Cleveland Approves Waterfront Plan

By Steven Litt

Despite extreme turmoil at the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, the beleaguered agency is doing at least one thing right.

The port’s real estate director, Eric Johnson, has led the formulation of a strong new plan to transform 100 acres of downtown waterfront from industrial shipping to an urban neighborhood with parks, offices and a continuous public promenade.

The plan, approved Friday by the Cleveland City Planning Commission (with important caveats), gives new focus to the city’s quest to make better use of a downtown lakefront dominated by the shipping industry and severed from the business core by railroads.

Scores of details need further elaboration in coming months, including a detailed cost-benefit analysis of the plan’s first phase. That calls for more than 700,000 square feet of office, retail, residential and hotel space northeast of Cleveland Browns Stadium at Dock 32.

But there should be no doubt that the vision has an underlying validity, because it builds on the city’s 2004 lakefront plan, which articulated a desire to make the shoreline more accessible, welcoming and lively.

The principal designer for the new proposal is New York architect Stanton Eckstut, who played a key role in the widely acclaimed design for Battery Park City in New York, which transformed 90 acres of landfill into a lively urban neighborhood.

But the Cleveland plan is no Battery Park City redux. It’s a Cleveland-specific vision.

Among other things, it calls for a diagonal pattern of streets and blocks to provide shelter from stormy lakefront winds.

It specifies that 50 percent of the 100 acres of downtown port land should be devoted to streets, sidewalks and parks. The ratio would ensure a lakefront that would feel welcoming, not at all like a private enclave.

And the design calls for a continuous public promenade at the water’s edge, a framework of public space that would create significant value for every development parcel that touches it.

Meanwhile, the theory goes, a new industrial port will be built on another site, perhaps on landfill north of East 55th Street.

The big confusion at the planning commission Friday was whether it made sense to allow the port to move ahead on the downtown vision before resolving the question of a new location for maritime activities.

The port’s former director, Adam Wasserman, resigned recently amid controversy over the viability of the move to East 55th Street. The port has also lost or laid off six more senior managers, slashing a bloated payroll.

Nevertheless, the City Planning Commission’s 5-2 vote to allow the port to go ahead on the downtown portion of its plan made sense. Johnson and Eckstut’s work has been excellent so far and deserves to be continued quickly, rather than held up until the port’s other issues are settled.

Johnson argued sensibly that he couldn’t hire consultants to proceed with the next phases of the plan without at least a partial signal of approval from the city.

Industrial shipping, meanwhile, will continue downtown while the rest of the port’s vision is developed. Redevelopment would be phased in over 20 years.

Skeptics believe the real purpose of the plan is to wipe out industrial shipping in Cleveland, and that any accommodation to new land uses at the water’s edge is a threat. They include John D. Baker of the International Longshoremen’s Association, who spoke against the plan Friday.

Here’s where the planning commission’s caveats come in.

At the suggestion of member David Bowen, who moved for approval of the plan, the commission will require the port to report monthly on its progress. Commissioners want to know how the port will simultaneously redevelop the downtown lakefront and carry on industrial shipping, as well as clarify the potential move to East 55th Street. They’re also interested in strategies for greater connection between downtown and the lakefront.

These meetings could add to public oversight of an agency that has had a poor reputation for transparency, and create a level of comfort with the port’s vision.

The planning commission also wants the port to provide greater detail on such issues as creating a more seamless connection between downtown and the lakefront.

Bridging or capping the lakefront railroads wouldn’t be easy, quick or cheap. But if Johnson and Eckstut can clarify the challenges, it will be another big plus for a city that has refused to give up the dream of creating a more intimate connection to the lake.

The debate over the lakefront could be viewed as a battle between the old Cleveland and the new Cleveland, the industrial city of the past and the post-industrial city of the future.

It shouldn’t have to be that way. The port’s evolving plans should show how Cleveland can have it all.

Cleveland.com, December 5, 2009