Urban Outfitter

Ann Zoller believes that green space doesn’t just dress up a city. For the executive director of ParkWorks, it can be transformative, creating better neighborhoods and fueling economic development. Yet her greatest challenge is before her — re

Ann Zoller gazes over a visit plain of dirt.

On this sun-warmed April morning, one Cleveland has waited months for, a dozen guys in yellow striped vests buzz across the big, soft-brown plot among the office buildings and apartments at Chester Avenue and East 12th Street.

Zoller’s not dressed for a construction site, but to embrace the season: Her wispy blond hair falls onto a tan sport coat, paired with a lime green top as bright as spring. With an eye for design, she sees how it all fits together.

This spot used to be a park. Not what you’d imagine, but a cavernous, concrete eyesore. Making it even uglier, this place was scarred by one of Cleveland’s most shocking murders of 2009, the shooting of a 28-year-old Cleveland Clinic employee lured to the park by a fake pot deal.

Now, it’s being remade as a safer, sunnier, more open space, one cops can see into from their squad cars, the green center of a growing neighborhood.

“You feel so much more connected to the surrounding buildings and to the street,” says Zoller, the person most responsible for the park’s rebirth. “You’ve got sight lines. It’s already a big improvement.”

And that’s before a single blade of grass grows.

Zoller stops at the site superintendent’s drafting table to explain the blueprints. To our left, a green lawn and a gentle hill will invite kids to run around and nearby apartment dwellers to toss a Frisbee. To our right, trees from the old park shade the ground: Maple, locust, sephora, the blueprints note. One maple will shelter the bust of the park’s namesake, the late mayor Ralph J. Perk. Tiny gravel will cover the plaza’s shaded half, giving off a satisfying crunch with each footfall, an idea borrowed from parks in Paris.

For seven years, Zoller carted around poster-sized renderings of the park’s redesign, trying to find funding for it. Federal and county money both fell through. Finally, Mayor Frank Jackson approved a key half-million-dollar grant in 2008.

“People will tell us no,” Zoller says, “but until they tell us no 17 times, we don’t necessarily listen. If we think something is worthy, we’ll figure out a way to get it done.”

That can-do attitude and record of getting results have convinced many civic leaders to turn to Zoller and her nonprofit, ParkWorks, for help building playgrounds, reviving old parks and jazzing up little plazas. But Zoller’s vision for Cleveland is much bigger. She wants to guide downtown’s landmark public spaces from the dull, gray present to a spring-like rebirth.

She’s helping the Medical Mart and convention center’s developer redesign the century-old downtown malls. Even more ambitious, ParkWorks and the Downtown Cleveland Alliance want to radically remake Public Square into a destination as inspiring as the best urban parks in the country, possibly even by building a giant hill right over Superior Avenue and Ontario Street.

Zoller, 46, believes creating exciting public spaces is not just about carefree recreation — it’s a key to making Cleveland a place more people want to live. She’s emerging as a key ally of younger politicians, such as Joe Cimperman and Chris Ronayne, who are gaining in influence and trying to put their optimistic stamp on the city.

“For some people, a plan is the world,” says Cimperman, downtown’s city councilman. “They just love to plan. For Ann, the plan is just a means of getting something done.”

ZOLLER STOPS AT A ROW of concrete flowerpots on Euclid Avenue’s brick sidewalks near East Ninth Street. They’re no ordinary pots: They are 4 feet tall and open up into rose-like swirls.

“The wrap,” Zoller explains — they’re shaped like the tissue paper that flowers come wrapped in. With a flourish, she twirls her arm from behind her back and holds out her hand as if it’s curled around an invisible bouquet.

Flowers and leaves spill from the concrete: canary yellow blossoms dappled with purple, clusters of white flowers tinier than shirt buttons, bold stalks tufted with purple and orange petals. The pots, designed by a Cleveland Institute of Art graduate, add a creative spark to the brick sidewalks, complementing the shiny sleek silver of the HealthLine station in mid-street. More pots grow from the brick to the west and the east, 103 in all, running along Euclid, here and there, for blocks.

The pots were born in March 2009, deep in the dark heart of the recession. “And I was asking banks for $300,000 for flowers!” Zoller says. Her board questioned the timing, but she thought it was important to make Euclid more inviting, to do something inventive.

