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Moving Port of Cleveland gives city the chance to reinvent a downtown Cleveland waterfront

Baltimore's Inner Harbor
Baltimore's Inner Harbor

A forum was held Thursday night to discuss the revitalization of 100 acres of lakefront property in downtown Cleveland once the Port of Cleveland moves to East 55th Street.

About 150 people attended the forum, entitled "Transforming Cleveland by Building a WorldClass Waterfront", which was held at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. 

This was one of the first public meetings about the waterfront although Eric Anthony Johnson, real estate director for the Port of Cleveland, said multiple meetings will be held this summer and fall.  The focus of this meeting wasn't to show development plans or architectural renderings (there aren't any) but to provide an overall vision of what the waterfront could be.

The number one message of all four speakers was to create a sense of place -- the private development around those public spaces will come later.  It's up to the public sector to create public boardwalks and parks and sidewalks and bike paths and courtyards.  Development will automatically happen around those areas if the city and county focuses on creating a unique sense of place.

David Taylor, executive chairman of David Taylor Partnerships in the United Kingdom, showed slides of some amazing projects he has worked on in London.  The UK has a lot less land than the United States which forces them to work with what they have instead of sprawling out.  He said Cleveland has a "worldclass development opportunity" with the waterfront.  He said you don't create a sense of place just by building large, single projects (like The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Cleveland Browns Stadium).  You have to create the public space between those places and determine how they interact with each other.  Taylor also stressed that good communities thrive when there's a mix of people living there.  Don't just build expensive condos along the lakefront that only the rich can afford.

Stanton Eckstut is a founding principal of Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut and Kuhn Architects.  His firm was recommended to design downtown Cleveland's new waterfront.  They have experience designing some great waterfront neighborhoods, such as  Baltimore's Inner Harbor and New York's Battery Park City.  He also stressed that Cleveland should emphasize its public spaces.  Those spaces last forever while the buildings around them come and go.  (think of the buildings around Public Square that have come and gone while the square itself has remained)

Eckstut wants to build on the activities in the water.  He mentioned that he had seen rowing teams going down the Cuyahoga River and boaters on Lake Erie during his short stay here.  Cleveland needs to build on this.  Once people and families come to admire the lake, look at the river and watch a sunset, the retailers and restaurants and commercial development will follow.  In Baltimore, it was always a plan focused around access to the water.  The aquarium and all the private development came later.

Eckstut said it should be about quality, not quantity.  It's not about large buildings or structures (again, think Cleveland Browns Stadium) but what happens in the smaller spaces.  One example he gave was creating small streets that could help protect people from the cold, Lake Erie winds. 

Just to give you an idea of scale, Eckstut said that all of Baltimore's Inner Harbor would fit in the land just north of Cleveland Browns Stadium.  He said the 100 acres the Port will leave is really enough to create two distinct neighborhoods. 

Juan Alayo, development planning director at Bilbao Ria 2000 also spoke.  Bilbao is in Spain and is home of the Guggenheim Museum.  He gave an interesting talk on how Bilbao was transformed from an industrial city to one focused on new technology, arts and culture and world class architecture.  He showed slides that demonstrated the drastic changes they've made in just 10 years.  They did things like covering a set of railroad tracks to make a park.  Could this be a way to bridge downtown Cleveland to the waterfront?

Alayo said there was huge opposition to the Guggenheim being built.  People were asking how they could be spending money on a museum when industries were closing down.  But they did research into what the returns would be and the museum paid for itself in just 8-9 years.  They have an interesting government structure that sounded very efficient when it comes to development.  He said things are decided upon and just get done.  Perhaps Cleveland and Cuyahoga County could learn something from Bilbao.

Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh and now senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute was a very inspirational speaker.  He believes in the importance of cities for the United States.  "The soul of America doesn't exist as much in the suburbs," he said.

He stressed the need to develop compact, walkable communities.  If Cleveland kept up its rate of urban sprawl, Pittsburgh would be a suburb of Cleveland in 30 years.  The development trends we've had over the past 50 years are not sustainable.

He spoke about Pittsburgh reclaiming its riverfront and turning old industrial areas into mixed use.  The city spent millions to buy old industrial land and clean it up.  Some residents considered it wasteful but now the city has huge revenue streams coming from the development that sprouted up.  Money's always an excuse but Murphy said there's always money to invest in something that creates great value.  He gave the example of Memorial Park in Chicago which was very expensive but created billions in return. 

The Port of Cleveland could begin moving in 2019 and complete its move by 2029.  Eckstut said redevelopment could move in stages and that it could start before the Port's move is finished.

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