Cleveland Doesn’t Need Any More Open Space

Screenshot 2016-05-25 at 5.02.07 PM
Downtown Cleveland’s parks, plazas, and other assorted “open space”. Note the excess along Lakeside and the relative paucity along Euclid.

There. Did I grab your attention?

Cleveland is one of the Midwest’s overlooked gems. For much of the 19th century, Cleveland was one of the Lower Lakes’ most dominant cities, located where several inland routes, via the Cuyahoga valley, met Lake Erie. Unlike Toledo, which Detroit’s meteoric early 20th century rise clearly took away from, Cleveland held its own, reaching the country’s 6th largest city in the 1920s. Unfortunately, the Great Depression was particularly unkind to it, and Cleveland was one of the first major American cities to sink into long-term decline.

A typical Lower Lakes city, Cleveland has the same urban vernacular as its peers: detached wooden dwellings, brick commercial construction. This vernacular seems to have developed in the Mohawk Valley in the 1820s, as every other antecedent urban vernacular in the region clearly shows a preference for brick dwellings — something that the Mohawk Valley vernacular and its derivatives (such as the New England triple-decker, a Victorian creation, and the Lower Lakes vernacular and its Interior Western derivatives) eschews.

But what makes Cleveland special is its downtown parks system. Unlike Philadelphia’s or Savannah’s, these parks (other than Public Square) are not part of the original plat; rather, the bulk of the system — the Cleveland Mall, and Willard and Fort Huntington parks — were developed by the Olmsted firm in the early 20th century, near the city’s apogee. Combined with Public Square and the somewhat later Peck Plaza at 12th and Chester, these parks provide excellent open space for much of the city’s downtown.

The problem is, the core of the system is all but ignored. Lakeside Ave passes through the Mall and by both Willard and Fort Huntington parks, but is lined by plazas and interstitial green space. Willard Park, in particular, deserves a prize for the complete and utter disrespect done to it: its primary corner, 9th and Lakeside, is surrounded on all sides by office building plazas that totally duplicate the park’s function, without adding any value — or worse, as interstitial space — actively take away from the area’s ability to function as urban space.

Fort Huntington Park has a similar fate across Lakeside: Cleveland’s mammoth main courthouse and jail is set back on a lawn. A. Lawn. A lawn right across the street from an Olmsted park.

So I propose a new policy. Clearly, downtown Cleveland doesn’t need more green spaces. In fact, until they can figure out how to stop disrespecting the green spaces they already have, they could do with less! There is no reason for any Cleveland project, going forward, to build a plaza — particularly if it lies along Lakeside, a street with enough public investment into greenspaces that there is no driving need whatsoever for any private plazas. At all.

In fact, the opposite needs to happen: the edges around Willard and Fort Huntington parks need to fill in until they become proper squares in the city, instead of being treated as … mere afterthoughts.

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