They hired Field Operations, a landscape design firm based in New York City, to come up with the plans. Field Operations, along with The Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative of Kent State, came up with three ways to unite the four quadrants: Frame It, Forest It, and Thread It. On Thursday, the first open forum was held at CSU's Levin College of Urban Affairs. It was fairly well attended with over 100 people showing up.
The first concept, Frame It, would involve building a large, 55-foot tall metal trellis-like structure around the perimeter which you could put hanging gardens on. This plan didn't make much sense to me. You're just putting more "stuff" onto the Square, taking away sitelines, not adding anything very engaging and just adding more things for the city to maintain. This design was also the least favorite of the crowd at the forum.
The part that I did like about the Frame It plan was redesigning Ontario by getting rid of curbs and other barriers and making the road more "temporary" so it could easily be closed for events. Without people having to worry about falling off a curb as they walked, closing Ontario would make it feel like two sections instead of four. It would make it easier to temporarily recapture some of the Square taken over by roads. Public Square actually covers 10 acres, but the four quadrants themselves actually only occupy a total of four acres. The rest of the land is taken up by streets (4 acres) and sidewalks (2 acres).
Being held captive by vehicular traffic is one of the problems with Public Square. It's littered with bus stops and two major roadways, Ontario and Prospect, which cause the Square to be cut up into four different quadrants. Field Operations says (and I agree) that, "In order to truly transform Public Square, the pedestrian must have priority use of the space."
That's why my favorite design going into the forum was the second one, Forest It. This would involve shutting Ontario permanently, creating two separate rectangles. The rectangle closest to Tower City would include the Soliders and Sailors monument and be heavily forested, with benches and seating areas underneath the trees. The north rectangle would be bordered by trees but would primarily be a large lawn where concerts, farmers markets and other events could take place.
Right now, there's nothing happening in Public Square to draw people to it. During events like Winterfest and Fourth of July celebrations, Public Square is packed with thousands of people. Why? First, there's an event occurring and second, they close off the Square to vehicular traffic. As Field Operations says, right now, "Waiting is the primary everyday activity in Public Square."
Getting the city to shut down Ontario and Superior only happens about twice a year for two major events. But if the Square was always united, smaller groups would be able to put on more events year round -- art shows, festivals, music performances, farmers markets, etc.
But I fear that closing Superior and Ontario altogether is never going to happen. At the forum, Joe Marinucci, president of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, said that we need to be aware of certain investments, like the new Euclid HealthLine, that would prevent the closing of Ontario and Superior. But the HealthLine goes around Public Square, not through it. It wouldn't be affected by street closings. Joe Calabrese, General Manager of the Greater Cleveland RTA, is part of the Public Square task force, so don't expect him to go along with rerouting bus lines around Public Square, either.
This design would allow pedestrian traffic going from Tower City to cross over Public Square to Key Tower and The Mall without ever being stopped by traffic.
My biggest concern with the Thread It design is that it would pretty much eliminate Public Square as a location for outdoor concerts, such as the one held annually by The Cleveland Orchestra for the Fourth of July. However, it was brought up that the nearby Mall, which will have to be redesigned for the new convention center, could be a more ideal place to hold concerts like that anyway.
Others who spoke up at the forum were concerned about segregating crowds -- how do you draw people below the mound as well as above it? The people below the mound will probably just be waiting for buses while the people on the mound will be strolling across it or just people watching. Would there be some sort of class division between people underground and people above? And is the only reason to go under the mound to catch a bus?
The design also looks to be the most costly and have the most engineering problems and red tape to deal with.
Another interesting comment by someone at the forum was connecting the underground portion of the Thread It design, where people are waiting for buses, to Tower City. You could have a tunnel where someone could get off the rapid at Tower City, walk underground to Public Square to get on a bus and then go almost anywhere in the city without having to walk through the snow or rain. An interesting idea that certainly has potential.
While the Forest It design was my favorite going into the forum, there were some strong points given to the Thread It design. I might be in favor of that design if a couple of things happen:
- We accept that Public Square is not a "destination" for anything but rather a way of getting from one place to another -- either by waiting for public transportation or by walking through the Square.
- We admit to being held hostage to Ontario and Superior and accept that these roads will never be shut down through Public Square.
- There needs to be a very strong maintenance plan in place for upkeep. There's already many burned out lights all around downtown. If the lights in the tunnels underneath the mound go out, it's going to be a scary place.
Corner says projects like this need strong civic leaders to get things done. Projects that fail do so because of buracracy. He likes what he's seen so far from the Downtown Cleveland Alliance and ParkWorks.
Marinucci said that the next step is selecting one of the three designs and getting a better idea on how much this would cost. That should be complete sometime in March. Then, it's a matter of getting the public and other parties behind it and figuring out how we're going to pay for this redesign that will probably last for the next 100 years.
For more information:
- Full presentation of Public Square Design concepts (PDF)
- Downtown Cleveland Alliance: Redesigning the heart of Downtown
- Current ParkWorks programs
- Stephen Litt's article on "Re-imagining Cleveland's Public Square"
- Design Under Sky: Rethinking Cleveland's Public Square
- GreenCityBlueLake: A great Public Square for Cleveland
- Freshkills Park: Revamping Cleveland's Public Square
- More Downtown Cleveland news
- Follow Jeremy Borger on Twitter