’t be afraid to have conversations about ideas, so this panel will provide a thought exercise to consider options if Burke wasn’t there,” he says. “That’s how we can build consensus as a community about our overall vision around our lakefront, which is something we need.”

Clough and his panel are also fully conscious of the fact that nothing significant will happen in either thoughtful consideration and planning or serious development until the political will exists to do so. That brings us back to the importance of big ideas, says Matt Busa, PLA, ASLA, a landscape architect for AECOM Cleveland.

“Change starts with a big idea people get excited about and want to support financially and politically, so then you can get grassroots support growing,” he says. “You get the Mayor involved, councilpersons and local representatives to get the ball rolling, but no one will get excited without a plan or vision in place of what our waterfront could become.”

Busa, a Bay Village native who attended graduate school at the University of Maryland to earn his master’s in landscape architecture, did his master’s thesis design project about Burke Lakefront Airport, within the context of designing and right-sizing infrastructure for a city with a shrinking population. Realistically, with its current size and flight demand, Cleveland could function well with two airports, not three, making an airport on prime waterfront real estate not the optimum land use.

He explains that Cleveland should contemplate the benefits of more effective land use because, were the Burke site eventually developed primarily as a park and recreational facility, it would influence three major areas: 1) Quality of life: If the waterfront offered more locations to exercise, breath fresh air, relax, enjoy nature and lower stress levels, it would benefit citizens’ health. 2) Economic development: If even part of the land were developed as housing, retail, restaurant or other commercial facilities, it could increase tax revenues for the city from property taxes, while increasing property values for owners and creating opportunities for new businesses and jobs. 3) Environment: As an airport, the land does not have much environmental value. With even a portion of the land converted to park space, it would create a new waterfront habitat for birds, trees, wetlands, etc.

Rendering showing proposed boardwalk and wetland habitat restoration at the Burke Lakefront Airport site

Additionally, Busa’s plan calculated about 15 years of dredge dumping at the flat site to build up rolling earth mounds, since Burke and much of the lakefront is built primarily on soil dredged from the Cuyahoga River every year to keep the waterway clear for commercial shipping vessels.

He adds that Cleveland can look to two cities who have experienced similar land transitions. Chicago under Mayor Richard Daley infamously closed and then illegally demolished Meigs Field, the city’s downtown airport, in the middle of the night. The land eventually became Northerly Island in 2003, a park featuring prairie grasses and walking paths. Although his decision was hugely controversial, many citizens applauded these efforts to create more green space.

Perhaps a better model for Cleveland would be Santa Monica, which recently ended decades of legal battles and protests and announced the closing of its airport by 2028. The project will begin with an immediate shortening of the runway to limit jet flights. Much of the conflict centered on city officials’ and citizen concerns that the facility was noisy, unsafe and polluted surrounding neighborhoods with potentially harmful aircraft exhaust. It will be replaced by 227 acres of parkland.

Clough and the other panelists for the Green River Coalition’s Possibilities Dialogue about Burke also know the city may have to play the long game. Clough cites the 50 plus years required to convert parklands and a towpath into the Cuyahoga Valley National Park as a similar long-range initiative that’s proven worth the wait, as CVNP perennially ranks among the top ten most popular national parks.

Another panelist, Arthur Schmidt, IV, a senior planner at OHM Advisors in Cleveland, believes Cleveland will benefit from looking ahead and thinking long term about the lakefront. “Maybe we don’t redevelop the entirety of Burke; maybe it’s portions of Burke,” he says. “But having these plans in place is important because often these conversations become real and actions are taken, so a plan would enable us to avoid a scramble drill that won’t lead to the best development results.”

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.