When the Towpath comes to town: Cleveland neighborhoods envision trail’s economic and social impact

Head east on tree-lined Literary Road in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, from the glitzy bar and restaurant row of Professor Avenue, as it slopes down past $500,000 brick-clad townhomes on the south side and small, pre-war houses on the north side. Right before it dips into the industrial valley, on a piece of land formerly owned by a freight railroad company, a large rectangular building rises on a promontory overlooking bridges, warehouses and the downtown Cleveland skyline. Future residents at Electric Gardens Apartments will be able to walk out of their doors and access the latest trailhead on the Towpath Trail.

Electric Gardens Apartments will contain 130 units. Studio apartments will fetch monthly rents of $1,160 and up, while a two-bedroom apartment will cost $2,589, on average, per month. The well-appointed residences will have a co-work office on the ground floor and a newly completed section of the Towpath Trail, all in the heart of Tremont. The area has seen its share of infill development attracting new residents over the last three decades. Even by Tremont standards, where the average rent is $1,375, according to RENTCafe.com, Electric Gardens is setting a standard for future apartment deals within walking distance of the Towpath and multi-use trails under construction in Cleveland.

“I've been working in Tremont for 17 years, and it was always, ‘the Towpath Trail is coming,’” says Michelle Davis, Tremont West Development Corporation’s assistant director. “It's so amazing to see. Residents are taking advantage of it. Families are strolling it. People are already loving this.”

‘An opportunity to rebrand ourselves’
Bringing the Towpath Trail north into downtown Cleveland has been a dream in the making for nearly three decades. Visionaries like Tim Donovan, a senior advisor at Canalway Partners, believed that with enough funding and gumption, the tough terrain of Cleveland’s industrial river valley could be traversed by a thin ribbon of pavement. In 2007, developers added the first segmenta mile of chain link fence-protected trail sandwiched between the loading docks at Steelyard Commons and the ArcelorMittal steel mill.

It took another decade before the state’s Clean Ohio Fund, a multi-million-dollar grant program for ecological restoration and trail building, would yield sufficient bankroll for the remaining five miles or so to the Flats.

The mid-2020 ribbon cutting of Segment Three of the Towpath Trail Extension Project marked the culmination of many years of waiting, planning, cleaning, and wrangling dollars and permission to put people close to working industry and once-contaminated ground.

The new segment climbs a steep hill from Clark Field, a U.S. EPA Superfund site that is part of a cleanup effort on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River valley. It includes a new trailhead at Clark Road and West 25th Street and a stopover near Tremont with three, giant earthen mounds and a pedestrian overlook of the steel mill.

The Towpath is now nearly a complete trail system. Last summer, it attracted hordes of runners, dog walkers, and cyclists to enjoy a mix of nature and heavy industrial spaces. Along the trail are glimpses of entry points into neighborhoods like Clark-Fulton and Tremont.

“It’s an opportunity to brand ourselves as a different city,” says Tremont West executive director Cory Riordan. “We still have active industrial uses that it incorporates. From a people perspective, it's free. All you have to do is get there and get on it.”

While the economic impact of trails is almost assured, making trails and recreational spaces welcoming, particularly to lower income residents, is not a given. Riordan assigned community and equity organizer Dharma Valentin to the task of community engagement. Those efforts began with a bike giveaway over the summer with residents of Tremont Pointe, a mixed-income housing development.

The opening of trail access to Clark Field is a welcome sight for Ricardo Leon, executive director of Metro West Community Development Organization. Leon notes that the area around MetroHealth Hospital lacks dedicated parks. The hospital is considering how to connect its planned, 12-acre campus greenspace with the Towpath.

“We're hopeful we have a regional draw that gets people out to the neighborhood,” Leon says, adding, “if you can engage with folks that this is a space for everybody. I think we're better off as a city the more integrated we are.”