“For me, it was a moment when you either roll back the sidewalks and go home or you don’t,” she says. “It was important to me that we showed that there were signs of life, and that regardless of the dire situation, there was a way forward.”

That’s the gospel urban optimists preach: Flowers in the city aren’t just flowers. They can make the difference between a downtown people want to work and live in and a place they don’t.

“Ann really understands that parks aren’t just a nice thing to have,” says Zoller’s friend Lillian Kuri, the Cleveland Foundation’s architecture and urban design director. “They’re … an essential piece of an economic development strategy. They aren’t just extra. If you don’t have them, you don’t really have a vibrant city.”

Zoller’s enthusiasm is contagious. It helps her attract partners and funding for her projects. It also helps her persevere through setbacks, failures, even tragedies.

That tenacity helped convince former Mayor Mike White, who was fond of promoting young, intelligent go-getters, to name Zoller an assistant parks and recreation director when she was 28 and director by 29. Part of her job was overseeing the city’s midnight basketball leagues, which gave teenage boys in troubled neighborhoods a safe place to go at night. Zoller had played Catholic youth basketball as a kid, so she decided she’d do the play-by-play on the cable broadcasts. “I thought, Who will see this?” she recalls. Instead, people often told her they recognized her.

Those late nights on the courts also exposed her to the worst of Cleveland’s heartbreak: teens dying violently on the streets. “You never ended the season with all the players who started it,” she says. It was a shock to the young woman who’d grown up in Bay Village, graduated from Magnificat High School and majored in French at The Ohio State University. But it didn’t cause her to despair. It convinced her that city recreation programs weren’t frivolous, but terribly important to people’s lives.

“You can be either daunted by the need,” she says, “or compelled by the impact you are having when things go right, when you touch these kids.”

Her passion for improving the city has animated everything she’s done since. As program director for the city’s bicentennial commission in 1996, she organized events that drew hundreds of thousands of people, including a three-day 200th birthday party on the Cuyahoga River. Jacobs Field and the Rock Hall were new then, Cleveland’s comeback exuberance at its peak. Zoller’s events celebrated that triumph.

As the bicentennial ended, Zoller interviewed for the executive director job at ParkWorks, then named Clean-Land Ohio and known for its work on neighborhood gardens. “The organization was more vested in planting trees and flowers,” she says, “and I said very clearly that my interest would be more in the people end of things: how these green spaces affect its children and people and its future.” She got the job.

ParkWorks, renamed for its new mission, raised $4 million in three years to build 19 neighborhood and elementary school playgrounds in Cleveland. It also rebuilt city parks and came up with new ways to attract people to them. When Zoller learned that residents of Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood were afraid of nearby Forest Hills Park and wouldn’t let their kids play there, she organized a kite festival, Sunday religious services, a book club and an ice cream social.

Her reputation grew. When Chris Ronayne, planning director for Mayor Jane Campbell, wanted to rip out a parking lot on downtown’s Mall C and restore it as a park, he turned to Zoller for help.

“My belief is, place-making matters,” says Ronayne, now president of University Circle Inc. “ParkWorks is an expert at place-making.

“They develop the in-between places,” he continues. “Between the buildings is Ann Zoller.”

Joe Cimperman says Zoller transformed how he looks at his job as a city councilman by inviting him on a foundation-sponsored 2001 tour of New York City parks. They visited eight parks in 25 hours, including Battery Park at Manhattan’s southern tip, to see how first-rate squares and plazas and greens, bustling with people, made neighborhoods vibrant and memorable.

“Parks and public space mean community development, which means economic development,” says Cimperman. “I came back, thinking, Man, there’s nothing we can’t do in Cleveland!”

Cimperman has worked with Zoller on projects across his sprawling ward. (His connection to ParkWorks is also personal: His wife, Nora Romanoff, is the group’s associate director.) Zoller helped renovate Tremont’s Lincoln Park in 2003, replacing cracked sidewalks, adding more lighting. It attracted more people to summer events there: Shakespeare in the Park, GroundWorks Dance Theater performances.

Zoller has helped develop “green space after green space,” Cimperman says, that have “made a huge difference in the positive life of the city.” 

ZOLLER SPENT YEARS LIVING in Ohio City, close to Wendy Park and her other favorite city park, Edgewater. She loved going to the lake during winter to watch surfers battle the waves.

“In the winter, there’s something about that lake,” she says. “It’s stark, it’s beautiful. I love the tone of the lake in the winter, the steel gray.”

