Cities, like corporations, project an image. Put another way, cities have 'a brand'. Brands attract customers, or residents, who express their affinity to the brand when they buy or rent a place. Shaker Heights. Just say the name and it conjures images. Great Tudor mansions, tidy Colonials with expensive cars parked in the drive, well-kempt yards.
But when thinking about Shaker's commercial districts, it's hard to call up a similar image. That's because Shaker, admittedly, is dominated by drive-by strip centers. Many Shaker residents, it turns out, don't like that disconnect between the high-end classicism of residential architecture and the shabbiness of their commercial centers.
"What's interesting about Shaker," says city planning director Joyce Braverman, "is the commercial districts were built later, and didn't have the same character.
"Not until 2000—when we did a strategic investment plan for the whole city—did we realize we need denser town centers to make this feel like its part of Shaker, and not (a typical) suburban shopping center."
The city funded a $500,000 plan that ultimately took aim at two of its slumping commercial districts—Shaker Towne Centre and Warrensville-Van Aken. First came a redesign of Shaker Towne Centre that narrowed Chagrin Boulevard, added 'brick lined' crosswalks and public art.
Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, PA was hired to lead a big public brainstorming session. Hundreds of residents nailed down a new direction—they wanted walkable urbanism. The plan found a need to improve the environment and connection between the shopping districts and the neighborhoods they serve. The thinking goes, they could attract new development by playing off of the city's legacy as a suburb built around two light-rail lines.
Sometime around 1950, Shaker turned its back on the street where the Blue Line ends, and grew enamored of the post-war suburban shopping center. Dirty dumpsters and blank walls of the back of shops faced Warrensville Road, which was widened, big parking lots appeared in front of the one-story shopping center, and the rise of the car almost made a monstrous six-way intersection seem like a good idea.
The visual clutter is astonishing to behold. But, hardly anyone behind the wheel noticed. It wasn't until you parked your car in one of the isolated centers and attempted to walk across the street, or until the intersection started filling up with cars that an inkling of trouble appeared.
But, by the 1970s, the game board was set. And who cared? There was little competition, and as long as popular destination businesses like Dreager's ice cream and new drug stores kept them happy the complaints about driving around Warrensville-Van Aken stayed to a minimum.
Flash forward to the New Millennium. Lifestyle centers, regional malls, the Internet and a major edge city rising a few miles east at Interstate-271 and Chagrin have left Warrensville-Van Aken grasping for a way to stay relevant. The city thinks it may have an answer: The Warrensville/Van Aken Transit-Oriented Development Plan, now funded to the tune of $44 million. Can it help bolster Shaker's brand in these rough and tumble times?
The new plan for Warrensville-Van Aken calls for:
- Narrowing the intersection by one lane
- Adding a green/plant buffer
- Creating more regular shaped parcels to attract mixed-use development
- Adding on-street parking
- New traffic signals
- Pedestrian count down signals
- Decorative crosswalks to make it a more hospitable environment to walk
- And extending the Blue Line through the intersection (for possible expansion to the Edge City at I-271)
"I think it signals that this is a higher density development area, not a sprawling development pattern," Braverman says.
Shaker has another weapon in its arsenal besides the train line—it is home to many of the region's leading thinkers on new urbanism. To their credit, the city signaled early on it was invested —with a $2.3 million commitment to fund the streetscape.
"That helped us leverage an ODOT safety grant (three years ago) for $4 million," Braverman adds. "But the first strategy was to enlist the help of the County Engineer. They were instrumental in applying for funds either together or as co-sponsor."
That led to getting included on the regional metropolitan planning organization, NOACA's Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), an important step to securing state transportation funds. Then came a series of small grants, like $500,000 through a competitive FHWA grant for streetscapes.
For its part, The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Agency is in the game. But how well they partner will depend on the strength of their pitch to Federal transportation authorities for a $36 million Blue Line Extension Plan. Moving the rail line east one-tenth of a mile and building an Intermodal Transit Center doesn't come cheap. In February, 2012 RTA's Extension Study ruled out light rail extension to the edge city forming at the new I-271/Harvard interchange where open space is being rapidly converted into a big corporate park-its where University Hospitals and Eaton are moving from Cleveland.
So, why is RTA and Shaker considering light rail expansion? Can they make the case that light rail can serve a corridor that is very low density?