‘Turning into one of the most connected trail cities in the U.S.’
When the Towpath Trail Extension project moved into construction, it sparked new projects like the Cleveland Metroparks Red Line Greenway, a multi-purpose trail that runs parallel to the RTA Red Line train tracks, in a space between the Metro West/Stockyards neighborhood and Ohio City. That project, the brainchild of Cleveland Rotary Club’s Lennie Stover, is nearing completion. The Red Line Greenway will provide a car-free link between W. 65th Street, with entry points at W. 44th and W. 41st streets in Ohio City, and the West Bank of the Flats, where the trail descends the steep bank near Columbus Road to the Cleveland Foundation Centennial Lake Link Trail, which hugs the river and connect to the Towpath. The river bank, known as Irishtown Bend, is where a neighborhood link to Ohio City is taking shape. A Towpath partner, the Metroparks expect to open the Red Line Greenway this spring, communications and outreach manager Jeff Tolman says. The Whiskey Island Connector, which connects Edgewater Park to Whiskey Island and Wendy Park, is also slated for a spring opening.

Ohio City, Inc. executive director Tom McNair says $41 million is in the bank, half for hillside stabilization, the rest to rebuild the road and add a trail from the river to Lakeview Tower Apartments, the Ohio City Farm, and the shops along West 25th Street.

“[Cleveland] is turning into one of the most connected trail cities in the U.S.,” McNair says.

Ohio City, Inc. worked with non-profit urban design group, LAND Studio, on a community building project with residents at Lakeview that focused on access to green space and the new amenities that were on the way.

“There are going to be a lot of people traveling through Lakeview,” McNair says of their Lakeview Greening Plan. The two-year project held monthly events for the residents like tree planting, hikes, a mural and bike rack design project.

“Those are the conversations we are havingwhat to do, and the impact of a lot of these amenities,” McNair says.

Patiently waiting on an east side connection’
While the arrival of the Towpath has generated economic and recreational opportunities in Ohio City and Tremont, communities east of the river remain cautiously optimistic about the City of Cleveland’s plans to build a similar trail system, the Downtown Connector Trail.

The north-south spine of the east side bike network is East 22nd Street where a bike lane was painted in 2015 between Orange Avenue, near the Main Post Office, Tri-C Metro and Cleveland State University. The plan calls for a multi-purpose trail that starts behind the Post Office, threading its way through the river valley, to connect Slavic Village, Union-Miles and the Kinsman area to downtown. The holdup has been the Innerbelt Project, says Slavic Village Development executive director Chris Alvarado. The I-77/I-90 split is being rebuilt, and the Ohio Department of Transportation [ODOT] has committed $1.5 million to the trail, but it is the first piece, and ODOT hasn’t placed it, Alvarado says. Like the Towpath, the process is a slow grind.

“Many of the funds are in place already,” says Alvarado, who adds that his Slavic Village predecessor, Marie Kittridge, secured funds from the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency [NOACA] in 2013 for the Downtown Connector. The project still requires matching funds from the City of Cleveland to draw down the NOACA funds and to finish planning and move into the engineering phase. Alvarado admits to being frustrated at the glacial pace.

“I know that it's a priority of [City of Cleveland Planning Director] Freddie Collier,” Alvarado says. “He sees this like I do, as a racial equity issue, as a social determinant of health, how to help our largely African-American population gain access to the same resources that we have on the west side.”

The lesson from the Towpath is to heed the almost saint-like patience for the yearslong process, and to plan for the city you want to see. As Metro West’s Leon puts it, “sometimes there's a perception that folks in our neighborhood don't want these recreational amenities.

“They live in communities that are scarce in resources,” Leon says. “The reality is, we've been excluded from enjoying them. As more of these efforts continue, little by little, that perception will go away.”

This story is part of FreshWater’s new yearlong series, Community Development Connection, in partnership with Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and Cleveland Development Advisors and funded in-part by a Google Grant. The series seeks to raise awareness about the work of 29 Community Development Corporations (CDCs) as well as explore the efforts of neighborhood-based organizations, leaders, and residents who are focused on moving their communities forward during a time of unprecedented challenge.

Marc Lefkowitz
Marc Lefkowitz

About the Author: Marc Lefkowitz

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with more than 15 years of experience writing, speaking and advocating for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio. He served as Director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute and editor of its well-known blog at gcbl.org. He has a B.A. in English from Ohio State University and an M.A. in urban planning from Cleveland State University. He is a regular bike commuter and transit rider. Photo: Liz Cooper.