Last year, ParkWorks scored a major coup: It bought an unused railroad line that curls north from Tremont through the West Bank of the Flats. Zoller wants to turn it into a walking and biking trail that’ll connect the near West Side to the lakefront — and someday, to the Towpath Trail. Once it’s done, bikers will be able to ride from Tremont north past the river’s Irishtown Bend, under the old Superior Viaduct, through the West Bank of the Flats, over the Old River Channel to Whiskey Island on the bridge that serves the Cargill salt mine, then over another railroad line on a bridge yet to be installed, into Wendy Park, and to the lake. Zoller hopes to have the trail, dubbed Link to the Lake, open by 2013 or 2014.

But Zoller won’t be in Ohio City to enjoy it. Last year, she moved into her fiance’s Gates Mills home. Now, visiting a park means hiking or biking in the Cleveland Metroparks’ North Chagrin Reservation.

“She spends all her professional life in the city,” says her fiance, John Mueller. “It’s probably nice to get away from that a couple of hours a day, sit out on the back porch and look out at the Chagrin River.” Mueller’s property borders a nature preserve. Zoller keeps a garden in back. Her 8-year-old dog, Daisy, a mixed breed who looks like a little blond fox, chases mice, barks at the neighbors’ dogs and rides to work with Zoller every day. They go for walks in the Erie Street Cemetery at lunch.

Mueller, CEO of CapitalWorks, a Cleveland private equity and hedge fund firm, got to know Zoller when he served on ParkWorks’ board of directors audit committee. He resigned when it became obvious that good accounting practices and their budding relationship didn’t mix.

Soon after moving to Gates Mills, Zoller had a chance to leave the city behind completely. She was invited to apply for the job of Cleveland Metroparks executive director — and earlier this year, she was named one of three finalists. She would’ve gone from directing a nonprofit with 12 staffers and a $5 million budget to taking over a staff of 600-plus and 15,000 acres of parkland.

“I’m not the type of person who runs golf courses,” Zoller says, “and I said that to them — which is perhaps not the thing to say to someone who runs golf courses! — but I felt the need to be very honest about who I was.” She said she’d be interested in the job if she could lead the Metroparks into a major role in opening up lakefront access. The job went to Brian Zimmerman, former No. 2 guy at the county parks in Milwaukee. The experience reminded Zoller why she loves her job.

“I work on urban parks,” she says, a coy lilt slipping into her voice. “What I realized I love is the urban nature of it. … What really inspires me is the role of parks and public spaces in an urban environment and helping the city achieve its overarching goals.”

ZOLLER WALKS ONTO the downtown malls, where not much is happening. Public Hall’s enormous sandstone façade looks like silence itself, frozen into solid form.

Although it’s a perfect spring weekday, only a few people are sitting on the benches. A nearby lawn hosts two curious sights: tall, wild grasses grown waist-high around big, hollow globes, made of twisting metal bars, which rest on the ground like steel bocce balls thrown by enormous aliens.

The grass and globes were Zoller’s ideas, meant to invite people onto the lawn. After she helped convert Mall C from parking lot to park, she held meetings with residents to get advice on improving the malls. They told her the lawn looked so pristine, they didn’t think they were allowed to walk on it.

These giant downtown public spaces are where Cleveland optimism collides with Cleveland reality. Zoller tried to get people to the malls by organizing events.

“We struggled,” she says. She tried everything from massive picnic lunches to movies at nights. But there weren’t enough businesses or residents nearby. Even with a few hundred people, the malls feel empty.

This spring, ParkWorks was hired for a bolder remake of the malls: MMPI, the developer of Cleveland’s Medical Mart, named ParkWorks its landscape consultant. Soon, giant holes will be torn in malls B and C, the old underground convention center torn out, and the new one built, topped off with a new park. ParkWorks will help a nationally renowned landscape architecture firm from Seattle tame the malls’ mammoth scale, perhaps by setting off smaller spaces within them for picnic lunches, dog-walking and the like, much as the new Perk Plaza is divided into lawn and pea-graveled shade. The goal, Zoller says, is to “create a great civic space that also works for Clevelanders on a daily basis.”

Zoller and I walk into Public Square and stop in its northeast quadrant, between the fountain and the busy intersection of Superior Avenue and Ontario Street. Buses rumble by and exhale. Now and then, a car horn honks. Zoller looks south, toward the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, and southwest, where people wait for buses and walk in and out of the Terminal Tower.

