Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

The Cleveland Comeback: Version 5.0 by Richey Piiparinen

[ Here’s a piece that originally ran on the great blog Rust Wire. I’m pleased to be able to bring you occasional selections from their great Rust Belt coverage – Aaron. ]

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!

This post originally appeared in Rust Wire on April 4, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

Topics: Economic Development
Cities: Cleveland

18 Responses to “The Cleveland Comeback: Version 5.0 by Richey Piiparinen”

  1. No mention of Drew Carey? :)

  2. Whitney says:

    Perhaps, as you say, it boils down to method. But it really boils down to leadership.

  3. stlplanr says:

    That aerial of big projects shows a lot of surface parking lots and wide streets, all looking empty.

    Connecting the projects doesn’t require more big-ticket projects. Rather, skinny the streets with cheap solutions like “pop-up cafes” and “pavement to parklets.” Plus, infill those parking lots with retail liner buildings and deck-wrapped, mid-rise residential.

  4. Nightclubber says:

    Few sounds like him ))

  5. Paul Wittibschlager says:

    There is hope:


    We need easy downtown access to the water front.

  6. Adrian says:

    I used to be hypnotized and proud of the beautiful skyline in Cleveland. It really is a symbol of the exact wrong type of investment strategy a city should make. Just as the author points out, the imitation of similar types of water front developments and big ticket projects in every other city waters down the incredibly unique local culture that a city like Cleveland could be showcasing by investing in its neighborhoods. With just a little more integrity, these development opportunities would represent the city more honestly, and marquee projects could actually symbolize the human geography of Cleveland and not just some globe trotting architect’s vision after spending a weekend here. These may sound like vague ideas but they represent important ways to inspire local pride and in a town that focuses on it’s insecurities and faults, this means so much more.

  7. Danny says:

    Just another example of Cleveland trying too hard to be the cool kid. Cleveland has strengths…they just keep hiding them behind new development strategies that amount to nothing more than cargo cultism.

  8. Richey says:

    UGH. alas, the sins of yesterday keep mucking things up. update on phase one of the casion: developer wants to tear down historic landmark–put a parking garage/valet center there–put a glass overhead walkway in the face of the historic Higbee Building (basically cleveland’s architectural chest–and widened roads to accompany 5 lanes of valet in and out…city doesn’t blink. grants it all. go here for update:



  9. Rod Stevens says:

    It’s always easier to go for the big showcase project that looks good from the air, rather than deal with the day-to-day details of picking up cigarette butts and making sure that the benches in public parks are clean and safe to sit on. But it is the little things in the city that make the experience of living there pleasurable. It’s like our lives- there’s always a reason to not balance the check book, to not pick up our rooms, but if we’re doing these things for other people, that is the stuff and work of urban management.

  10. George Mattei says:

    Cleveland’s albatross is still its economy. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the little things that make a place livable when your economy is shrinking rapidly. They now have too much real estate and not enough tax base to support what they have.

    I am hopeful that Cleveland has gone through the worst and will stabilize in the next decade. If gobal events keep manufacturing in the U.S. stabilizing and growing as it has in the past year or so, Cleveland will benefit.

    Additionally, Cleveland has some great assets that it can build off of. The Medical Mart is a very creative idea with the potential to significantly impact the economy of the area. This builds directly off of Cleveland’s stong hospitals and universities. Unfortunately to date these strengths have been overwhelmed by the manufacturing crash, but there is still great potential.

  11. It would be nice if they would make the Healthline, Cleveland’s Bus Rapid Transit system, actually RAPID. There’s no point in having an exclusive-lane busway if the thing has to stop every 1000 feet.

  12. Tee R. says:

    One of downtown Cleveland’s problems is that most of it’s land is held by speculators. Developers buy the land for cheap, then artificially inflate the price so that only someone who can afford to take risks will buy and invest in it. It’s also why so many decent buildings are abandoned and why we have so many surface parking lots.

    Also, for many landowners, it’s cheaper to keep a building without maintaining it and wait to be bought out for yet another big government-backed project. That’s why nobody knew about the Columbia Building until it was too late. The owner had no intention of repairing or using it. He was just waiting for someone to come along and buy it.

  13. John Morris says:

    One big problem that’s intricately connected to all this huge scale, corrupt mega development is the lack of knowledge about and promotion of many of the great small scale organic things that are happening.