"(Warrensville-Van Aken) is one of our bigger hubs on the east side," explains RTA Director of Programming and Planning, Maribeth Feke. "If you extended rail or bus you could look at the corridors of Warrensville or Harvard or Chagrin. I think it speaks to the whole regional connectivity piece. People commute there from Lake and Geauga counties and Akron. That (could) be one of the few hubs of rail, if we build a more sustainable (area)."
A densely developed corridor along Northfield and Harvard is a big if-come. It's why RTA—after it compared the cost-benefit of Bus-Rapid Transit, light rail and express bus—recommended new express bus service from a park-and-ride lot from the edge city at Harvard to the new TOD/transit center at Warrensville-Van Aken with continuing service to University Circle, which is a big demand generator for the exurban commuters.
RTA's in a spot—being tugged to support Shaker's TOD ambitions. Feke's comments illuminate the tap dance around the biggest impediment— low-density land-use patterns east of Shaker Heights.
"To be competitive as a federal New Starts project and rank against all the cities awaiting streetcars…" Feke starts then hopefully adds, "it would all be possible if they had the developer ready to go. RTA would have to look at funds from state CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation Air Quality). We did it for Euclid (Corridor BRT), scraping together from different pots."
Ambitious and exciting as a retrofit of an ugly suburban strip mall into a well-designed town center is, and even with Shaker's resources behind it, Eaton and UH haven't exactly clamored for the rail extension (the former refusing to set aside right of way long ago for the line). What's the point of getting the rail line through the Warrensville intersection if it won't go any further because the suburbs and the corporations moving to their edge city are not interested in transit-oriented development?
This area in Shaker is at a crossroad between traditional and new suburb, and the clash has made a wonderful mess. A stone's throw away from one of the worst intersections in the state in terms of accidents, the city ushered infill townhomes at Chagrin Boulevard and Farnsleigh. Compared to most aging shopping centers built in suburbia, Warrensville-Van Aken has good bones.
The neighborhood has a high single occupancy rate (54.6% either older or new-to-the-area young people). An impressive 32% of residents have a Master's degree (that's higher than 98% of the U.S.). This is an upper-middle income area-62.2% of the working population is employed in executive, management, and professional occupations. Commutes from here average of 10-15 minutes, with 77.0% driving alone. But, because of the Blue Line, 7.8% take the train to work (5.5% of residents also carpool with coworkers, friends, or neighbors for their daily commute).
Frankly, what Warrensville-Van Aken needs is a hipster makeover of its shopping center on par with what young Phoenix developers did with La Grande Orange. Young entrepreneurs came into the area, saw the potential and turned three stores in an obsolete strip center into a Winecafe, an upscale corner market that serves breakfast and a gourmet pizzeria.
What is about to happen is a fully funded streetscape makeover in the image of a town center. First, Shaker updated its zoning code to help to set the stage-taller buildings are allowed, design standards require front doors facing front and limit set backs so that parking cannot go in front of the building, and, of course since this is Shaker, there are materials standards.
In 2008, the city created a transit-oriented development plan for Warrensville-Van Aken with a $100,000 Transportation for Livable Communities grant from the region's MPO. After some wrangling, they figured out an alignment to extend the Blue Line east through the messy intersection to land at a new station with room for a park and ride because two of the six arterials—in this case, Northfield Road—will be vacated. Some fairly dramatic retrofits also came out of the plan—including rerouting Northfield (a state route) away from the intersection, narrowing Warrensville to four lanes, acquiring property along the road for mixed-use development, and turning Van Aken Boulevard between Warrensville and Farnsleigh into a pedestrian zone.
There's a long line of failed attempts to improve Warrensville-Van Aken. The first plans for fixing intersection came in the 1960s, Braverman says, and every decade after that.
"First plans called for a tunnel going under it. All of the streets are from the 1920s but obviously there was less traffic and even an off center traffic circle. Farnsleigh was widened in 1980s for a developer, Tishman Midwest, who wanted to build over the Rapid tracks. But they pulled out."
But Farnsleigh was widened to accommodate more car traffic and allow the area around Van Aken and the train station to be vacated for a pedestrian and development zone.
All of this has incredible potential to set the stage for Northeast Ohio's first significant retrofit from typical suburban shopping center to the walkable town center. When that happens, many in Shaker will finally feel a 'downtown' that lives up to their city's reputation.