“This does not feel like a single public space,” she says. “Each of these quadrants is about an acre. But if you look building to building to building, it’s 10 acres.”

ParkWorks, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance and Field Operations, the nationally renowned landscape architecture firm that remade the High Line, an abandoned railbed above Manhattan’s streets, into a popular park, have proposed three ways Cleveland could transform Public Square.

We could plant a bunch of trees in Public Square, creating an urban forest. We could frame the park’s edges with a metal latticework suspended overhead — a “vertical green space,” Zoller calls it, with vines hanging off it. Or, most radical of all, build a 20-foot hill right over Superior and Ontario, with traffic and bus stops passing underneath and greenery and recreation on top.

Zoller won’t say if she prefers the hill, lattice or forest. “I don’t think it matters,” she says. “My vote doesn’t really count.”

She says her job is to ask questions about parks and hear the community’s answer. But she feels strongly that Cleveland should do something at Superior and Ontario. “If Public Square remains as is, you can never really have a fully functioning, vital downtown because you have a gaping hole in the middle that doesn’t flow well,” she argues.

ParkWorks’ study took inspiration from some of the most successful new city parks: the High Line, Chicago’s Millennium Park, Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park. “They’ve driven new development,” Zoller says. “They bring corporations, residential and commercial investment to previously abandoned sections of what could be vital downtowns. This certainly isn’t abandoned, but it’s not thriving as it should be.

“I’d like to meet the suburban family that’s going to come down to Public Square. Destination Public Square. And spend the day. It’s not going to happen! It happens at Millennium Park. It happens on the High Line. ... This can happen in Cleveland.”

Raising money to remake Public Square may be Zoller’s ultimate test. So far, downtown business owners and other stakeholders prefer the hill, she says. But it’s the most expensive option: It could cost $40 million to $50 million — requiring a massive funding package of foundation grants, new casino revenue, business donations, and state, federal or local tax money.

So she returns to her most practical argument: Parks are wise investments. Now’s the time to improve Public Square, she says, because it’ll be right between Dan Gilbert’s $600 million casino and the $425 million Medical Mart and convention center, both scheduled to open around 2013.

“If you consider it on its own, $40 [million] to $50 million for a public space, you’re going to take a step back and consider that,” she concedes. But if a new Public Square “safeguards and shores up the competitiveness” of the Medical Mart and casino “and helps to assure that they do better, you’re asking a different question.”

Still, it may be a tough sell. Ken Silliman, Mayor Frank Jackson’s chief of staff, calls Zoller a strong partner who did a great job with Perk Plaza and the Link to the Lake. But ask him about renovating Public Square, and he pauses and turns cautious.

“We will not get actively engaged in that project until we are convinced there is a means of funding it,” Silliman says. Jackson’s five-year capital plan includes no money for Public Square.

Norman Krumholz, a city planning commissioner and urban studies professor at Cleveland State University, was Cleveland’s chief city planner in the 1970s, when Public Square was last renovated. Building a hill over Superior and Ontario is “crazy,” and all three proposals are “extravagant,” Krumholz says. He’s not convinced a major renovation of Public Square is appropriate.

“The problem with Public Square is the problem with the city: a falling population, a very poor population,” Krumholz says. “Parks and recreation probably have a much, much lower priority in a city that’s struggling on a day-to-day basis to make it through the day.”

Krumholz sees the Millennium Park comparison coming before it’s even mentioned. “The thing that makes Millennium Park in Chicago so great is not only the terrific designs, but the swarm of people who use that on a summer day,” he says. “There are tens of thousands of people in that park all the time.” They come from Michigan Avenue, Chicago’s art museum, its tourist hotels. Chicago is simply much bigger and full of many more people than Cleveland, he says.

It’s a classic argument in town. Inspiring comparisons to bigger cities are the mark of the Cleveland urban optimist. But there’s a classic squelch to them: Cleveland’s not New York. It’s not Chicago. Sometimes it means, don’t import an idea that doesn’t fit us. But sometimes it means something gloomier.

“Don’t expect too much?” asks Zoller.

“I think we should raise the bar of our expectations,” she says. “We can vote with our feet. We can come downtown. We can live downtown. There’s no reason we should not strive to be a truly great city.” 

Share this story: