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Design principles for Cleveland's aspirational civic space

David Beach  |  05/11/10 @ 12:00pm

The Medical Mart and Convention Center project in downtown Cleveland is providing an opportunity to rethink the Mall, one of the most significant civic spaces in the country. At a public forum on May 6, designers offered preliminary ideas for transforming what is now a forbidding and poorly used space on top of the old underground Convention Center. The goal will be to combine the historic ideals of the City Beautiful movement and the best of contemporary urban design - while creating a family-friendly activity space that will enliven the everyday life of the city.

Shannon Nichol of the Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) landscape architecture firm suggested seven design principles that will guide the planning of a renovated Mall:

  • Lifted city - The Mall connects the core of downtown with the openness of Lake Erie. It extends to the bluff that was the original waterfront of the city. Thus it is a space where you can experience how the topography rises above the lake.
  • Civic heart - The Mall is the complement to Public Square, which is the crossroads at the center of the city. The Mall is the civic center, the place that everyone shares.
  • City beautiful - Daniel Burnham's 1903 design for the Mall was influenced by the City Beautiful movement, including ideas for organizing fast-growing, industrial cities and making them healthier places.
  • Place of arrival - The Mall was intended to be the front door of the city (Burnham's plan envisioned a lakefront train station at the foot of the Mall, but the city's train station was eventually built into the Terminal Tower). The new Mall can become an iconic place of arrival for visitors to the Medical Mart and Convention Center, as well as for residents of Northeast Ohio for whom downtown is their civic center.
  • Lakefront edge - The Mall is oriented on an axis perpendicular to the lakefront, but the lake edge is just as important. The space should extend along the bluff to connect people to the experience of the water.
  • Urban alignment - The present Mall is not connected well with the surrounding city. It's a confusing space that is hard to navigate and pass through. The new Mall should be aligned to invite people to enter it from the city streets and sidewalks.
  • Green ring - The Mall should relate to the greenspace in the larger region. It can be a center point of the Emerald Necklace, a launching point for recreational activity.

In the question period of the forum, members of the audience expressed cautious optimism that the design team was addressing the right issues. And they encouraged the team to address two important challenges: the "five-o'clock problem" (the lack of residential density downtown, which makes it hard to create active, 24-hour spaces) and the "four-season problem" (the lack of a tradition of cold-weather outdoor activities in Cleveland).

It will also be interesting to see how the designers from GGN and the architecture firm of LMN, which was also represented at the forum, will respond to the ecological or bioregional character of the site. Can the Mall connect to nature in inspirational ways? Can it become the place where we can sense a new kind of sustainable city being born?

There might be lessons from a recent project of LMN, the Vancouver Convention Centre. The facility earned LEED Platinum certification, the highest level of green building. It has a six-acre green roof planted with native plants and fish habitat built into the foundations.

Other lessons can come from the Lurie Garden that GGN designed for Chicago's Millennium Park. It skillfully blends Chicago's culture and native ecology.

As everyone at the forum agreed, however, the final design for the Mall must respect the unique history and context of Cleveland.

For a related post about green design principles for a new Cleveland Convention Center, go here.

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