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The Cleveland Comeback: Version 5.0

4 April 2011 27 Comments

Every decade or so in Cleveland the headlines reappear like locusts—a Renaissance, a Rebirth.  In fact the city has been remade in the visions of its leaders over and over.  But today, we are still poor, still municipally cash-strapped, more vacant, and shrunk.

Today is 2011, and the reality is not what was envisioned in the late 80′s and 90′s—or that Cleveland heyday of being high on the renaissance hog.  After all, the leaders had been building new stuff: the Galleria (’87), Key Tower (’91), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (’95), the Great Lakes Science Center (’96), Jacob’s Field (’94), Gund Arena (’94), and Tower City (’91). And new stuff means things will inevitably get better, a comeback for the “Comeback City” yo.

At least that was the belief being fermented by the civic booster of the time, the New Cleveland Campaign. And the belief eventually made its way into the PD with headlines like: “Cool! Cleveland’s hot — they like us! they really like us! City basks in the glow of national admiration” (1995). And national admiration there was: “The Mistake Wakes Up, Roaring” (New York Times, 1996). And even the academics were feeling it. Here’s a bit from a 1997 article entitled “The Rise and Fall and Rise of Cleveland” from the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science of all places: “Cleveland has enjoyed a….renaissance and has swiftly moved from backwater to the forefront of contemporary urban change”.

It’s apparent, though, that we receded to being “backwater” again.  Why?

It boils down to method. And the renaissance method back then (and one which still dominates today) was about big, stand alone projects that will either attract tourists (e.g., Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) or the suburban diaspora (e.g., downtown malls like the Galleria). The thinking was to get a critical mass through splashy—if non-unique—development so as to increase the tax base through sales and other spin-off projects. That is: city investment was being catered toward non-residents and away from neighborhoods, no doubt an acquiescing of sorts that the immediate future of the Rust Belt city was not through its neighborhood real estate.  And it was a strategy that perhaps pushed back the immediate future of Cleveland even more far off.

The failures rested heavily on two faults of the investment: product type, and placement.  Regarding product, the development in the 90′s was for the most part layered on top of the city’s history and culture as opposed to being built through it. Copycatting a suburban, glass-built mall as a means to recapture retail market is a prime example of being what you’re not, and the signal this sends works at cross-purposes to your intent, i.e., “you love the suburbs so much we’re bringing it into the city for you”. But it’s much easier to stay in the suburbs to buy your coat. And so people did, and now both Tower City Center and the Galleria are both cash cow liabilities emptied of cheerleading, not to mention coats.

And then there are the splashier tourist attractions like the Rock and Roll Hall. Here, the concept is more unique to the Cleveland identity but the look and experience of place effectively vanilla’s the shit out of the opportunity to differentiate the city by making a Rust Belt Chic stamp on the landscape. In fact, whatever you think of I.M. Pei this does not exactly sing the Kinks or WMMS. It’s rather every big-ticket building on every city’s waterfront and is thus lost in the non-imagination of everyman’s mind’s eye.  (Note: Below embodies WMMS. And I still remember their efforts at rallying the city to give Cleveland the Hall of Fame nod.  That said, the Rock Hall in an adaptive, industrial reuse would’ve been killer.)

Making matters worse is the obvious: the developments for the most part are islands. And given that Downtown Cleveland is an expansive CBD with expansive streets (I was shocked walking the Philly and Boston CBD as I was so used to the swaths of C-town’s avenues), the effect was to make it a one-trip wonder for the suburban diaspora or an unwelcoming field of streets for the out-of-town would-be pedestrian. Moreover, if you want to start a fire—or in this case: a mass—you don’t do it by starting the ends of disparate sticks. You do it through strategic placement and flow.  And in a city like Cleveland where you only have a few matches, you better sit, think, and make strikes on the matchbox count.

Hopefully this time they’ll count, as with a grip of new projects in the pipeline—namely the Medical Mart and the casino—we are at it again, with the voices of the renaissance reaching a crescendo both locally and nationally (hell, even the White House believes it). And whether or not we’ve learned from past mistakes is uncertain, yet there appears to be some proof that this is the case, at least relating to placement and connectivity.

Said Joe Marinucci, CEO of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance: “Where we may have failed is we haven’t connected those investments properly in the past.” And so connectedness—or hemming the places of investment with public paths to be interspersed with revamped public spaces—has been a large focus.  In fact the task was delegated by the Mayor Jackson to a newly-formed Group Plan Commission.  Some of their recommendations to breathe circulation in Downtown are as follows:

  • Creating a new pedestrian bridge from the east end of the revamped Mall (which is Cleveland’s rather inert piazza as well as the site of the new Medical Mart and underground convention center) to isolated past investments along the Lake. This is needed, as the entry points crossing a dividing Route 2 are limited (Est. cost $13 mill).
  • Complete street policies–referred to in the plan as “Healthy Streets”–would be put into effect along the East/West streets of Lakeside and St. Clair. Bike lanes would be added filling a multi-modal gap between the Euclid Corridor and various bike-laned bridges heading into the western neighborhoods. As well, Rockwell Avenue—currently a small wasteful street along the southern edge of the Mall—will be closed and turned into a greenway with bike lanes connecting Public Square to the new investment (Est. cost $6 mill).
  • Public Square, Cleveland’s other grand public place but with actual humans mostly smoking smokes or swisher sweets and eating hot dogs from the vendor (pretty Cleveland really), will be turned into two sections from four with the closing of Ontario (Est. cost $40 mill). The idea is to inject life with the creation of an urban forest designed by Field Operations.

