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In rebuilding, Cleveland looks just below its feet

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/29/12 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Clean water

<br /><br /><br />Green underfoot<br />A massive stormwater retention system goes in below the parking lot of the Marriott in University Circle. Photo: GCBL.

When rebuilding a city wracked by sprawl, loss of investment and social disorder, where do you begin? There’s a line of thinking that says you hark back to what’s elemental in this place. It has begun to permeate Cleveland’s vacant land reclamation efforts where advocates and agents with some resources to spend are looking to the land’s ecological service – how its underlying structure, its soil, drainage, and proximity (to people and historic water courses) lends it a surprising resilience and enduring value.

In many cases, restoration will mean restitution—going after the polluter. Sometimes it will be a test of natural systems as strong defense, like a set of lungs, from the collected debris of humanity. Beyond nice to look at, an emerging field of green infrastructure will need to redefine traditional economic development by introducing some new metrics for cities such as large-scale food production and building functional green spaces that stop stormwater in its place.

In the last decade, the Sewer District has emerged as a key player, driving action on this front. Its Project Clean Lake grew out of its federal mandate to capture and reduce pollution in water rushing off parking lots and roofs. It has formulated a plan for a number of pilot projects – from wetlands parks where vacant buildings were pulled down to permeable pavers and capture devices on new developments – that will use plants, cisterns and sometimes just Cleveland’s plain old sandy soil as a leach field for millions of gallons of water from entering a combined sewer and sanitation system where it routinely pollutes the drinking water of more than a million people. It’s a more holistic approach that considers factors like reducing electricity to treat and pump fresh water, and keeping solid waste out of our rivers and Lake Erie.

The agreement with Washington has led to a ‘green infrastructure’ program layered on top of the Sewer District’s $2 billion, 25-year ‘grey’ pipe construction which serves as the bulwark against flooding. It’s the prospect of greening urban land that offers a new way of seeing the city.

When the District agreed to reduce the overflow of tens of millions of gallons of sewage and storm water fouling up the lake with giant underground pipes, it challenged itself and EPA to another 42 million gallons of CSO control through green infrastructure. The District will tap $44 million from the region’s rate payers to help pay for a targeted dozen large-scale green projects in Cleveland, including three that are currently or soon to break ground.

It’s a form of regionalism rare to Northeast Ohio. Similar to the Port’s bond issue it placed on the ballot this fall to pay for a downtown corridor to the lakefront and for deferred maintenance of the Cuyahoga River, suburban communities in the Sewer District help bear the costs. Will it be worth the effort and expense to discover if infrastructure investments can enhance urban green space? Can it be replicated on a permanent basis so that suburban members of the District (but outside of the CSO replacement consent decree area of Cleveland proper) eventually see a benefit?

One area green infrastructure is sure to find a critic or two is the ultimate comparison to pipes. One of the District’s first, big green infrastructure projects—bioswales or dry, planted creek beds that hold rain—at an emerging urban farm at Kinsman Road in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, has a projected price tag of $2.80 per CSO gallon captured. The conversion of grassy vacant land at the entrance to non-profit farm project at Kinsman and E. 81st Street is expected to absorb 2.2 million gallons from becoming CSO discharge, says the District’s stormwater design manager, Victoria McCauley.

By comparison, the District spent $198 million on a giant pipe below the Euclid Creek that can hold 52 million gallons of stormwater and wastewater. The pipe, then, costs $3.80 a CSO gallon. While it sounds more expensive, it’s not a real apples to apples comparison. Pipes like this are built for one purpose—to hold a massive volume of polluted water each time heavy rains overwhelm the antiquated combined system. In the Euclid Creek area which serves as drainage for east side suburbs like S. Euclid, University Heights, East Cleveland, and Cleveland —bacteria infested water flushes into the creek, a major tributary to Lake Erie, half a dozen times a year. The District has 25 years to build seven more giant pipes to reduce raw sewage across the region from 4.5 billion gallons a year to less than half a billion a year.

But is there more to asking a wetland to function foremost as stormwater infrastructure? The District hopes to get out ahead of this question by studying the ‘co-benefits’ of green infrastructure. Like L.A. and New York, they plan to hire a consultant to measure environmental benefits like reducing urban heat island effect, or perhaps social benefits like reducing crime.

The first green CSO project for the Sewer Distric is being built at The Courtyard at Marriott in University Circle.

“The parking lot will feature all pervious pavers for water infiltration,” said McCauley. "Water coming off rooftops will be taken under ground to big stormwater chambers for detention long enough to filter in the ground."

The 1-acre Marriot site is expected to keep 100 percent of the stormwater, up to a 100-year storm, out of the local watershed, Doan Brook, one of Cleveland and the east side suburbs' worst cases of CSO discharges. Rain water will slowly percolate into the ground, which works because the soil in University Circle is very sandy, said McCauley, an engineer.

Can sandy soil be considered a renewable resource? Apparently, that has entered into the thinking of the new Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (MOCA) and MRN Ltd., the developers of the shops and apartments at Uptown (across from the Marriot on Mayfield Road) where nearly 100 percent of the landscape is being done in permeable pavers (pictured right).

The method of capturing and slowly releasing water into the ground has a track record here—Case Western Reserve University installed, in 2005, a large cistern under the track and football field at the Village 115, a LEED-certified dormitory. The Cleveland Environmental Center did the same under the loamy soils of the Near West Side in 2003.

“It’s about how you marry green and grey,” says the District's manager of environmental programs, Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells. “But, it won’t solve the entire CSO issue. If you have 1 acre of impervious surface, it creates 1 million gallons of stormwater. We need 440 acres of impervious control of drainage.

“What this puts on the hunt for are areas with sandy soil like we see in Slavic Village and University Circle,” she continues. “We’re also interested in large-scale redevelopment areas in the city where 5 to 6 acres are being redone.”

For example, when Orlando and Miceli’s are expanding and discussing on-site stormwater and have a federal brownfield redevelopment grant.

In Slavic Village, the District will build its third and fourth pilot projects: First it will turn a vacant lot on Union Avenue near the Morgana Run Trail into a park with a giant rain garden at its center that is expected to absorb the water from the 1.5 acre lot.

“Our consultants spotted this one,” Dreyfuss-Wells said, referring to an advisory committee of planners and city officials. “We’re not driven by vacant land use, but where we can…”

The city of Cleveland’s plans for vacant land are a driver of future vacant land/GI sites, Dreyfuss-Wells finishes. One of the District’s caveats: stormwater park sites like the one on Union Avenue have to stay permanently open—or a new development must retain 100% of water on site—for the Sewer District to get credit from federal regulators.

The District and the city cemented their first Complete and Green Streets agreement since Cleveland passed its legislation in 2011. The District will contribute $1 million to the city’s curb-to-curb reconstruction of Fleet Avenue in Slavic Village. The city will soon put out to bid a redesign for the five-lane Fleet by introducing bike lanes and rain gardens at ‘bulb-out’ pedestrian crosswalks and between curbside parking spots (pictured top). They expect to control 1 million gallons of CSO (bringing the cost down to $1/CSO gallon).

“We’re looking for areas that have a high amount of impervious surface, with sandy soils, that have fewer owners, and that includes land bank properties,” Dreyfuss-Wells said. “We’re trying to get to the point where 10-20 projects that get us to the $42 million. The consent decree gives us 8 years. That locks us into the CSO areas that are the biggest bad dogs.”

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