    Most of us know about the Food Trucks Cleveland is getting famous for. There are also lots of interesting mixed use buildings like The Tower Press building and The 78Th Street Studios that are filling up with designers, galleries, record companies, small publishers and craft manufacturing.

    If there was a wider knowledge of these positive things-there might be more eagerness to resist the dumb stuff.

    Right now it looks like too many Clevelanders accept the destructive mega projects out of a feeling of hopelessness- which IMHO, evil companies like Forest City exploit.

    This has happened many, many times in Pittsburgh, starting with the Hill District.

  14. John Morris says:

    People who are for organic bottom up development need to actively advocate and promote the hell out of it. Right now the perception that’s left is between the people who are “pro development”, “pro jobs”, who say you have to break some eggs to make an omlette and a group of people who just appear to be anti development.

    Showing a fuller picture of what positive development actually looks like is critical.

  15. lou says:

    Teer R

    I what you are saying is true with the speculators, and i asmuing its true because it happens in lots of places, the solution is probably a land tax rather than a property tax. If you tax the land, you tax its highest potential under the zoning regs. A speculator would be driven out of the market by the high tax on those downtown lots. I dont know about ohio but i know in pennsylvania its recently become legal and some of the smaller cities are trying it out.

    At its best a land tax would punsish the surface parking lot owners and reward the owners of the highrises. Still for it to work you need to update your zoning and maybe institue a form base code.

    If you sell it correctly you can get lots of buy in but resistance still comes from the parking lot owners and speculators.

    It would also negate the need for eminent domain. People that own property that is not highest and best use would be compeled to sell under the tax burden.

  16. John Morris says:

    I wanna post some thoughts about this on my blog.

    One problem is I think the whole obsession with having the big time downtown is flawed and more than a little self serving. I mean, yes, it’s important and eventually you want that, but-pushing the idea that this has to happen before your city can start becoming great is wrong. It’s obviously self serving since it’s the thinking behind the need for so many massive projects.

    It’s sort of a chicken and egg thing-the decline of the downtown is ver much a result of the decline of neighborhoods.

    Pittsburgh’s downtown is still not exactly amazing and lively-it gets better as the city and surrounding areas like the South Side, The Strip, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield improve. IMHO–largely because of the problems caused by the stadiums and the dead space on the North Shore and Lower Hill, Pittsburgh’s downtown is still many years away from anything aproaching great. Even so, the total picture for the city is OK.

    In the case of Lower Manhattan-the self serving myth-is that huge scale “investments” requiring eminent domain and tax dollars like WTC revived downtown. It’s much more likely, the organic and often illegal revival of Tribeca, SOHO, Chelsea and all kinds of other downtown and Brooklyn neighborhoods has just filtered back to improve lower Manhattan.

    Yes, Cleveland needs dense, mixed use areas of businesses and residents, however–I’m not exactly sure why this has to be in this particular place right now.

  17. John Morris says:

    This also is about, how important it is–right now that the city is right for a large number of wealthy “elite”-or whether it might be OK if it just worked well for students, young people and emerging urban loving small business class that seems to be taking an interest in the city.

    In the case of Cleveland, for better or worse-there is no particular geographic limits like Pittsburgh has that say-you must be here in this spot. The downtown I saw had many wonderful buildings and a good structure and location-but it was not the only place one could do things.

    Right now, I’m a bit pesimistic about the ongoing antics in the downtown-but not that worried about the total prospects.

  18. John Morris says:

    This is a ra-ra hype piece about some of Cleveland’s prospects and emerging energy fro Fresh Water Cleveland.


    He might be selling it a bit much but the author has already been pretty good at starting businesses in the city. I did notice a real Brooklyn style craft business type vibe on the West Side. Real people putting out some real quality effort.

    Right now, my big concern is that the talk and cash poored into the downtown has become a huge distraction. Cleveland-is just not well known and it doesn’t need the press all this downtown crap has gotten.

    Just did the Bushwick studio tour in Brooklyn a few weeks ago. By any rational definition-it’s a hell hole-made up of ugly dirty industrial buildings (Few condo prospects here) but the kids were just giddy with the energy and the chance to feed off the energy of just working together in large studio buildings.

    There’s nothing going on there, that couldn’t happen in a place like Cleveland.

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