CLEVELAND, Ohio — The new plan for the future of Shaker Square, the historic but shabby 1920s shopping center and 5-acre civic space on Cleveland’s East Side, tries to tackle two of the toughest issues facing American cities.
One is whether public space should cater more to pedestrians rather than automobiles. The other is whether a city square that straddles one of the sharpest boundaries of race and class in Northeast Ohio can thrive at a time of heightened racial, social and economic tension.
Beyond that, the ultimate question is whether Cleveland has the energy and drive to tackle such complex issues, and whether the new design can generate the civic groundswell and political support needed to realize it.
The square’s fate matters deeply to the region because its future will affect everything around it, and because it is one of the most iconic legacies of Cleveland’s industrial heyday.
Why the square matters
Located about 6 miles east of Public Square in downtown Cleveland, Shaker Square sits between the majority white, well-to-do suburb of Shaker Heights to the east, and the low-income, majority black neighborhoods of Buckeye and Woodhill to the south and west.
Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen, developers of the Terminal Tower and Shaker Heights, conceived the square as one of America’s first automobile-oriented shopping centers. They placed stores and amenities in one- and two-story neo-Georgian buildings forming an octagon around a 5.5-acre civic space, framed internally by a square-shaped perimeter road.
For all its inherent beauty, the square’s original design is problematic.
The rapid rail line that carries the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s Blue and Green lines, cuts the square into northern and southern halves. That division is heightened by the east- and westbound lanes of Shaker Boulevard, which parallel the RTA line.
The square may have been intended to evoke a New England town green, but it has never really worked that way. Aside from the divided nature of the square, inherent liabilities include buildings that edge sidewalks with blank walls, and an undignified approach to Dave’s Market that requires pedestrians to dodge cars and trucks on a driveway.
End of the beginning
LAND Studio and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress joined forces last year to raise $400,000 for a planning process to address the square’s future, with lead funding from the St. Luke’s and Cleveland foundations.
After nine months and extensive public input, the landscape architecture firm of Hargreaves Associates unveiled recommendations last Sunday.
The central — and still controversial — idea is that of removing Shaker Boulevard from the square and rerouting all traffic around the perimeter. The resulting increase in travel time would be slight — only 16 seconds.
The argument is that improvements resulting from this tradeoff would help the square function better as a regional destination and as an asset for surrounding neighborhoods.
Other ideas include installing a north-south multi-use path that would cross the RTA tracks to link the north and south sides of the square. The path would connect with a proposed trail in the center median of Moreland Boulevard that would link to regional bike trails.
The plan proposes adding up to three new parking garages, and it identifies numerous development sites behind the square’s principal buildings, which could add muchneeded density to the area, not to mention shoppers.
A key idea is that of transferring ownership of the square’s public spaces to a nonprofit entity capable of raising money independently for renovation and upkeep. The proposal would remove that burden from Coral Co., which has owned the square for 14 years.
Supporting public space
Coral’s president, Peter Rubin, has said that the square’s 130,000 square feet of space is fully leased, but that the income isn’t enough to support maintenance of the public spaces. He’s open to transferring ownership.
The square’s deficiencies are easy to see. Sidewalks are crumbling, greenery is ragged, and buildings need fresh paint. Oversized plastic planters installed by Coral look cheap and clash with the neo-Georgian architecture. Sidewalk panels painted with business logos look silly and peel after a few months.
The new plan is solid and credible, but it needs further development with detailed cost estimates. It also needs buy-in from public agencies including RTA, the Ohio Department of Transportation, Cleveland City Council and the administration of Mayor Frank Jackson. Money, from public and private sources, needs to be found.
There’s also the question of council leadership and the need for a nonprofit community development corporation in the Shaker Square area that could help carry out the plan.
The Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corporation and Ward 4 Councilman Ken Johnson, whose district includes Shaker Square, are subjects of an investigation by the FBI’s public corruption squad, cleveland. com columnist Mark Naymik reported last November. Johnson’s expense account is also under scrutiny by City Council, Naymik reported. The CDC and Johnson did not respond to requests for comments by Naymik.
With Johnson’s agreement, Ward 6 Councilman Blaine Griffin is heading the community advisory committee overseeing the redesign. He’s also leading a separate local group looking at whether a new community development corporation or an existing one nearby, should serve the greater Shaker Square, Buckeye, Larchmere and Woodhill area, part of which overlaps his ward.
Griffin, who has been mentioned as a potential candidate to succeed Jackson in two years, said he’s deeply committed to the redesign, and to removing Shaker Boulevard from the square.
“We need to make a determination: Is our community a pass-through or a destination?” he said. “I believe that’s what this plan details; it’s a destination.”
Griffin can’t fix the square alone, however. LAND Studio and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, which have pledged to stay engaged, need to persuade their funders to join them. Reviving Shaker Square will be an immense and complicated civic project. The Hargreaves plan is an excellent starting point, but the real work has only just begun.
Highlights of the Shaker Square plan:
Removing east- and westbound lanes of Shaker Boulevard and rerouting all traffic around the perimeter road. Proposing three locations for new garages and numerous sites for additional development. Proposing transfer of ownership of public spaces to a nonprofit entity that would own, manage and maintain them. Extending a north-south multipurpose trail through the center of the square, connecting to a proposed trail in the Moreland Boulevard median. Creating a large “event lawn” on the south side of the square. Constructing a “shade structure” for the weekly North Union Farmers Market.