The last time Cleveland updated its Comprehensive Plan, LeBron hadn’t made The Decision, the subprime lending fiasco hadn’t struck down whole neighborhoods like Slavic Village, downtown’s population was well below 10,000 and 8% of the city’s residents had pulled up stakes and fled (between 2000 and its release in 2007).
Cleveland was shrinking, but it wasn’t girding for battle with a plan that had more than a feeling that people would someday return.
“Cleveland’s plan was on the assumption we would grow to 2 million,” says Forest City Residential Group President and CEO Ron Ratner. “Now we’re below 400,000 people.”
The occasion of Ratner’s comments was the Urban Land Institute-Cleveland conference on Form-based Zoning, a tool to make walkability mandatory, especially where it counts—in urban places. Cleveland is considering moving toward a form-based zoning code.
While Ratner acknowledged that his family's company, worth $9 billion, has done practically no development in its hometown—opting to take an even larger risk in developing Denver’s former Stapleton Airport into a model live-work community—he had strong words about the shelf life of the Connecting Cleveland 2020 Citywide Plan developed under the tenure of Mayor Jane Campbell.
Ratner noted that more than half of Cleveland’s Census Tracts have lost 20% of their population.
“Not only is the zoning code a hold over from 1949, but our city plan is pretty badly out of synch with our reality,” he said. “I won’t claim to be an expert on the Cleveland 2020 Plan, but it fails to grapple with the fundamental challenge of basic land use and core infrastructure. We have to bring it in line with massive downsizing that has happened.”
Ratner offered that the city could “rethink density,” and inferred that Cleveland needs to enter into the same conversation that cities like Detroit have had about consolidating.
“As I drive through a mostly abandoned neighborhood and see one house well maintained I say, ‘this isn’t an academic exercise.’ Many are living in neighborhoods that are challenged. And we’ve done nothing to address it.”
Ratner went on to talk about the walkability and density of planning communities like Stapleton and its 30 people per acre, its mixed-use and its emphasis on walkability from famed New Urban designer, Peter Calthorpe.
Forest City has shown signs in recent years—from their support for a Slavic Village housing renovation program to their subsidiary, RMS, leading the Shaker Heights transit-oriented development at Van Aken-Warrensville—in dabbling around the edges of their hometown.
City Planning Commission Director, Fred Collier, pushed back on Ratner’s notion that the city was doing nothing to address its shrinking status. University Circle and downtown have had visionary developers, like the Marons, bringing urbanity back.
What Cleveland needs just as urgently as an updated comprehensive plan is more developers who can walk the talk of New Urbanism. If the city plans, as Collier said, to focus on expanding economic opportunity back to those downtrodden areas that Ratner and others drive through and shake their heads at in disbelief.