stepping up efforts to create a more liveable, connected downtown

Downtown Cleveland is rediscovering its role as a gathering place for a diverse slice of the urban populace, maintain officials from Downtown Cleveland Alliance. PlayhouseSquare, for example, was a veritable picture postcard of colorfully lit activity during Winterfest, which drew thousands of folks Thanksgiving weekend for a holiday celebration of tree-decorating, fireworks and music.
Welcoming its citizens to a lively Cleveland neighborhood through a fun event is just one aspect of what makes a successful metro. While the city proudly touts energetic enclaves like PlayhouseSquare or East 4th Street, connecting those pockets to each other as well as to the rest of downtown is what can elevate Cleveland into a first-tier location where people want to live and work.
A DCA report released over the summer emphasized the impact of forging connections and building on the gains of an urban residential population that has doubled over the last 15 years. The 109-page Step Up Downtown document can serve as a guide for Cleveland's growth, its authors say, with an emphasis on investments -- from mini-parks to signage to massive mixed-use developments -- aiming to better connect residents with downtown.
Already, several projects recommended by the report have either been completed or are in the works. Some of the new initiatives both connecting and improving downtown include the Flats dog park, a proposed parklet and bike corral on Euclid Avenue, the SmallBox retail initiative, wayfinding signage developed by Destination Cleveland and beautification efforts along Prospect Avenue. 
Knowing their role
The "Step Up" report is a strategic plan that attentively crystallizes Cleveland's long-term needs, says Joe Marinucci, president and CEO of DCA, a not-for-profit organization that partners with property managers, business owners, city stakeholders and other strategic partners to reach its city-transforming goals.
A steering committee comprised of DCA partners including the Historic Warehouse District Development Corporation, Greater Cleveland Partnership and the City of Cleveland was convened for the report along with critical input from small business owners and downtown residents.
The report architect is now operating in the background, helping to shape Cleveland's pedestrian experience through oversight of street-level projects that could eventually attract additional private investment. DCA views itself as a voice supporting its on-the-ground partners that are implementing the programs and initiatives outlined in the "Step Up" study.
"We are looking at the best way to get our hands around downtown over a four- to seven-year period," Marinucci says. "We created the vision; our priority now will be to push that vision forward."
Michael DeemerThe product of a half-year's worth of market research, interviews and community meetings conducted by a set of DCA-hired consultants, the study reflects national trends pointing to a dense, connected urban center that can draw the skilled young professionals and baby boomers populating urban enclaves countrywide. These sought-after cohorts want amenities like parks and bike paths to go along with a core of retail, entertainment and living space, says Michael Deemer, the alliance's vice president for business development and legal affairs.
"Step Up" is a comprehensive breakdown of a burgeoning Cleveland market that has reached an all-time high in residential population (12,500) with an occupancy rate of over 98 percent. DCA projects an additional 1,000 residential units under construction will be available by 2016, with another 1,100 apartments currently in the planning stage. Downtown's hotel market continues to make gains, as over 1,200 hotel rooms are expected to go online in time for the 2016 Republican National Convention. Retail projects are in the works, too, headlined by the opening of a Heinen's grocery store on Euclid Avenue next year.
"There's great pent-up demand for downtown living and working opportunities," says Deemer. "With ('Step Up'), we've determined how we can build on that momentum."
DCA currently represents Cleveland's Special Improvement District (SID), contracting with property owners to augment city services. The majority of funds garnered through the SID go toward DCA's ambassador program, which sends a troop of uniformed helpers into the streets to clean up sidewalks and give visitors directions.
The nonprofit also runs a business development center created to identify growing enterprises and attract them to the downtown area, connecting those companies to grants and tax credits that could ease the transition. DCA has helped bring upwards of 50 companies into town, creating about 6,000 jobs in the process. In addition, the group oversees renovation of historically significant properties as well as new construction like the Flats East Bank.
Quick hits for Cleveland
Realizing the city's potential means strengthening the linkages between downtown neighborhoods, the study's authors learned. The report area included the downtown core as well as the Campus District and the Flats, calling for integration of Cleveland's assets through streetscape, infrastructure and public space improvements. The alliance, with help from its consultants, tabbed projects long-term and short, large and modest.
Eighteen opportunities identified by "Step Up" could enhance larger investments like Public Square's planned $30 million makeover. The alliance also looked at market opportunities to better conditions for millennials, women and other demos living downtown.

New initiatives that speak to the more frequently expressed interests uncovered during DCA's public outreach process are in various states of development, notes Deemer.

