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Public Square traffic study by Nelson Nygaard a strong first step toward a greener downtown

CLEVELAND, Ohio — One of the great truisms of city planning is that small amounts of money spent early in a design process can have enormous positive or negative effects down the road.

That’s what makes it big news — and good news — that a traffic consultant has recommended closing Ontario Street for two blocks as it runs north-south through Public Square.

The $120,000 study completed byNelson Nygaard, a San Francisco consulting firm, is a critical first step in making all of downtown Cleveland greener, livelier, more beautiful and more hospitable to development.

A revitalized Public Square could play a completely new role in the life of the city. It could be an inviting refuge that bursts to life on regular occasions with concerts and other public events that are difficult to stage with ease today.

The positive effects would likely ripple across the city’s core, from the Warehouse District to PlayhouseSquare, from Tower City Center to the Mall, the city’s rising medical mart and attractions at North Coast Harbor.

Related coverageCleveland traffic study suggests closing Ontario Street through Public Square

It’s too soon to say what the square might look like, because so much design work remains to be done. But without a traffic study of the quality provided by Nelson Nygaard, very little would be possible.

LAND Studio
, a crackerjack local nonprofit agency with expertise in planning and managing parks and public art, released the study Wednesday in conjunction with its official client on the Public Square project, Mayor Frank Jackson’s Group Plan Commission.

The mayor formed the commission in 2010 to figure out how to improve public spaces linking more than $1 billion in new projects downtown, including the $465 million medical mart and convention center, the rebuilt Mall and the new $450 million Horseshoe casino in the Higbee Building.

The commission, with LAND Studio working as its staff, finished its initial study within a year. It is now evolving into a new, separate, small nonprofit organization that will pursue its mission in collaboration with the mayor’s office, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance and the Greater Cleveland Partnership.

The next step on Public Square involves bringing back to town the leading American landscape architect James Corner, who helped launch a debate over the future of Public Square in 2009 with three dramatic proposals for a redesign.

Two of Corner’s ideas were based on keeping Ontario Street and Superior Avenue open to traffic. One was based on closing Ontario. By this fall, Corner will refine that third proposal, and provide two new variations on the theme.

Anthony Coyne, the chairman of the Group Plan Commission and of the city’s Planning Commission, said he’d like to see Public Square revitalized within four years. The job will surely cost tens of millions of dollars and won’t happen without heavy investment from the city’s businesses and corporations.

But what matters most now is that Nelson Nygaard’s work has provided a firm foundation. It’s an important example — and one that should be celebrated — in which all parties involved have made the smart, early moves necessary for good things to come later on.

Nelson Nygaard’s conclusions have credibility because the firm has earned a national reputation for balancing the needs of automobiles, transit, pedestrians and cyclists.

That’s a dramatic departure from usual practices in Ohio, where automobiles and traffic engineers have dominated the design of public space for decades. The result in Cleveland has been a debased and often hostile public realm plastered with macadam and concrete.

A new city-planning paradigm is taking hold around the world today. Great cities from New York and London to Copenhagen, Denmark, are removing traffic lanes, lowering speed limits, imposing special “congestion” fees on cars, installing bike lanes and redesigning streets and sidewalks to give more space to pedestrians. Cities are becoming more civilized, less mechanized.

Mayor Jackson, in an interview last year, declared himself firmly in favor of the trend and made the bold pronouncement that he wanted both cross streets in Public Square closed to traffic to make it the new green heart of the city.

“I want to see one big square,” he said.
Some observers might be disappointed that the Nelson Nygaard study doesn’t actually go that far. But the firm’s work here, based on extensive traffic counts, computer modeling and work with the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, supports its finding that closing Ontario Street is possible and wouldn’t cause traffic mayhem across downtown.
The firm considered completely closing the crossroads in the square, but it concluded that doing so would blockade the central space with traffic, especially when buses converge at rush hour.

“You’d create a wall of steel around the square,” said Tom Brennan, the Nelson Nygaard principal who led the Cleveland study.

The firm also rejected the idea of closing Ontario only on the north side of the square, between Superior and Rockwell avenues, concluding that the rush-hour tangles at intersections would outweigh any benefits.

One concern raised by Nelson Nygaard’s work is that closing Ontario Street could add $1 million to the annual operating costs of RTA, largely by adding slight delays and increasing the time buses idle at traffic lights.

But those estimates are based on assumptions that traffic patterns would remain as they are today, even if Ontario Street were closed.

Brennan said his firm will do additional work in coming months to show how traffic might adjust to the closure of Ontario by dispersing throughout downtown. Such a dispersion might lower any extra costs to RTA and make it possible to close Superior Avenue to everything except buses — an option preferred by the Group Plan Commission.

At this point, it’s vital that Nelson Nygaard, LAND Studio and the Group Plan Commission keep up the momentum on the square, a historic space that hasn’t lived up to its potential for decades.
Originally laid out in 1796 by Moses Cleaveland and his land surveyors, Public Square functioned in the 19th century as a pasture and later as a monumental version of a New England town square.

Lincoln’s coffin rested there. Civil War soldiers and sailors are memorialized in a bombastic but lovable neo-Romanesque monument in the square’s southeast quadrant. Countless parades have traversed the space, and the Cleveland Orchestra is a regular guest with its Fourth of July concerts.

Yet most of the time, the square is a grayish dead zone where the principal activity is waiting for RTA buses.

Raising the money to pay for change will be difficult, but that’s not the real challenge.
The hard part is forming the civic will to improve public spaces in a downtown whose shining attractions are separated by acres of surface parking and by miles of traffic lanes designed to serve a city that once had a much larger population.

The Nelson Nygaard study has taken Cleveland one step closer to a better downtown. The next steps are equally crucial, and bear close watching.

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