New Lake Link Trail segment unveils a wonderland in the Flats

The newest half-mile installment of the Cleveland Foundation Centennial Lake Link Trail opened to the public on Friday, June 9 with no fanfare or ribbon cutting. Instead, eager walkers, joggers and bicyclists began using the segment as if it has always been there.

In a way, it has. The newest link in the trail, which runs between an obscure section of Detroit Road adjacent to Stonebridge Apartments and River and Mulberry Roads in the Flats, chronicles much of the industrial era in Cleveland’s history.

Those responsible for creating the trail have literally created a diamond from coal. “It looked like a large ditch,” says Joel Wimbiscus, LAND studio’s project coordinator for both the Lake Link Trail and Irishtown Bend. “Everyone who’s seen it has been surprised because it’s such an improvement.”

Winding along the former Cleveland and Mahoning Valley Railroad line that hauled coal in the 1800s, the $2.5 million trail and its surrounding greenspace creep by salt piles mined from Lake Erie, 20th Century construction equipment and a veritable catalog of bridges of varying shapes, sizes and even colors — and it's all framed by Cleveland’s modern skyline.

“This is the section where you feel the history of it,” says Greg Peckham, executive director of LAND studio. “This old railroad bed has been reinvented as something new with the character of the stone walls, through the architecture. It’s the revolution of nature inserted into an industrial setting.”

Peckham marvels at the juxtaposition of creating a vibrant greenspace out of land once used as a coal freight route and then abandoned. “It’s the concept of [transforming] something dirty like moving coal into something beautiful," he says, adding that it also brings a component of nature to the city. “There’s almost no place in the city where you can look and touch and feel the history of Cleveland.”

“It’s the little things,” Wimbiscus says, referring to pedestrian-scale LED lighting that points downward along the trail's masonry work. “The lights illuminate where you need it to be, but there’s no light pollution. It’s as if you plopped something beautiful in a place no one expected it to be.”

Wimbiscus also notes that up to eight railroad lines used the tracks at one point. “There’s just a lot more history there than we even know about,” he says. “There’s industry on each side of the trail and a lot of times those industries would receive goods from there. The bridge over the tracks was used to ship boxes.

Believing in a vision

Judging by historical maps that show the area at various times from 1852 through 2010, Wimbiscus says this area marks the heyday of Cleveland’s industrial past in the late 1800s. “Judging by the maps, the area really took off in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” he says. “It was super industrialized, with no room for homes.”

Relics of that era are still evident along the trail “It’s a nice thing because history left behind some fantastic bones,” Wimbiscus adds. “As industry was built up, a retaining wall with beautiful stone shelf along the corridor was built to keep the building up. Now it lines the trail. The old feeds the new.”

Some of the original buildings still exist, says Wimbiscus, paired with newer businesses along the trail.  One such example is the 1880s Tenk Machine & Tool Company building on the west bank of the Flats. "The Tenk Building complex features a large, sturdy and handsome industrial building and a number of incremental Lego block-like building additions over the past century," he says. "The Tenk, along with other various stone, brick and steel structures along the route make the trail experience a fascinating visual history book for trail users."

Developer Rafid Fadul is currently redeveloping the complex and is excited about the value the trail adds to his vision. 

Things like retaining walls and bridge abutments add to the new form of the trail. “It’s nice to see that functionality play through and make the trail a more beautiful experience,” he says, also citing the resident infrastructure elements such as Superior Viaduct and aforementioned bridges.

Both businesses and residents have been supportive of the project. “As people got wind of what we were doing, they really bought in,” Wimbiscus says. “Land owners around there really saw the vision. When they spoke to us they said, ‘this is great for Cleveland.’ The reaction has been so positive.”

The reaction to the plan may be mostly positive, but there have been snags in its execution at times, says Wimbiscus. For instance, the Krill Construction building’s foundation is actually built out of a portion of the old railway retaining wall.

Wimbiscus says Krill was quite cooperative and the stone wall will be preserved..

