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A place for transit in Public Square, Group Plan director assures

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/05/14 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Transit, Vibrant cities

Now that the $32 million Public Square redesign is becoming a reality, who is leading the project and what is the vision it expresses for downtown are just two of many questions the public is asking.

Flight of fancy<br />Public Square as re-imagined by James Corner, the design firm behind New York's High Line.Postcard perfect<br />An early 20th century painting of Public Square depicts its importance as a hub of transit. Image: public domain.Transit will stay<br />The plan presented to Cleveland Planning Commission in October, 2014 calls for consolidating and moving bus stops to the periphery and ring road around Public Square.Green space<br />Public Square today as seen from the Northeast quadrant. Image: GCBL.

Jeremy Paris, Director of the Group Plan Commission, says the “butterfly” design of Public Square by James Corner Field Operations—the firm behind the High Line park in New York—“will change the postcard on Cleveland.”

It has certainly changed the mood of the city’s rainmakers who've contributed $18 million in public and philanthropic funds. The design earned a green light from the City Planning Commission—although, now-former member Norm Krumholtz did have questions about why RTA was being asked to absorb a $1 million annual impact from the project. In fact, there are still a few hurdles to clear—like resolving how 40,000 daily transit users will access the square and how RTA will operate in the space where Ontario is closed to traffic.

Far and away, Public Square represents the most important public space project for the city and the Group Plan Commission, which was formed by Mayor Jackson in 2010 to activate and link the big public spaces downtown. In 2014, the Commission became an organization and hired Paris, a Shaker Heights native and former aide to Democratic Senator, Patrick Leahy.

“The Mayor’s plan was to convene civic leadership,” Paris explains at the office of LAND Studio, the lead consultant on the project. “The original Group Plan membership was meant to make a statement. How do we elevate our public spaces to the next level?”

In 2011, the Group Plan issued a report that called for greater bike and pedestrian connections between the Malls and Public Square. Their focus turned to consolidating the land in Public Square. Not known for bold pronouncements or legacy projects, Mayor Jackson made a public statement about the possibility of closing the roadway completely through the Square.

It was an idea that floated to the surface in 2002 when then-Parkworks hired Project for Public Spaces to study the 10-acre Square. The New York-based, non-profit planners to this day have it listed in its Hall of Shame, noting “The Square's mediocrity is all the more frustrating in light of its promising location.”

Paris credits the power brokers in the Group Plan like the Greater Cleveland Partnership for devising a plan and subsequent traffic study. They concluded it is possible to close Ontario through the Square and limit traffic on Superior to buses at all times but rush hour without disrupting traffic. The study cleared the way for the funding bonanza.

“We’re really seeing a high level of giving because of a shared vision,” Paris confirms. “We have to get more accustomed to saying, ‘this is what we deserve.’ It’s saying, to do this, let’s invest in public places and see money coming back to the city.”

The Key Bank Foundation gave their largest gift ever ($4 million); Cleveland Foundation gave $8 million, The George Gund Foundation gave $5 million, and $3 million came from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District for a stormwater management system that captures rain to sprinkle over a large lawn area that will be planted across the northern half of the Square. Cleveland.com reported that the remaining $9 million could be financed by publicly-backed bonds.

On October 16, after Krumholtz was dumped from the Planning Commission, RTA General Manager Joe Calabrese released a statement. RTA’s goal for the new design is to "not only maintain but enhance the convenience and attractiveness of public transit in and around downtown."

“Public Square has long been the transportation hub of Cleveland since before the streetcars,” he wrote about the 4,000 daily bus trips there. “The preservation of this needed connectivity is critical to the future of our city.”

Speaking to Calabrese recently about where the process has evolved, he carefully stuck to his “cautiously optimistic” talking points.

“I think the goal is better transit access,” Calabrese said. “The opposite is to have a system that doesn’t work for RTA’s customers; one where the stops aren’t convenient.”

“Transfer proximity is critical,” he continues. “It has to be worked out.”

When a Tweet surfaced that the Group Plan had discussed moving RTA’s transit hub off of Public Square to a location south of the Innerbelt Bridge, it touched off a small, social media storm. Paris quickly Tweeted back that no such conversation occurred.

"We have never considered not keeping Public Square as a transit hub," Paris said. "This has to be a park for everyone. I reject every notion of extremes."

The Commission is focused on getting the balance between transit and new amenities—like a splash zone and a cafe—right, he says.

The transit hub—like the roadway—will be altered, though, and both RTA and its customers will have to make adjustments. Boardings and transfers will no longer be at the center of the Square.

