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What's next for aging Shaker Square? 'Thoughtful' planning for its second century

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Shaker Square, the historic, early 20th-century shopping center with a rapid transit line running through it, is one of the city’s signature civic spaces.
Yet the 5.5-acre square, located at Moreland and Shaker boulevards on the city’s East Side, is showing serious signs of age as it nears its 90th anniversary next year.
Crumbling sidewalks are paved in contrasting slabs of concrete that break up the continuity of the space. Lawns in the center of the square are isolated by roads and rail lines and are devoid of activity unless programmed events are underway.
The buildings that line the square turn their backs to surrounding neighborhoods with blank facades and corners, and with parking lots missing trees or pedestrian paths.
To figure out how to address those and other deficits, the nonprofits Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and LAND Studio have raised nearly $400,000, primarily in private and philanthropic donations, for a nine-month planning process beginning this month.
Joel Ratner, president and CEO of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, called the process "the opportunity of a century to prepare Shaker Square for the next 100 years."
The project will involve extensive public input. A kickoff meeting is tentatively scheduled for October, although a date has yet to be announced.
A 13-member panel representing the city, residents, public agencies, foundations and Coral Co., which owns the square, will soon select a design team from finalists including Hargreaves of Cambridge, MA; !Melk of New York; Realm Collaborative of Columbus, O; and Merritt Chase of Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.
Completed in 1929, the square is widely regarded as one of the most innovative open-air shopping centers of its time, along with the Country Club District in Kansas City, Missouri.
Both were among the first shopping centers in the U.S. designed to accommodate automobiles. Shaker Square also incorporates a commuter light rail line, effectively making it what today would be called a “transit-oriented development.”
The project will address everything from the renovation of the square’s outdoor spaces to how they might be owned, funded and managed in the future.
Options might include transferring the outdoor spaces from the Coral Co. to another entity, possibly a nonprofit funded with an endowment for long-term maintenance.
Coral President Peter Rubin said he fully endorses the project and is open to transferring ownership of the outdoor spaces if it’s in the best interest of the square.
“The process that’s laid out is incredible, outstanding, thoughtful,” he said.
The square is the brainchild of developers Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen, the railroad and real estate tycoons who developed Shaker Heights and the Terminal Tower downtown, connecting the two with the transit lines passing through Shaker Square.
Originally configured as a traffic circle, the square was ultimately designed as an octagon by architects Philip Small and Charles Bacon Rowley, with low-rise brick buildings in the Colonial Revival style.
Listed as part of Cleveland and National Register landmark districts, the square has 19 acres of buildings, civic spaces and surface parking divided among multiple owners.
The City of Cleveland owns the streets. Coral owns most of the buildings and the sidewalks and green areas. And the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, which owns or leases the rapid right-of-way.
(Disclosure: This reporter lives near the square).
The planning project is co-chaired by Anne Goodman, president and CEO of the St. Luke’s Foundation, and Ward 6 Councilman Blaine Griffin, standing in for Ward Councilman Ken Johnson, whose district includes the square.
The Ward 4 and 6 Council representatives have long agreed to share oversight of the square, Johnson and Griffin said.
Griffin, Ratner and others involved in the project said social and economic equity will be a major focus, given that the square lies between prosperous East Side suburbs and some of the poorest African-American neighborhoods in the city.
"It’s the absolute fulcrum of every political, social and economic dynamic that’s affecting the region,” Ratner said.
Accordingly, the plan will address aspects of the square that contribute to perceptions of racial inequality, he said.
For instance, the square provides welcoming access to residents coming from Shaker Heights while turning blank facades, fences and parking lots to residents coming from Cleveland’s Buckeye neighborhood, located to the south and west. Buckeye was populated by immigrant Hungarian and Jewish families when the square was designed, but African-American residents view the design as a “keep out” message directed at them, Ratner said.
"People may not know the history, but the perception now is that there is a back [to Shaker Square], and that back is intentional,” said Greg Peckham, executive director of LAND Studio. Safety, which Rubin said Coral improved recently by installing 50 security cameras that are monitored 24/7, will be another focus of the plan, along with traffic flow, transit, parking, bike routes and pedestrian access.
Another issue is that the 130,000 square feet of leasable space in the square is small in relation to the outdoor spaces it needs to support, said Wayne Mortensen, director of design and development at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress.
Hence the project will look at the potential for new development on the parking lots behind the square’s existing buildings.
Project funders and donated amounts include the St. Luke’s Foundation, $150,000; the Cleveland Foundation, $85,000; the Gund foundation, $50,000; and the National Endowment for the Arts, $20,000. Private donors include Coral Co., which donated $30,000, and philanthropists Char and Chuck Fowler.
It’s impossible to say ahead of the process how much its recommendations might cost, or how they would be funded, planners said.
But Mortensen said he expected that improvements inspired by the plan should be under way within three years, if not sooner.
"If we haven’t started implementation within three years, we’re moving off course,” he said.

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