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Issue Date: May 2011


Lame Plan

Designing a downtown that works isn't as easy as it looks on CityVille. As Cleveland embarks on its $1 billion building boom, are we about to repeat our century of mistakes?
Michael D. Roberts
editorial@clevelandmagazine.com

Downtown Cleveland needs cosmetic surgery so badly that a visiting sportswriter once described the city as the broken nose on the face of America.

Now it is in the throes of a building boom. A billion dollars is about to be spent on four major projects that will alter its appearance. Unfortunately, the vision behind these projects suffers from the same malady that has plagued the town for a century.

We have allowed the city to become asymmetrical in design, disjointed, with no critical mass that draws business and beckons people. Not only has government allowed piecemeal, ineffective urban planning, it has given in to the whims of special interests who have often upset our best-laid plans.

Those plans were laid in 1903 and called the Group Plan, an ambitious effort of vision and beauty created by world-renowned architect and planner Daniel Burnham. He designed a three-block, 500-foot urban panorama to be flanked by government buildings of architectural merit: The old federal courthouse on Public Square, the library, Public Auditorium, the board of education building, the county courthouse and City Hall. The crowning set piece was to be a train station at the mall's north end, designed so that a traveler's first glimpse of Cleveland would be this marvelously couture vista. The decision not to build it there changed the city forever.

After World War I, the Van Sweringen brothers, O.P. and M.J., proposed to build the world's second tallest building atop a train station on the southwest corner of Public Square, away from the Mall. Their underlying interest was to connect their Shaker Heights development to downtown by rail, kicking off an exodus to their tranquil suburb. The controversial plan was put to a referendum in 1919. Although it passed by nearly 11,000 votes, the public suffered. Rail traffic had already peaked, limiting the life of the station before it even opened in 1930. The terminal also bypassed the aesthetics of the Mall, ridding it of people and traffic, and rendering it an urban sideshow.

City planning went askew at almost every turn here in the next decades, with one decision after another splintering downtown and scattering people outward. In 1953, voters approved a downtown subway to link Public Square and Playhouse Square with University Circle. The plan was killed when a Higbee's department store executive bribed a county commissioner, fearing the subway would benefit its uptown competitor, Halle's. The city is still trying to link its two hubs. It spent millions on the Euclid Corridor, which might be too little, too late.

City Hall undertook the largest urban renewal project in America in the 1960s, tearing down old homes and businesses in six sections of the city to make way for new development. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development later proclaimed Cleveland's renewal morass its Vietnam. The demolition around St. Vincent Charity Hospital drove people away from the central area and contributed to the overcrowding of Hough, which broke into a riot in 1966. The renewal of downtown's east end, between East 6th and East 17th streets, has yet to be completed 60 years later, leaving a prairie of parking lots, monuments to the people and commerce driven from the city.

No area of Cleveland has more potential majesty and possibilities for drawing people than the lakefront, but no part of town has been more badly mishandled. Countless plans for it have been put forth in the past 100 years, with few results.

Cleveland continues to plan without regard to creating critical urban mass. Consider the Carl B. Stokes federal courthouse, completed in 2002, which stands abject and forlorn on downtown's obscure edge, overlooking a part of the Flats that may be the epicenter of the Rust Belt. A city gets a building like this once in a century. When the federal government, nudged by former Mayor Mike White, squandered the opportunity by building it on West Huron Road, you could clearly see the difference between 1903 and now.

The same specter that split downtown generations ago still haunts the city. When population and interest in the town are dwindling, a development such as the Flats East Bank, on downtown's periphery, has a double-edged effect. Although Cleveland needs economic development, the project is drawing occupants from buildings in the city's core. And the decision to build the $465 million convention center on the Mall will be offset by a casino across Public Square, once again failing to create a central location with exciting drawing power.

Still, a careful reader of the news may have noticed that the casino plans are subtly changing. Cleveland's gambling venture was first advertised as a $600 million, self-contained project built next to an industrial wasteland, essentially out of sight. It makes no sense. That is why it probably will never be built. The developers recently announced that the casino will open next year in the former Higbee building on Public Square. They are no longer giving a date for the opening of the Huron Road building. It seems likely that Higbee's will become the casino's permanent home.

It's not a bad location. With all the space available in Tower City for shops, restaurants, bars and a hotel, there is no need to build a self-contained casino — and maybe not even a need for a convention center. With the walkway connecting Tower City and the Q, what would hinder the casino complex from hosting medium-size conventions in the arena? No conventioneer would ever have to venture outdoors.

But because haste, shallow thinking and lack of transparency mark the public process here, the town never had a chance to coordinate the casino and convention center projects. So the Van Sweringens' terminal will once again compete with the Mall as an attraction.

For all the money, history and headlines, the Mall remains a lonely place, a victim of self-interest, cold winds and empty sidewalks. Recently, the Group Plan Commission, assembled by Mayor Frank Jackson, presented several proposals for remaking the Mall and Public Square. But as far as I can see, it's like rearranging the furniture in hopes that a new look will bring notoriety. None of the proposals will create a focal point or critical mass that will bring downtown the one thing it needs most: people.

While our local governments are larded with commissions, boards and panels, no single organization has the authority to restore discipline and decency in urban planning. When the new county government gets through sifting the trash left by officeholders as crooked as the Cuyahoga River, it should examine how we came to look the way we are — and seek a new vision.


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