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How do we make Cleveland's waterfront a livable place?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/20/09 @ 11:42am

The great waterfront districts of the world share a stubborn insistence on quality design, a vision for grand public spaces and are often attached to neighborhoods that act as an intimate place to escape the crowds. The Port hopes to capture "the magic" of waterfronts when it vacates its prime placement where the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie meet (to form the North East Bank) and to pave the way for a new waterfront district. Hoping to inspire Clevelanders to rise to the occasion of creating a world-class waterfront, CSU's Levin College, the Urban Land Institute and the Port last week invited the visionaries behind Bilboa, London, Baltimore and Pittsburgh to explain how their waterfront districts took shape.

What lessons can Cleveland embrace as it begins to redesign where the city meets the lake? Don't settle, says former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy. Don't go the easy route of plopping down a big ferris wheel or Jumbotron amphitheater and calling it a day. The success of Pittsburgh's Strip District or Baltimore's Inner Harbor isn't the marina, boardwalk or big destination like HarborPlace, it's in "the magic" ? of regenerating and celebrating the history of an older city while projecting an exciting vision of the future, Murphy said.

Stan Eckstut, whose firm was hired to create a waterfront plan for Cleveland between the river and E. 9th Street, would like to incorporate lessons from his previous work at Inner Harbor East and Battery Park City in New York. Like Baltimore, Cleveland's waterfront already has the big ticket destinations, Eckstut said, now it needs the neighborhood. Some of the elements Eckstut and the others mentioned make for beautiful waterfront neighborhoods:

1. Consider activities in and around the water

2. The city insisting on proper zoning and design review.

"In the area between the Cuyahoga River and East 9th Street, most of the current waterfront zoning is General Industry, which will need to be changed for the new non-Port development," says Bob Brown, director, Cleveland City Planning. "We will address that issue once the updated waterfront plan is completed. And, yes, we will consider a green overlay, and, yes, we will consider zoning that mandates higher-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development."

3. A developer who doesn't view public space as an afterthought

When I picture my ideal waterfront neighborhood, it's Old Town in Montreal, a place where you can pick up an ice cream, rent a bike or stroll the wide waterfront promenade. Tucked just behind the promenade are meandering cobblestone streets with brightly lit storefronts. The old village quality of the architecture, the small scale mixed use shops transform you, create a sense of comfort that makes you want to linger. The intimate streets spill into a large plaza where street performers dazzle children and diners enjoy a leisurely meal or sip espressos at café tables.

How do we capture that magic on Cleveland's waterfront? How do we skillfully negotiate with a developer, who will want to maximize the use of land, so that we have a mixture of big and small (buildings and spaces)?

New urbanists might tell us to adopt a 'form-based code', which have been set up in districts or cities wanting to hold fast to appropriate zoning such as building heights and density by providing backstops such as maximum number of Equivalent Housing Units which may be constructed on a lot through any means, including by Right, by Density, Transfer, or by Density Bonus, and also have checklists of permitted uses. (See the City of Gulfport's form-based code here and search for 'transect zones' )

4. A clear, open public process that invites and incorporates local visions for how Clevelanders interact with their city and what inspires them about waterfronts around the world.

One of the models of building a waterfront district is Pittsburgh's Riverlife Task Force where representatives from the nonprofit and public sectors led an 18-month planning process focused on developing and managing the components of a system of parks, bikeways and new development and restoration along the city's riverfront. 

5. Serious public and private capital

Bilboa, Spain invested 900 million Euro in cleaning up their river, in a beautiful Norman Foster-designed Metro system, in footbridges and new development. When it was appropriate, the city reused its old industrial heritage. It didn't hang its hat on the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum. "That was maybe one-percent of the total," says Bilboa's Juan Alayo. "It was certainly not the biggest bet the town had to make."

So far, so good. Eckstut, whose designs for Battery Park City are world-class, is saying all the right things: "We want to bring the city right up to the water's edge?You want to emphasize the public spaces. They are what last forever, and define a city. The Inner Harbor in Baltimore is a place, not a project. We'll take the same approach."

If the city takes the steps detailed above, holds strong to the vision and can find a developer to match the goals treasured by it and The Port, we may finally have a neighborhood with grand public spaces and yet an intimate experience on the waterfront.

  • Image gallery of some great waterfronts of the world.
  • Presentations on Bilboa, London, New York's Battery Park City from the Levin College Forum.

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