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Cleveland is slowly becoming a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly town

With little fanfare, Cleveland is undergoing a revolution in attitudes toward public space, city streets and walkability.
This has been a car town for decades, but that’s changing now.
After pitched battles among activists, trucking interests and the Ohio Department of Transportation over the past decade, dedicated bike paths have been installed on theDetroit-Superior and Lorain-Carnegie bridges.
Regional trails are weaving their way into the industrial Flats alongside the Cuyahoga River and are within striking distance of the lakefront.
Mayor Frank Jackson wants the big new investments downtown, including the casino, the new convention center and the Global Center for Health Innovation, aka the medical mart, to be accompanied by beautiful new landscaping on Public Square and the downtown Mall.
None of this was happening 10 years ago, and it could not have happened until fairly recently. Civic and business leaders weren’t interested.
(And some still don’t get it. It’s amazing that Cuyahoga County might spend nearly $700,000 to upgrade a rusting, 40-year-old overhead walkway connection to its proposed new headquarters. It should tear down the walkway, but more on that in a moment.)
From the 1970s through the early 2000s, the city and various partners fought to save downtown by renovating the historic theaters at PlayhouseSquare and building attractions such as the Gateway sports complex, Cleveland Browns Stadium and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

View full sizeCuyahoga County is debating whether to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading this overhead walkway, rather than tear it down.Peggy Turbett, The Plain Dealer
 Streetscapes and parks received little attention back then. The result: a downtown with great attractions and beautiful historic buildings separated by garages, surface-parking dead zones and acres of concrete that discouraged walking and cycling.
Now, as it tries to attract more visitors and increase the number of downtown residents from today’s 11,700, the city recognizes that creating attractive public spaces and bike-friendly streets is essential, not a frill.
“Ten years ago, when we were all talking about this stuff, we got a lot of nice pats on the back, but people didn’t get it,” said Ann Zoller, who heads the nonprofit LAND Studio, which facilitates the design and management of urban parks and trails. “Now you have a mayor talking about the importance of a transformed Public Square and civic leadership on board.”
Joseph Marinucci, president and CEO of the nonprofit Downtown Cleveland Alliance, a service organization that helps improve the safety and attractiveness of downtown streets, believes that better parks and pedestrian amenities are vitally important.

View full sizeThe popular makeover of Perk Park, designed by Thomas Balsley of New York with James McKnight of Cleveland, is lifting values in adjacent buildings.Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer
 He points to the beautiful, recently completed $3 million renovation of Perk Park at East 12th Street and Chester Avenue as a key factor that helped recruit new tenants to fill empty floors in adjacent office towers.
“Physical improvements [such as Perk Park] are yielding direct economic results,” Marinucci said.
The cultural shift in favor of bikes and pedestrians echoes a rising national trend inspired by the new popularity of urban living and growing proof that the nation’s obesity epidemic is rooted in part in suburban lifestyles centered on the automobile.
Economist Richard Florida has gained a following among mayors across the country for his theories that “creative class” workers prefer cities with excellent places to walk and bike.
Environmental advocates have also shown that “complete streets” with trees and landscaping can absorb rainwater and reduce damaging runoff while adding civic beauty.
The new movement in urban design has led to high-profile experiments in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s transportation boss, Janette Sadikh-Khan,closed Times Square to traffic to create a pedestrian plaza and laced the city’s boroughs with bike paths.
To advance the local conversation on transforming Cleveland streets and public spaces, Old Stone Church on Public Square made progressive urban design the focus of its“Hope for the City Annual Lenten Leadership” lecture series this winter.