San Francisco planning firm Nelson / Nygaard was hired to conduct the traffic study. Principal David Fields, who has led the effort, says they are working with RTA to minimize transfers that involve a trek across the entire expanse of the Square. When I ask if the transit hub is staying on the Square, Fields is very upfront about the changes.

“When we say ‘on the Square’ it means different things,” he says. “If it’s on Superior just east or west of the Square, it’s not technically on the Square.”

“We’re working with RTA on moving stops together,” Fields explains. “There are three routes that have a lot of student ridership, for example, and RTA has said if we can keep these together, it’s a benefit to their riders. We’re trying to see if we can work that out. In our initial analysis, we’ve seen that it’s possible to keep transfers close.”

Are there Krumholtzian equity issues in the redesign and altering of the traffic pattern?

“It’s reallocating lane space—the bones of the city—for everyone to use,” Fields states. “That’s what cities do. They grow, because people want to do different things. A highway isn’t going to change, but a downtown street, even during the day, can be a parklet or a bike lane.”

Paris insists that more active uses in Public Square will be a boon to RTA customers and the new downtown resident who, it is presumed, will benefit the most.

“We need a place where people can take their friends and families or walk their dogs,” Paris said. “We also don’t want people running from corner to corner to catch their bus. But if it’s a nice place, that’s improving their quality of life, and if we get to the point where people are transferring and spending time to hang out, to drop a bag down, then that’s to all of Cleveland’s benefit.”

Another motive for the redesign is to see how it will catalyze the type of growth in the urban core that comes so easily to other cities moving in a positive direction.

Paris feels that Public Square will up the chances for The May Company building to win “catalytic project” state historic tax credits of $25 million. He thinks ripple effects could reach the sea of surface parking lots at the western edge of the Square.

Nelson / Nygaard conducted traffic counts of 33 intersections and compared them to counts they did three years ago. They made an encouraging discovery—growth in biking and walking in the central business district of Cleveland.

“Public Square is fascinating because you have high volumes of pedestrians,” Fields says. “Most people park once and do everything they need on foot. The proximity of downtown works to everyone’s advantage.”

Clearing the final design hurdles—such as making the presence of the city’s transit hub on Public Square compatible with the vision of its future—will extend the advantage to transit customers.

“We’re out to prove that it can be compatible,” says Calabrese. “You can have a great green space, but if people can’t get there...I don’t think RTA’s asked any difficult questions, but if bus stops aren’t where they are, where will they be? We’re very pleased with the work of Nelson / Nygaard—where they’re projecting the stops. The two must coexist.”

The Group Plan Commission has a public meeting tonight to discuss the pedestrian connector between the lakefront and the Mall. The Group Plan is also seeking public comment on the Public Square through its website, and has a Your Changing Cleveland video.

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Angie Schmitt
3 years ago

I am not a huge fan of this plan. First of all, I am not impressed with the "butterfly" design. I don't really see what design problem that addresses -- although it's very splashy when viewed from above, which isn't how pedestrians will view it. Secondly, I don't think Joe Calabrese is cautiously optimistic as much as distressed about this and doing the best he can to be diplomatic. Further, the suggestion that converting street space to pedestrian space is ipso facto and equity win is simplistic and I don't think accurate in this case. Walkable spaces aren't really much of a win for multi-modalism if they come at the expense of transit and this project has huge potential implications for transit. I mean Crocker Park has "walkable" portions, but everyone drives there. The walkability is window dressing more than a solution to a transportation problem. I really don't think this project will be much of a win for walkability if it has a negative impact on transit, and it looks like it will to some extent. The fact that they still haven't even figured out how transit will function and are forging ahead with all this charitable money I think demonstrates pretty clearly that it is an afterthought, which really is sort of appalling from an equity prospective. GCP, unfortunately, I don't think has a very sophisticated understanding of public space and urban issues, nor was this public commission very broadly representative, especially of lower-income groups. I hear this project is all about bike lanes and connectivity, but I haven't heard of any impressive bike infrastructure. They're plunking a fortune into a pedestrian bridge while existing pedestrian passages to the same area offer dreadful pedestrian experiences that could cheaply and easily be remedied. If we were really concerned about pedestrian safety and access we could conduct a half dozen road diets for a fourth of this price. Why aren't we discussing that? When the rubber meets the road, we're not willing to take road space from cars, seems to me. This seems like yet another silver bullet type project that in some ways misses the mark to me.

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