Now, regarding product type there is room for debate.  Because as was stated, the problem with big ticket development is that it usually comes from the idea of some other success story and is then layered on top of a city’s topography like a toupee covering the internal dynamics of balding.  Shave it, get tats: that’s the Cleveland way. And so if we are going to have a casino, at least make it Cleveland and not some night- club-lame, multi-colored neon egg that is this rendering for Phase 2. Make it more like Phase 1: historically accentuated, subtle, stone—and facing out into the winds of Erie.

As well—as far as branding—I think Gilbert and Harrah’s really missed an opportunity to create a Rust Belt Chic brand through the gritty, rock and roll culture that is Cleveland. Instead, it’s the Horseshoe brand. It could’ve been a really unique dynamic  between the Rock Hall and the casino, complete with Kiss slots.

As for the Medical Mart, I for one am optimistic. First—and perhaps most importantly—it’s a development through the Cleveland lineage, the concept an amalgam of Cleveland’s health care and manufacturing histories. Second, it acts as a legitimate counterpoint to the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals along the bus rapid transit axis that is the Euclid Corridor. Now if we can only make it run like a BRT, i.e., rapid, and get a criticial mass to and from these endpoints, then I feel increased movement along Euclid can serve to create investment into Cleveland’s forgotten East Side…

You know what—eff it—maybe 5.0 is where it’s at.  Maybe we have perfected failure to the extent where we are coming out the other side: coal into diamonds.  Cleveland: we’re back baby!

–Richey Piiparinen

  • Jeff

    Nice post, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks all our problems can be solved with arts districts, outdoor malls and shiny new buildings, although I’m sure an Urban Outfitters would look perfectly natural next to the Justice building (sarcasm).

  • Richey

    Thanks Jeff. The benefit of being a one-time goliath shrinking city is that we got the cool bones without the Urban Outfit. My last visit to Chicago (I lived in Humboldt Park and Roscoe Village circa 2001) was bittersweet. It’s downright serene sometimes in Downtown so as to be eerily comforting. That right there could be part of the branding…

  • schmange

    I like Urban Outfitters. I think it’s really depressing that Cleveland’s is in some field masquerading as a downtown (Crocker Park). In New Orleans, Columbus, Miami, those stores in in walkable shopping districts in the city. But Cleveland doesn’t have that. Perhaps because it hasn’t done a good job making the city walkable …

  • http://diggingpitt.blogspot.com/ John Morris

    I strongly agree that obsession with suburbanites often at the expense of city residents is a big problem. It is in Pittsburgh.

    Actually, many of the major projects mentioned like the stadiums are guaranteed to subtract rather than add life to the city. You have to have a massive parking footprint around them for the few times thay are sold out. Games are not that frequent, so the rest of the time this is a daed space in the city. During peak game times, one has traffic problems for residents.

    Jane Jacob’s thoughts about having a variety of small things which operate at different times of day was very wise. Gordon Square and Pittsburgh’s theater district renovations have worked more like that.

    Now I’m gonna make a batty suggestion. IMHO, Cleveland like most city’s has missed the boat with casinos. These venues operate at all hours and could play a more possitive role.

    Suppose instead of one giant car orriented, slot cassino, one had 5 or 6 smaller card and skill game orriented venues, linked to hotels, restaurants and more targeted at high end gamblers. These smaller places would be less world’s set apart and would encourage walking and shopping.

    Atlantic City is now handing out some smaller casino licenses.

  • anon

    Downtowns were never meant to be residential with all night activity. That’s a recent reuse that haPpened because some people want to live in dense areas and downtown is the only area that is dense and safe in most metros. Dtwn is the center of the trolley network because it has the activities that gather people from across the metro – specialized work, gov’t functions , entertainment. Would you rather hAve the stadium in the burbs? Dtwn malls fail because shopping is available evrywhere.

  • alki

    I enjoyed reading your article and its attachments. I found it very thought provoking. As I was reading, it struck me that your leaders either don’t know what will turn around the Cleveland economy…..and I mean all of Cleveland, not just downtown, or that they do know what the solution[s] are but have deemed them too complex and difficult to implement, and so go for the easy way…..the one where you throw money at an idea, build something new and glitzy, and hope for the best. Clearly, their approach hasn’t worked and enough is enough. It seems to me its time for you all to start making demands of your leaders; for them to come up with a plan that makes sense. Not something pie in the sky and covered with reflective glass but a sound analysis of the metro’s problems, its strengths and what can be done to play to those strengths.

    From what I have been reading, I think Pittsburgh and Milwaukee have been doing things right. And I think Buffalo and maybe even Detroit are starting to do things in a way that truly benefits their cities. Buffalo is fixing up a building here; sprucing up the waterfront over there; opening new restaurants; promoting their strong architectural history and built environment in a video; snagging new industry where it can. They are not spending all their money on one big project or 2 or 3 big projects, but on a lot of small projects that when taken together constitute the beginning of a renaissance.

    In my experience, cities are organic and live and die like any living being. You cut off an arm or knock down a few buildings and there is blood. It wasn’t one thing that brought down Buffalo, Pittsburgh or Cleveland….but a multiple series of events that caused them deep wounds, undermined their economic foundations and then their confidence. Reinstilling confidence in Clevelanders requires that there be some successes. And there have been a few…….revival of the flats, the developments along East 4th Street, the gentrifying of neighborhoods like Ohio City and Little Italy. Figure out what can be done to build on those successes and keep doing it. Actually, make your leaders to keep doing it……that’s what they are paid to do…….and stop wasting their time on pie in the sky projects that just drain state and local treasuries and ultimately lead to more failures.