Urban-centric dog enthusiasts can now walk their pooches in the core city's first outdoor dog park. The 4,500 square foot, crowdfunded park is open on land owned by RTA near Settlers Landing on the Flats' east bank, catering to the approximately 1,000 registered canines owned by city dwellers. The fenced-in doggie hangout has been a hit, notes Deemer, and is another sign of the walkable, connected community Cleveland is becoming.
Retreats for active bipeds are on DCA's slate, too. A proposed parklet and bike corral on Euclid Avenue near the corner of East 3rd Street will repurpose parking spaces in front of several businesses that have heavy bike use. Racks with room for about 10 bicycles will be added by spring, along with planters and benches to create a semi-enclosed respite space for people using the sidewalk.
Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corporation was awarded $3,500 by The Cleveland Colectivo to support creation of the parklet and bike corral, says Tom Starinsky, associate director of both the neighborhood group and the Historic Warehouse District Development Corporation.
Though the $7,000 project was initiated by a simple request from a business owner to have more bike parking, Historic Gateway recognized a larger opportunity. "Why not create an asset for the area?" says Starinsky.
No 'small' retail feat
Retail can be another facet of Cleveland's interconnected renaissance, according to a retail survey the alliance conducted separately from its "Step Up" report. The survey found 82 percent of respondents having a strong preference for easily accessible downtown shopping over suburban. Residents called for general merchandise stores within a half-mile walk from where they lived, with apparel, grocery, book stores and appliance shops among the retailers they would like to patronize.
For now, at least one Cleveland district is getting creative in how it brings merchandise to its citizens. The Warehouse District is home to SmallBox, an initiative changing refurbished 8 foot by 20 foot shipping containers into start-up small businesses.

Three mini retail outfits -- a team shop operated by the Cleveland Browns, Banyan Box and the Wandering Wardrobe -- are located at the corner of West 6th Street and St. Clair Avenue. Low-cost retail housed in an adaptive space has made a heretofore featureless parking lot into a buzzworthy social marketplace, says Starinsky.

"There are people shopping on their lunch hour," he says. "(SmallBox) is jumpstarting the conversation about retail in the area."

Christie Murdoch is owner of the Banyan Tree, which sells women's clothing, purses, scarves and other accessories. Murdoch already has a brick-and-mortar location in Tremont, but the chance of reaching a new customer base in a different neighborhood was too enticing to pass up.
"Creatively it sounded like a great idea," Murdoch says of the project that has 20 retailers on its waiting list. "It's a neat way to grow without getting too big."
The response has been overwhelmingly positive this far, says the entrepreneur. A shipping container turned into a shop is a fantastic ice-breaker in and of itself. "We're small but we're fun," says Murdoch.  
Everywhere there's signs
What's the use of having all these great things to see and do if you don't know where to find them? That question is in the process of being answered by the DCA report and Destination Cleveland. Last month, the region's tourism arm unveiled the first of what will be dozens of new signs that will help navigate visitors through the at-times confusing warren of streets that is downtown.
Three prototype signs are up on Euclid Avenue between Tower City and East 4th Street, with a fourth on East 4th and Prospect Avenue. Maps offer human-scale detail, including landmarks and other attractions within a five-minute walking radius. A notation for PlayhouseSquare, for example, shows a helpful image of the giant outdoor chandelier hanging over the theater district.
Research by the tourism group and supported by "Step Up Downtown" showed visitors, native Northeast Ohioans and otherwise, had difficulty getting from one place in the city to another, says Jen Kramer, communications manager at Destination Cleveland. The recent wayfinding rollout represents the first phase in what will be up to 75 illuminated signs installed across town.
"When people come here, we want them to know we're a walkable city," Kramer says.
A friendly connection with pedestrians means prettying up the route they're traveling upon, she adds. Destination Cleveland teamed up with DCA, Historic Gateway and LAND Studio to encourage property owners to make public space improvements. The first Curb Appeal beautification project was revealed in August, taking the Gateway District on Prospect near East 4th and lining it with planters, custom-made parkmoblies and colorful spirographs designed by local artists.
Future short- and long-term physical enhancements are in store for other downtown attractions, creating a clean, seamless visitor experience where the journey is as pleasant as the destination. Indeed, lighting, public art, greenery and improved conditions of roads and sidewalks can increase perceptions of cities as being safe and welcoming, says Kramer.
"It's about connecting the dots we have downtown," she says. "Consistency creates credibility."
DCA predicts Cleveland's population could reach 20,000 by the end of the decade, a vital marker for national retailers that further necessitates the linking of dynamic downtown districts to one another, says alliance official Deemer. The "Step Up" plan is not just a template for the future, it's one with many authors as well.
"We wanted to ensure those voices were heard," Deemer says. "We're planning for a time where downtown is welcoming to everyone."

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.