CNU CITY SPOTLIGHT: Streets in Cleveland
This post is part of a new series on the CNU Salons, CITY SPOTLIGHT. City Spotlight shines a light on the latest news, developments and initiatives occurring in cities and towns where CNU members live and work.
The below post is a City Spotlight on Cleveland's streets and thoughts on over-engineering new street design projects. CNU member Bruce Donnelly authored this post, his second in our City Spotlight series. Read Bruces's first post on Cleveland's urban agriculture form here.
Its approval of a Complete and Green Streets ordinance is Cleveland’s latest exciting move toward a livable, walkable public realm. Cleveland is pursuing a number of street-based initiatives that will reshape the city for the better. It does so, however, at the risk of over-engineering its public realm.
The West Shoreway
Figure 1. Main Avenue Bridge carrying the West Shoreway, Cleveland Ohio. Photo by D. Robert1
One of the bigger new projects is the West Shoreway. The original project to build a grade-level boulevard hit snags when faced with conventional traffic engineering and the cost of crossing the railroad tracks. The original plan for grade-level intersections has been eliminated, and the project is now essentially a highway.
The West Shoreway—part of Route 2—would have been slowed and connected to adjacent neighborhoods with at-grade intersections. They would have allowed pedestrians and cyclists to reach the lakefront. Since the traffic lights would only extend the average driving time by less than a minute and a half, the project was technically feasible. The north-south connections into the neighborhood would have made the adjacent neighborhoods more desirable, while I-90, which departs the Shoreway to veer inland, would still have been a fast parallel route for commuters. Unfortunately, the project is going ahead without that neighborhood-oriented vision. The intersections and the slower speed limit have been rejected at the state level, and humans are supposed to take underpasses instead of the grade-level intersections. It’s all almost just an upgrade of the existing highway. Our Governor is ostensibly in favor of developing Cleveland’s lakefront, but neither he nor the State officials responsible seem to be sympathetic to the tools we need to get there.
It’s not that Cleveland is shy about extending the street network. It extended East 17th Street from Euclid to Prospect to virtually no fanfare six years ago, and it is gradually extending Bessemer Avenue to provide a truck route bypassing quiet neighborhoods—to a similar level of note. Yet, it is exciting because Cleveland has demonstrated that it is ready to do a challenging project. The “Opportunity Corridor” is intended to smooth highway access to University Circle and to make it more accessible from the West Side. It is to extend from the present terminus of I-490 (the thankfully un-built Clark Freeway) to University Circle.
The Opportunity Corridor is not just exciting because of what it will do—which is impressive—but because it will not slice through neighborhoods. It is not a freeway. However, it is to be an arterial skirting the edges of neighborhoods. Instead of being designed for urban life, it is designed to be a conventional sprawl arterial2. It is more an engineering project than a place-making project. This is somewhat ironic, since the project leaders took great care to take as little property as feasible—in a city that can use as much economic development as it can get. The existing residential neighborhoods adjacent to it are to be buffered from it, rather than allowed to engage it with an interface of livable commercial and residential development. Although it will be at the top edge of a trench for freight and the Red Line—a rapid transit line—the project doesn’t promote new development configured to take advantage of the nearby stops. One hopes that once the project is ready to build, the opportunity to turn a circumferential roadway into an opportunity for light industry and urban life will become obvious.
Modes of Travel
The cycling community has certainly been able to reshape road projects. The Lorain-Carnegie Bridge is one of the more prominent manifestations of this trend. It has recently had a new bikeway placed along its northern side, which offers a spectacular view. The bike route is intended to be a bicycle and pedestrian route—though on a recent visit, the author gathered that some cyclists were confused on this point. Still, it is one of the least over-engineered projects, as it consists primarily of a wide space closed to motor vehicles.
Perhaps the most celebrated recent street project in Cleveland has been the slightly confusingly named Healthline, a bus-rapid-transit (BRT) line which spurred the reconstruction of Euclid Avenue for almost its entire length in Cleveland. Euclid is too narrow to make a proper multiway boulevard, but it is also too wide to cross easily. Thus, the Health Line catalyzed a wholesale redesign of the street. In 2008, it was rebuilt as a narrow boulevard with one car lane and one bus lane in each direction through most of its length. The redesign produced some convenient “pedestrian refuges,” and some of them were even designed as such. The on-the-ground experience is generally enjoyable, though it perhaps feels a tad over-engineered, which may be why it is popular. Its users don’t always use it as intended. Pedestrians jaywalk happily straight to the platform rather than to the intended crossing. When they are blocked, drivers veer into the bus lane and (also when blocked) sometimes vice-versa. In general, though, it works better than might reasonably have been expected. It has also been coordinated with significant redevelopment along the corridor—which has generally been street-supporting, except possibly in the immediate vicinity of the hospitals that give the Healthline its name.
A very sensible project would relocate a transit stop to a much more accessible location. The Red Line Rapid—the one running parallel to the Opportunity Corridor—will get a new stop at Mayfield Avenue. The stop will be in the precise center of an almost-perfectly shaped pedestrian shed of almost exactly a quarter-mile radius. The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority held a series of workshops with Project for Public Spaces to set the agenda for the new station, and the resulting project is notable for how un-complicated it is. The project will involve the un-dankification and refurbishment of a railroad bridge, which otherwise drips dirty water rudely on pedestrians. It will help put the pleasant commercial strip of Mayfield—Little Italy—within more dignified reach of the redevelopment happening at University Circle. This project may be a good example of the kind of synergy and simplicity that Cleveland needs.
Figure 2. Fleet Avenue, Cleveland Ohio. Photo by Bruce F. Donnelly
With this experience under its belt, Cleveland has adopted the “Complete and Green Streets” ordinance. That ordinance requires that both “green” street design for rainwater and “complete” street design for walking and cycling be considered together in street designs. As Green City Blue Lake notes, the next step is to ensure that its design guidelines will ensure that everything will, in fact, coordinate. The first test will be on Fleet Avenue in Cleveland. The author, incidentally, worked with Barb Clint of Clint & Greene Associates and the Project for Public Spaces on a street redesign there . . . in 1998. Today, Fleet Avenue is very wide for the traffic it accommodates, which means that it has ample width for bicycle lanes as well as sidewalks and parking.
Cleveland has an extensive urban fabric, and its citizens know how to use functioning urbanism. If there is any place that can sustain lightly-engineered thoroughfares, it is here. If Cleveland can avoid over-engineered solutions, and simply plan for the ways its citizens like to use its streets, its street-based efforts may be very successful.
1 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. 2 Yes, the arterial bypass terminates at the Cleveland Clinic, which is known for its bypasses.
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