Big cities struggling to connect with Great Lakes

May 22, 2017

Cleveland, which sits on Lake Erie, has big plans for its waterfront. But the city faces some major obstacles – like highways and railroad tracks.

The question for Cleveland and many other Great Lakes cities is: How do you retrofit an old industrial giant?


It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon on Cleveland's lakefront. Diners are eating on the patio at Nuevo, a year-old Mexican restaurant where a glass of aged tequila can set you back $30. People stroll between the water and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in an area known as the North Coast Harbor.

This lively version of the lakefront has been a work in progress for a while. And in 2014, the city picked a developer for the next stage. But he faces a serious issue: how to get people across the highway and railroad tracks that separate the downtown from the waterfront.

“Everybody has always felt that downtown lakefront needs to be redeveloped and we need access,” says Richard Pace of Cumberland Development.

Pace says the plan is to break ground on 16 luxury apartments in June. Then, eventually, two corporate headquarters, up to 1,000 apartments and a school next to the Browns football stadium.

Pace has been thinking about this stretch of waterfront for a long time. Thirty years ago, he was an architect working for another local company.

“ And we were commissioned to do the master plan for the lakefront back in the mid-80’s for then-Mayor Voinovich who wanted to bring the water closer to downtown and created North Coast harbor,” he says.

Back then, like today, connecting downtown with the lakefront was a central challenge. And common in a region built on waterfront industries like steel-making.

Ann Breen, co-founder of the Washington-based Waterfront Center, says it’s pretty much the same everywhere.

“There’s industry and then there’s railroads and then there’s highways and plain old dereliction -- vacant, neglected land,” says Breen, who has consulted, written books and held conferences on waterfront development since the 80’s.

Breen says those challenges make it a 30-year process wherever redevelopment is taken up.

Other Great Lakes cities are making similar moves to improve connections to the water.

In Milwaukee, there’s a road and park project underway to connect the waterfront to downtown. In Buffalo, officials plan to line the underside of an elevated highway with public art and special lighting.

Right now, two streets span the railroad tracks and freeway that separate Cleveland’s downtown from the waterfront. But they aren’t pedestrian or bicycle friendly.

Meanwhile, plans for a $30 million foot bridge have been shelved because of the price tag.

Pace says a bridge would be a good start. But he’d like to see the return of an element from that thirty-year-old plan he helped with.

“ If you add another city block in there with office space, with residential space, all of a sudden downtown is connected to the lakefront,” he says. “It's no longer separated from the lakefront.”

A community group called the Green Ribbon Coalition has other ideas for Cleveland’s waterfront.

Looking out from the Hilton hotel's 32nd floor bar, Dick Clough surveys Cleveland's seven miles of waterfront. He'd like to see more parkland out there.

Clough, the chair of the community coalition, says he's not against private development.

But there is one big opportunity that his group is eyeing -- a power plant that was recently torn down. Tat project, he says, could reconnect parkland and rebuild a beach that was taken out when the freeway was built.

"Our view right now is to try to get people to imagine the possibilities," he says.

That would require relocating a one-mile stretch of Interstate 90 that cuts the park in half. It's a project that could take another decade -- at least.

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