View full sizeCleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has endorsed the idea of closing Ontario Street to traffic in Public Square to create a larger green space in the heart of downtown. Landscape architect James Corner will soon present the city with a refined version of this 2011 iteration of the plan.Field Operations
 The program kicked off Feb. 20 with a pair of excellent presentations by Jeff Speck, the Washington, D.C.-based architectural designer and author of the highly readable new book, “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time.”
Speck says realistically that cars aren’t going away anytime soon. But he says that smart cities are redesigning streets in areas where walkability is crucial to revitalization, and where such efforts are likely to have the greatest benefits.
He sees big opportunities in Cleveland because the road network, designed for a million inhabitants, now serves a city of less than 400,000.
“You’ve got too many more lanes than you need” on major downtown streets, he said at the church. “You have a lot of four-laners that could change to three-laners.”
The space gained by “right-sizing” streets with fewer lanes for cars could be used to expand the city’s bike network and enhance streetscapes. Some changes could be made at low cost, simply by restriping roadways. The first step is to pick which streets and sidewalks could be made more bike- and pedestrian-friendly, Speck said.
Amazingly, such plans have just gotten under way. In January, Jackson’s Office of Sustainability launched a study aimed at classifying streets best suited for bicyclists, pedestrians and “green infrastructure” such as trees, tree lawns and planted medians.
The innovative public-private partnership is aimed at fleshing out the city’s Complete and Green Streets ordinance, approved by the Cleveland City Council in 2011. The law requires that 20 percent of money for road projects be spent on bike-only lanes, crosswalks, energy-efficient lighting and porous pavement.
The YMCA is funding the new study with $38,000 from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s REACH program, which stands for Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health. A draft will be made public in a meeting at City Hall at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 10.
Two weeks later, the city will hold a separate meeting on a second, $56,000 study on the feasibility of launching a bike-share program in Cleveland — a low-cost, short-term rental system. The location of the meeting has yet to be determined; updates will be posted on the city’s sustainability website,
On the topic of making downtown more beautiful and livable, there’s more coming up on the calendar.

View full sizeBike commuting is up sharply in Cleveland. So are events such as the 2011 Nerd Ride in Lakewood, staged to raise money for bike racks.Joshua Gunter, The Plain Dealer
 The city’s Group Plan Commission and the Downtown Cleveland Alliance will soon unveil the latest plans for improving Public Square, which include closing the two blocks of Ontario Street that run north-south through the 10-acre space.
Anthony Coyne, chairman of the Group Plan Commission, will conclude the Old Stone Church lecture series Wednesday, March 20, with a noon update on the commission’s work and related aspects of city design.
“What we’re doing right now is critical if we’re really going to show our downtown is a 24/7 city,” Coyne said.
Jacob Van Sickle, director of the nonprofit advocacy group Bike Cleveland, gives the city a C-minus grade for a bike network with 46 miles completed out of a proposed 180 — a statistic that places Cleveland behind peers such as Memphis, Tenn., and Indianapolis.
But he’s optimistic that the city is turning a corner. The key is speeding up the development of trails, bike paths and urban parks with new funding that taps innovative government programs, private philanthropy and businesses with a stake in the city.
It’s unfortunate that, with so many positive signals from civic leaders and City Hall, some entities are still trying to build or retain overhead walkways between garages and destinations including the new Horseshoe Casino.
Overhead walkways kill street-level retail and send a message that streets and sidewalks are for second-class citizens.
Cuyahoga County apparently aligns itself with this view. The County Council debated last week over how much money to spend on improving the appearance of the rusty, 40-year-old overhead walkway that joins a parking garage at East Ninth Street and Prospect Avenue to the site of its proposed new office building on the north side of Prospect.
The county ought to tear down the walkway and create a state-of-the-art intersection at grade. This would improve the odds that the new county office, to be built by the Streetsboro-based Geis Co., will be a decent-looking structure.
It would also save money that would otherwise have to be spent to build and operate a fourth-floor lobby and security checkpoint, in addition to one at ground level. Having two lobbies would be stupid and wasteful.
Most important, being street-friendly would bring the county in line with efforts to improve the public realm in Cleveland. It’s mystifying why this isn’t obvious to members of the County Council and County Executive Ed FitzGerald, who ought to be setting a 21st-century example, not following the automobile-oriented logic of the 1970s. 

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