Water issues were another hurdle. "Before work on the trail began, the drainage was so poor that several areas of the old railroad right-of-way had become swamp-like," Wimbiscus says. "The Krill building’s situation was so severe that they ran a nearly-continuous mechanical pump in attempts to keep their basement dry."   The problem has since been solved.

Ultimately, however, everyone cooperated. “Working with everyone has been great,” Wimbiscus says. “Everyone believed in the vision, so it’s been easier.

"A model of collaboration"

LAND studio first discovered the property around 2007 as the organization began looking for opportunities to invest in area development. When they found the Lake Link Trail property, it stood as a forgotten piece of Cleveland’s history.

“It was so overgrown and invisible that it really wasn’t on our radar,” Peckham recalls. “The minute they called our attention to it, we saw it as public green space.”

Plans for the trail formally kicked off in 2009 with a $1.3 million grant from the Clean Ohio Green Space Conservation Program to buy the land. The mission picked up momentum when the George Gund Foundation made a $2 million donation to the Trust for Public Land to complete the Towpath Trail and Lake Link Trail. The Cleveland Metroparks got involved and the Cleveland Foundation then made $5 million grant in 2014.

“It’s been sort of a model of collaboration of agencies working together,” says Peckham. “This is how really good projects happen.”

When complete, the Lake Link Trail will run 2.1 miles from the Scranton Towpath Trail terminus to Wendy Park and the Flats. The first phase — from the Scranton Towpath area to Columbus Avenue — officially opened in August 2015.

This second phase, from Detroit to River Road, starts painting the complete picture of the Lake Link Trail, the Towpath Trail and the Red Line Greenway all coming together to create a network of paths along the lake and river.

“This summer you’re going to be able to see what it’s really going to look like through all these different trails,” says Peckham. “I think we’re going to see a whole new use, going from neighborhood to neighborhood, from Tremont to Merwin’s Wharf, without ever getting on a road. And within a year, you will be able to go from Steelyard Commons to the lakefront and never touch a road.”

The next stage of the project will construct a pedestrian bridge that will start at the northern end of the Willow Avenue lift bridge, span the lakefront train tracks and end at Wendy Park. This $7 million component is expected to go out for bid late this year, with construction starting in the spring of 2018 and completion by early 2019, says Wimbiscus.

Further reading: an alternative urban hike that stands in nicely until all phases of the Towpath Trail Extension are complete.

Irishtown Bend: the next piece

The next phase — the Irishtown Bend element ­— is in the planning stages. LAND studio, the Port and Ohio City, Inc., are leading a NOACA-funded greenspace design and transportation study for the hillside area. LAND studio has also secured a $1.45 million grant from the Clean Ohio fund and is working with West Creek Conservancy and Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) to acquire land no longer used by CMHA for park and trail purposes. The Port of Cleveland is leading a collaborative effort with the City of Cleveland, NEORSD, and others to stabilize the crumbling hillside and turn it into a 17-acre park that will connect to the Lake Link Trail.

Wimbiscus says the Port of Cleveland has found eight or nine needed fixes to the hill to keep it from further eroding. Sewer lines, water lines and bulkheads also need to be addressed.

“We’ve all got different homework to work on,” Wimbiscus says. “It’s complicated, but we know what we need to do.”

When complete, Irishtown Bend will connect Ohio City, the Flats, downtown Cleveland and the lakefront — all through the network of trails.

“This is just another component of connecting the city together,” says Peckham. “It connects this neighborhood, in particular with its proximity to CMHA [housing], and gives social justice to these types of projects. This greenspace is for everybody.”

LANDstudio, the Port and Ohio City, Inc.  held a public meeting on Tuesday, June 20 at St. Ignatius Breen Center wherein CMG and engineering firm Michael Baker International presented concepts and ideas for Irishtown Bend and residents offered feedback via a survey on connectivity, key site uses and gateways.

“It was nice because we got a good number of attendees from outside of Ohio City,” says Wimbiscus, adding the crowd exceeded 200. “This project is resonating with the public.”

Feedback sessions are planned throughout the month of July before a second public meeting on Thursday, August 31, to present the final concepts.

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: 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.