Path to Nowhere

The Towpath should be our region's greatest asset after the lake. But that depends on getting its last links finished — and soon.

I started biking into Cleveland from Summit County on the Towpath in 2002, soon after I turned 50. Once or twice a week, I unloaded my bike at a trailhead in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and began the 22-mile trek to my office downtown.

The first 11 miles were exhilarating — the sun slowly exalting above the trees, bullfrogs croaking, cranes preparing for flight. The scenery changed at Rockside Road, but the next six miles, north on Canal Road, blended gracefully with commercial and industrial developments. The ride under the Valley View Bridge was spectacular.

My bliss ended at Harvard Avenue, where the trail stops and the mean streets of Cleveland begin. I usually picked up East 49th Street, dipping down through the steel mills, easing across the railroad tracks. One morning, someone decided to power-flush the soot off the street just as I sped by. My Schwinn skidded out from under me, sending me to work bloodied, wet and bruised.

The ride became more treacherous the closer I got to downtown. I had to navigate steady traffic, merge ramps, construction and the suddenly opening doors of parked cars. Work was serene by comparison.

I longed for the day the Towpath would be finished and become an unbroken route into downtown Cleveland. Now I wonder if it will happen before I turn 65.

It could be another five or six years before the completion of the final five miles of the trail, from Harvard Avenue to the Canal Basin in the Flats. That's if we wait for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to finish cleaning the land between Harvard and Steelyard Commons, where some nasty atomic bomb stuff was once manufactured. That could push the finish line back to at least 2016.

Cleveland can't afford that kind of delay.

"The Towpath is one of the things Cleveland needs for downtown to become a great residential area," says Scott Wolstein, developer of the $275 million Flats East Bank retail, office and residential project. The trail will funnel into a 24-acre park there.

"For downtown to thrive, it's critical that we have more green space and recreational opportunities," Wolstein says.

The original Towpath ran along the Ohio & Erie Canal, completed in 1832, which transformed Cleveland from a backwater village to a major shipping port. From the Canal Basin in the Flats, goods were transported on the canal from the Cuyahoga River through Akron and ultimately to the Ohio River. A path was constructed alongside the canal for mules to tow the barges.

Now the Towpath is a 101-mile corridor that will stretch unbroken from the Flats to Zoar in Tuscarawas County when it is done. Last year about 2.5 million people ran, walked, skated and bird-watched on it, more than the combined attendance of the Indians and the Browns. It should be the region's second most important asset, behind only Lake Erie.

I was reminded that the Towpath can be an economic engine again on a ride to Akron this summer. The Rubber City has embraced the trail like no other community.

When I rode into downtown Akron at noontime on a weekday, the trail was crowded with hikers and bikers. I sped past the two outdoor concert stages, Lock 3 and Lock 4, that have opened along it. New restaurants, bars and, most importantly, condominiums have sprung up all around.

Akron's last link opens this month. Summit County's will open early next year.

"We had difficulties, too," says Akron Deputy Mayor David Lieberth. The Towpath had to be cut through concrete and across polluted land. "But we just went with the attitude that we were going to get it done."

Lieberth understands that the challenges up north affect the entire project. "The Towpath won't realize its real vision until Cleveland is part of it," he says.

Two men in Cleveland have shared that vision for decades. Tom Yablonsky has been involved with the Towpath since 1984, incorporating what is now the Ohio Canal Corridor as a nonprofit in 1985. Tim Donovan has been executive director of the Corridor group since 1990; Yablonsky, executive director of the Historic Warehouse District, is vice president of the board.

They faced indifference in Cleveland in the 1990s, when building stadiums and arenas took precedence. They made great progress in the past decade, moving the trail up to Harvard Avenue.

And they finally seem to have support from all the major partners: the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and the Cleveland Metroparks.

But now they're confronted with that report about the soil on the former Harshaw Chemical Plant site, where uranium was refined for atomic bombs until 1959.

So what? Let's work around that. For now, let's add a hike-and-bike lane on Harvard Avenue and Jennings Road to the trail behind Steelyard Commons.

In the meantime, let's finish acquiring the land from Steelyard up to Literary Avenue in Tremont, where riders and walkers can pause for a few moments to enjoy the breathtaking view of the city. From there, it's all downhill to the planned Canal Basin Park, where we'll be able to shop, eat, enjoy the scenery and pick up trails to other parts of the city. Almost 80 percent of the land for the park has been acquired. So let's not wait for the Harshaw cleanup. Let's start building ASAP.

"Cities take land by eminent domain for highways," Wolstein says. "Why not for bike trails? What's the difference?"

I understand his rush. He's investing a ton of money into the Flats.

I'm with him. The day the Towpath is finally finished into downtown Cleveland, I'd like these aging legs of mine to be still fit enough to take the ride.

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