The plan seemed simple enough. The three of us urban types would meet at John’s house near the Shoreway for a three-hour tour of the region’s premier example of a lifestyle center, Crocker Park, and infill development, Battery Park. An online conversation about “authenticity”—finding that ineffable quality that speaks to the quirk of a place or perhaps pays respect to its surroundings—set me, John McGovern and Dru McKeown off to explore what these two developments offered in this realm.
Like it or not, Battery and Crocker Parks define a category, and because they are at a sufficient scale and age (both turn ten this year), they will also stand as a generational example of Greater Cleveland at a moment when it was both in the (hopefully) last throes of sprawl and desperately seeking new people to move back into the city.
It is worth taking a closer examination of what values or desires their built form express. Because, while they fall below perfection for differing reasons, there are multiple aspects of their design that are done well enough to study for the future. As new urban and infill development trend in the Heartland, what do these “early” examples offer to the second wave, such as suburban transit-oriented development emerging in Shaker Heights or the Bob Stark-led urban infill in Cleveland’s Gateway District?
The plan is to set off on foot from John’s place, a two-minute walk to Battery Park. But first, there’s a game of pick-up street basketball to be played. As John dominates the glass and the neighborhood kids spin circles around Dru and I, we anxiously look at the skyline. “C’mon, we’re burning daylight,” Dru says.
Battery Park has placed 50 out of a proposed 250 units of housing on land surrounding the long-shuttered Eveready Battery Plant which sits on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie. As a series of new, attached, single-family townhomes—with the notable exception of the adaptive reuse of the power plant— Battery Park is what is known as “urban infill development.” An old tool-and-die shop in a hulking brick warehouse at the west edge was also recently converted, by another developer, into 42, giant loft apartments. The ground floor of the power plant has a pizza shop/wine bar tenant—the only retail component added.
A scrubby field between the warehouses is fenced and has a sign with an illustration of a massive condo building that is yet (and may never get) built. John comments that financing dried up after the sub-prime lending crisis, and with NIMBYism among the new residents against more rental units, it is more likely that the remaining land will be filled with townhomes. The style here shifts between modern white box, industrial chic and the original row of neo-traditional (modern but with wood batting) designed by City Architecture. A later iteration from Dimit Architects is perhaps the more coherent blend of styles. Both are positioned to face the “town” center.
Battery Park’s public space consists of a small, red-stamped concrete promenade with a resting spot consisting of “lay down” metal benches and small shrubs. Landscaping still feels incomplete or suffering from benign neglect. The promenade leads to a soon-to-be-built park that will overlook the train tracks and Edgewater Park, but is now a modish sand volleyball court that looks eerily abandoned. The critique of Battery Park centers on how it feels to walk through it, and its attention—or lack thereof—to details like the exposed hodgepodge of air conditioner compressor units and utility boxes pushing into the sidewalk experience along W. 74th Street.
We’ve paused at an intersection as we stare down a wide and sterile service alley that we all agree creates a significant dead zone.
“Battery Park attempts to fill in the existing street grid but the streets, especially the service alleys, lack definition of ownership or an understanding of public versus private space,” McKeown, an architect running his own firm, TOIstudio, says. “It makes the development feel rather suburban and wide-brushed. Any street that is not a ‘front street’ also feels forgotten. Since it was primarily designed to only face the "front street," that leaves 3 sides handled poorly.”
Moving on, we find ourselves drawn to the center, under the shadow of the red Battery Park neon sign on the smokestack as the bouncy tunes of a Beatles cover band can be heard across the rail tracks and Shoreway at Edgewater Live, a new program of live music at Edgewater Beach that is clearly a big draw.
It’s hard to imagine this many feet on the street on a day where 5,000 visitors aren’t walking through the development and down the W. 76th street tunnel which connects directly to the shore. There’s pull-in parking in front of the townhomes, or, for visitors using the tunnel, street parking further south into the neighborhood. A point in the authenticity category for Battery Park is the reuse of the warehouses and the continuation of the existing street grid, from W. 76th to W. 73rd, with the added east-west “streets” (some are service alleys). Even the back of the development where it faces the neighborhood is built with the frontage on the existing street.
While we stroll past Reddstone, an old corner spot converted early in the redevelopment days to a bar with a tin-ceiling and a cheesy soundtrack pumping out of its open front door, Dru remarks that front porches are nice and could improve the vibrancy of the street. We also stop to admire the rooftop patios with killer views of the lake and the downtown skyline.
What becomes clear when we pile into John’s car for the trek to Westlake, is how most of Battery Park’s issues—like the screening of utilities and lavish landscaping that practically jumps out at Crocker Park—is fixable. What’s less well-known is how the building stock will age. For that reason, it becomes clear that corrugated metal cladding at Battery Park or corrugated plastic sheathing at Uptown in University Circle will hide the age lines even if it does little to stir the imagination.
We’re staring with wry amusement as "Ratatouille" unfolds on the two-story inflatable movie screen for a narrow demographic of families at Crocker Park’s “town green.” It’s about the only sign of life at 9:30 p.m. I try to set a ground rule—let’s suspend disbelief that a “lifestyle center” has little to hold the interest of three guys from Cleveland, Cleveland Heights and Lakewood. Because of its obvious shortcomings—being too remote and only connected by highway to the city and its inner-ring—the struggle is to objectively consider its qualities (inherent is the definitional challenge before us—does Crocker Park aspire to be a neighborhood? Or is it something entirely new that just we can’t appreciate?). With rumors swirling that Westlake is interested in building its arts center and a library in walking distance, would that be enough to shift the balance toward authenticity, even if too many people still have to drive to become patrons?
“Crocker Park seemed to be developed without context,” says McKeown. “It feels contrived, perhaps due to the fact that the edges are so well defined and the surrounding area is such a stark contrast. Crocker Park looks and feels insular, like a small town in the middle of nowhere on the side of the highway you may stop for gas.”
We decide to stroll away from the “mixed-use town center” to get a feel for the single-family residential “zone,” at night. The style here is to magnify and call attention to its new urbanism, which, in that respect, is executed fairly well. There are some scale issues like the uniformity of its short two stories, and the street trees don’t look like they’ve grown much. It doesn’t help Crocker gain that lived in feel which just makes the efforts toward “shabby chic” inside the stores that much more noticeable.
As an aside, later we throw Hingetown into the mix, as we mull over the snark fest that was leveled recently at the new stretch of co-branded retail on the Near West Side. Is it that we are simply suspicious of intentions when they emerge, fully formed, in place, I ask. We’re back in Cleveland, having beers in the womblike embrace of Platform Brewing Co., a just-so palace of hipsterdom courtesy, one might say, of the coordinated re-investment strategy that started at Gordon Square and radiated to Battery Park and to Lorain Avenue.
Is there a sense of there there, to borrow a phrase, at Crocker Park? Was Battery Park built in too hurried a fashion? The apartment lights above the retail shops are on at Crocker, and there are no for sale signs up at Battery Park. Crocker Park certainly has more expensive landscaping and better lighting, but Battery Park has the patina of rust on its palette if it chooses. Where are the public spaces and parks for the kids of the residents at Crocker Park, Dru asks? In the distance, a stand of tall trees comes to a sudden halt where American Greetings broke ground on its new headquarters. Each in its own place, I could think if I were being generous. But, the deforestation is too big a bummer to ignore for long.
In the post-script, I described this mental exercise to GCBL Director David Beach and his reaction is, there’s no comparison. “One is a platform for national retail and the other supports an authentic, urban neighborhood.”
Beach adds: “Another metric could be, are they sustainable developments? For that, you would want to know, does it generate car trips or help reduce them?”