Considering Ideas to Bridge the Gap
Once again, Cleveland is debating its future, reviewing options for the ever-elusive goal of connecting people, Public Square and Lake Erie. During the 2014 redevelopment plan the City, County and corporate and downtown advocates developed a plan to redesign Public Square, add improvements to make the Mall more attractive and inviting and add a quarter-mile pedestrian bridge to link the lakefront at North Coast Harbor to the Mall. While Public Square was redesigned and generated acclaim and the mall received improvements, the bridge project was dropped.
The bridge has emerged again as apriority, with some debate about the scope and objectives: option one is an attractive, graceful bridge, a mix of tower and support cables; option two is a more expensive, broader creation of a new public space, capping the highway with a lawn to create a new Mall D. Both plans will bring residents and visitors to lakefront attractions, creating more inviting, attractive routes for visitors and the growing downtown population. Amidst the review, there is always a default option to do nothing.
Cleveland has some top-notch entertainment attractions on the lake, the iconic Rock Hall, Science Center and the home of the revived (we are told) Cleveland Browns. Housing and shopping are being added north of the Stadium and the massive Mather ore ship may be reunited with some form of a Hulett crane, a massive engineering innovation in its day. However, access remains cut off by the railroad tracks and highway. The route to the lakefront could hardly be less safe and inviting, walking along East 9th or West 3rd Street. Overcoming barriers and uniting lakefront attractions with downtown has been an elusive goal for decades. Which way to go, Cleveland?
One option would create a great lawn, a cap for the highway and trains, Creating a Mall D. The Green Ribbon Coalition, a group of lakefront advocates, architects and designers, has developed an ambitious option, creating a land bridge, running from Mall C to the Rock Hall and Science Center, covering rail lines, freeway and side streets with a grand lawn. The lawn would provide flexible options, ranging from picnics and frisbee, to installation of temporary art or large-scale art exhibits.
The concept of a northern extension of the Cleveland Mall 1903 Group Plan has been discussed for decades. The challenge for planners remains how to overcome the infrastructure separating Cleveland’s civic center from its lakefront. The land bridge plan follows those of several other cities — Chicago, Dallas and Philadelphia — who are burying large infrastructure that denies access, to connect their urban core with their waterfronts. Philadelphia is using a cap to evade the freeway that blocked access to its Delaware River waterfront, creating an 11-acre waterfront park, with recreational hiking and biking trails, at a cost of $225 million. Advocates note the Cleveland land bridge concept would be smaller, and less expensive than the Philadelphia plan, but costs could be in the $100 million neighborhood. Cleveland attorney and chairman of the Group Plan Commission, Anthony “Tony” Coyne, expressed some concern that the cost could end up being a $200 million project, with no confirmed sources for spending of that magnitude. Coyne also noted the land bridge would partially obstruct views from the large, northern-facing windows in the ballroom area of the Convention Center, detracting from that attractive vista.
The Lakefront Pedestrian Bridge, would connect the northeast corner of Mall C with the Rock Hall and the Great Lakes Science Center with a gracefully curving 14-foot wide bride. The 900-foot long bridge would be supported by a 170-foot high “V shaped” tower and a series of cables. Continuous rails would run along the sides of the bridge to offer safety, while a clear overhead shelter would offer some protection from Cleveland’s lakefront weather. Total costs for the bridge are estimated at $33 million. Initially developed in 2014 by the noted Boston-based architect Miguel Rosales, the bridge would be an attractive addition to the city profile. Late last year, Freddy Collier, Cleveland’s planning director, announced that the city is “moving away” from that option, seeking options that might provide economic development and income generating activities.
Cleveland has continuously struggled to find safer, more attractive ways to navigate the 55-foot drop in elevation and the obstruction of railroad lines, freeway lanes and parking lots to connect its downtown business and entertainment districts to the lakefront. The cable bridge creates an attractive crossing alternative to the unsafe and unsightly West Third and East Ninth streets.
If Cleveland adds a land bridge, it won’t be a first. In 1936-37, the city hosted a Great Lakes Exposition, which sprawled over 135 acres of land near Cleveland’s lakefront, with events featuring celebrities like swimmers Johnny Weissmuller and Eleanor Holm. The event was a huge hit, attracting seven million patrons, but also illustrated the public need for adequate infrastructure, whether arriving by car, trolley or foot. To help people move about easily, the City developed its first land bridge to negotiate the bluff and draw people down to the lake.
There is a potential “wild card,” consolidating area transportation infrastructure. Currently, RTA loops trains through Terminal Tower at Public Square, Greyhound runs buses from the station near Playhouse Square, fledgling Mega Bus offers service from West 3rd Street, while Amtrak runs trains through the lakefront railroad line. What if these services could all be consolidated near the current Amtrak facility? The creation of an intermodal (intercity bus, Amtrak train service, and local RTA service) transit hub in the area could create efficiencies, open up new funding streams and create opportunities for redevelopment of the historic Chester Avenue bus station. The land bridge would be a potential “green roof” for all of these activities. This is the wild card for the development of any bridge, potentially helping to secure federal transportation dollars to funds creative, comprehensive transportation solutions.
Regardless of the choice, planners and elected officials will face a daunting task. Most bridge projects, even if blessed with breathtaking efficiency and no delays, have taken a decade or longer in Cleveland. Regardless of the decision, it will be a challenge to build a pedestrian bridge over a pedestrian-unfriendly quarter mile to the lakefront with a highway and active rail lines.
Northeast Ohio residents love their lakefront and desire a more connected Cleveland. A visual route to the lakefront from Public Square is a more inviting one. Planners have sought to create bridges and connectors over the railroad tracks since the railroads first appeared in the late 1850s. In the ensuing years, matters have only gotten more congested with the 1930s shoreway. Any plan for a connector will require federal funds, or risk a dangerous over-reliance on local funds.
Once again, Cleveland is debating its future, reviewing options for the ever-elusive goal of connecting people, Public Square and Lake Erie. Both bridge plans target bringing patrons down to lakefront attractions, seeking to create more inviting, attractive routes for visitors and the growing downtown population. Overcoming barriers and uniting lakefront attractions with downtown has been an elusive goal, for decades — which way to go, Cleveland?
Kevin Cronin is an attorney in private practice. While his solo practice focuses a great deal on kids and families in Juvenile Court, he honed his policy writing and analytical skills by previously worked for over a decade in Washington, DC as Committee Counsel and personal staff to various House and Senate members. He has been a CMBA member since 2015. He can be reached at (216) 377-0615 or email@example.com.