extreme makeover: redesigning the 'burbs to make them more sustainable

Cyclists flock to the Root Cafe in Lakewood. The hippie-friendly vegetarian cafe always had a rack, but it was often full, so riders would resort to locking their bikes to trees, parking meters or anything else that wouldn’t move. Tables, too, are highly sought-after; on a typical weekday morning, the three-year-old coffeeshop is full of parents with strollers, Albanian immigrants playing dominoes, and happily caffeinated laptop workers.

To address the bike parking shortage, owner Julie Hutchison and city officials converted a patch of asphalt on Detroit Avenue into Northeast Ohio’s first on-street bike parking corral. The rack accommodates a dozen or so bikes and is an outgrowth of the city’s bike plan.

“The Root has always been a hotspot for bicycles, and it’s amazing to see how well it’s used,” says Hutchinson. “We’re giving people more momentum to ride their bikes here.”

That intersection -- Detroit and Andrews -- has one of the highest rates of bike and pedestrian traffic in the city, notes Dru Siley, Lakewood’s Director of Planning and Development, registering 300 bikes and 1,200 walkers in a recent six-hour period.  

“It was a good opportunity to locate on-street bike parking without taking away vehicle parking," adds Siley, who boomeranged back to Lakewood from Washington D.C. with his wife and family five years ago. "You hear, Build it and they will come. We had the people. Now we’re not only enhancing the area, but also the experience of moving around these spaces.”

Downtown Lakewood is in the midst of a renaissance. In the past five years, more than $20 million of new development and 20-plus new businesses have been added to the inner-ring suburb’s historic centers, which sit along Detroit and Madison avenues. Lakewood’s urban core -- a mix of century-old storefronts and redeveloped office buildings -- has become a magnet for new residents, visitors and businesses.

The city also is perhaps the region’s best example of the trend touted by the authors of Retrofitting Suburbia, a 2008 book arguing that the defining trend of the 21st century will be to redevelop suburbs as walkable, sustainable urban places.

“‘Drive ‘til you qualify’ affordability is no longer sustainable,” co-authors Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson wrote last year in a New York Times op-ed. “Instead, we need to use cheap land for food and energy production, redirect growth inward, ease the production of affordable infill housing and retrofit our shrinking suburbs.”

Walkable and convenient places also have higher real estate values than car-dominated locales, argued urban planning professor Christopher Leinberger in a recent New York Times opinion piece. Across Northeast Ohio, suburbs are now grappling with how to become more pedestrian and bike friendly and enhance or create a sense of place. That’s one major focus of the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), a $4.2 million initiative to foster sustainable solutions to sprawl.

Of course, Lakewood already had a historic urban core to build off, and it’s a far cry from the vacancy-plagued strip malls and ‘zombie’ subdivisions Dunham-Jones and Williamson decry in their text. Yet the city’s hearty embrace of density and urban placemaking might offer a model for other ‘burbs wrestling with their own identities.

The historic Bailey building at the southeast corner of Warren and Detroit offers one example. This early-20th century gem was wrapped in a curtain wall of concrete when Siley relocated to Lakewood. “I lived here for two years before I realized it wasn’t some kind of utility substation,” he jokes grimly. Now, it's been fully restored by owner Brad Kowit following a massive $6 million renovation.

Today, Lakewood is one of the rare places in Northeast Ohio where office demand actually is increasing, thanks in no small part to the entrepreneurs and startups flocking to the area's recently renovated office buildings.

“I still get several calls per week,” says Brant Smith, co-owner of the Detroit-Warren building on the southwest corner of that intersection. Following an energy-efficient re-do completed last year, occupancy in his building has soared from 65 to 100 percent. Lakewood rents are also cheaper than those in Cleveland, at $10 to $12 per square foot.

Downtown Lakewood’s resurgence started a few years ago with a streetscape project that included reconstruction of Detroit Avenue and new traffic signals. New sidewalks and curbs, bike parking and flower planters, and wayfinding and district signage should be finished this year.

As a result of the city’s investment in placemaking and an identifiable urban district, independent businesses continue to set up shop here, including restaurants like Melt Bar and Grilled and Deagan’s Kitchen and boutiques like the Paisley Monkey.

Mainstay retailers like Rozi’s Wine House and Geiger’s Sporting Goods also have done major renovations, restoring their storefronts to their original, classic form. Thanks to Lakewood’s stringent design review, chains like CVS and Marc’s have built stores that fit neatly into the streetscape. Finally, the city has become a hub for startups, nonprofits and firms like the Newry Corporation, which just relocated from Westlake.

“Tenants are moving here because they see the excitement of being a part of an urban district,” says Ian Andrews, Director of LakewoodAlive, an economic development group. “The downtown environment is attractive and they want to be a part of it.”

“Since we’ve been here, we’ve seen such a revitalization of the business community,” adds Tamara Racin, owner of the Paisley Monkey, a "clicks-to-brick" success story that started selling children’s clothing online and now occupies a cozy Detroit storefront.

Dan Deagan, who opened Deagan’s Kitchen in a glassy storefront that housed several unmemorable sports bars, completed a lot of research on the city’s density and restaurant demand before opening his acclaimed gastropub in 2010.

“A lot of people told me, Nothing can survive in that place.' But to me that didn’t make sense,” says Deagan. “I knew that Lakewood is an area that people will come to.”

Deagan’s tasty, affordable cuisine has made it a destination for suburbanites seeking an urban experience that’s more authentic than that dished up at lifestyle centers like Legacy Village and Crocker Park.

Downtown Lakewood is also a place where new and old sit side by side. Rozi’s Wine House has been here since 1938, yet owners Gary and Carol Rosen recently updated their shop with a renovation that transformed a tasting room into a breezy sun porch.

“Lakewood people support Lakewood businesses,” says Gary Rosen, who jokes that his store is “older than dirt.” He adds, “Now you see a lot of younger people coming back.”

Of course, this urban district is not without major challenges. Many older buildings remain plagued by vacancy. Residents hope a historic building that was recently purchased by Lakewood Hospital won’t suffer the same fate as the historic Detroit Theatre, which was torn down recently to make way for a McDonald’s.

Yet committed merchants here believe downtown Lakewood is a lasting success story. The University of Akron has opened a satellite campus that will offer classes in September, and the city is studying the possibility of adding a boutique hotel.

Downtown Lakewood’s unfolding success story is underwritten by the city’s committed residents, who embody the "shop local" ideal as they pedal, stroll and walk to stores.

“Lakewood is attracting Millenials who see driving as a vice, empty nesters who want to walk to the store, and hardworking middle class folks who want great education for their kids,” says Siley. “If you want a five-bedroom house on a one acre lot, then we’ll never be for you. If you’re interested in what a city has to offer -- and more and more people are interested in that opportunity -- then Lakewood is going to benefit from that trend.”

Photos Bob Perkoski
- Images 1 & 2: Dru Siley, Director of Planning and Development for City of Lakwood
- Image 3: The Root Cafe
- Image 4: The Bailey Bldg
- Image 5: The Detroit-Warren Bldg
- Images 8 & 9: Deagan's Kitchen & Bar
- Images 10 & 11: Rozi's Wine Shop
- Images 12 & 13: Paisley Monkey
- Image 14: Artist Peter Diepenbrock's sculpture “Transversion” at the Lakewood Public Library

Lee Chilcote
Lee Chilcote

About the Author: Lee Chilcote

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.