Down By the Water

By Doug Magill

“There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
The Wind in the Willows

It is somehow ingrained in us to seek the water in some way.  To live near it, to sail upon it, even to just visit it.  In some unfathomable way it seems to give us insight, perspective and calmness.  As a sailor I fervently agree with the joyful wisdom of the above quote, and am excited at the announcement by the Jackson administration that there is a new plan for the development of Cleveland’s lakefront. 

Somewhere in University Circle Chris Ronayne is grimly smiling.  He has seen this before.

And yet, the plan shows both vision and leadership – things that Mayor Jackson is not generally known for.  In his quietly competent way though, he has surprised us several times with his willingness to go against entrenched interests to champion what is best for the city.  Perhaps, his style is right for these times and this issue.

George Voinovich, who was certainly not known for flamboyant leadership got a number of projects going that Michael White – who certainly was – adopted and finished:  Gateway, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,   the Great Lakes Science Center and the Browns Stadium.   All of these were significant projects and have had a transforming effect on downtown. 

Over the years many have argued that the city needs the driving passion and vision of a Don Schaefer to help transform the city.  Schaefer, the detail-oriented and outspoken mayor of Baltimore was faced with similar problems that Cleveland has faced: a declining population, diminishing manufacturing base, the loss of a popular sports franchise, high unemployment and an evaporating civic morale.

Seemingly by the strength of his will, he was able to get the National Aquarium built on time, construct a new convention center (in two phases), and open the celebrated Harborplace development.  After the Colts left, he managed to get another team to locate to Baltimore, although he had to wait until the end of his second term as governor to feel that he had succeeded in that effort.

Mention Baltimore, though, and the first thing that comes to mind is Harborplace.  First opened in 1980, it is considered a festival marketplace and was built on the Inner Harbor.  Considered too shallow to handle major cargo ships, by the 1950s the Inner Harbor fell into disuse by both passenger and cargo vessels.  Much of the crumbling infrastructure was replaced by parks and open areas.

The reconstruction of the area began in the 1950s with a plan to develop 33 acres with the Charles Center project.  The second phase began in the early 1960s, with an additional 240 acres developed with hotels and office buildings along with strategically-placed parks.  During Schaefer’s second term in the late 1970s development of the tourist areas became Harborplace, which has seen continued growth.

Baltimore’s transformation is considered a model of post-industrial urban development.  Schaefer’s outsized image aside, there was never a single grand plan, and it is not attributable to just one person.  The mayor grabbed on to what had already been done, extended and expanded it, and made the vision work with his effort and diligence.

Still, it is perhaps not necessary to have a Don Schaefer – who ended up being highly controversial because of his opinions and somewhat bizarre activities at the end of his career.   Quiet competence will do, along with the gritty determination to get all of the necessary parties to work together.

Cleveland’s lakefront projects are now considered iconic for the city, but have generally stood lonely sentinel to an area that has not been developed into the bustling market and tourist area that we all wish for.   The new Medical Mart is a significant project – though we may still be somewhat mystified as to what exactly will be housed there.  Still, along with the Flats East Bank project and the casino downtown Cleveland will be taking on a new image, and new possibilities. 

The timing is certainly right to announce a new lakefront plan.

As it was for Baltimore, many of the Cleveland pieces are now already in place.  The mayor’s plan covers 90 acres, from the port’s cargo docks to Burke Lakefront.  Along with offices and a hotel are thoughts of shops and restaurants.  The key ingredient: private investments under lease agreements with the city.  Much of the planning work was performed by independent architects that have some experience in this area, and who recognize that there will be winters which affects how the shops are accessed within an arcade.

The big issues appear to be slowing down the West Shoreway somehow, making pedestrian access easier, and finding federal and state grants for some of the infrastructure work.  Of course those pesky railroad tracks will still create some problems relative to access, but covered walkways are expected to be part of the solution.    Oh yes, and parking.

It is a relief to see that the thought of moving the Port has been scrapped, as is the wish to wrestle the FAA to the ground on the use of Burke Lakefront.   Neither idea is feasible.

For the first time there is a palpable sense of optimism that there is a workable plan that extends what is currently in place and allows private development.  A step.  That will beget others down the years.  At some point, maybe not in my lifetime, there will be a connection to the river and a whole new set of concepts for work, leisure, and living that can make downtown Cleveland the type of place that we all hope for.  If it begins to take shape in the next couple of years, the creative ferment that is capitalism will see other ideas and efforts swirling around the proposed development that will create its own dynamics that are unforeseen at this time.

That’s where capitalism and government work best together.

There is still hope, though, that at some point I may be able to do some messing about in boats near downtown Cleveland before I must cross the bar to see my pilot face to face.

 

Doug Magill is living the lonely life of a sailor without a boat but otherwise occupies himself as a consultant, freelance writer and voice-over talent.  He can be reached at doug@magillmedia.net

 

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