The East and West banks that flank the Cuyahoga River aren’t exactly the first places athletes think of when it comes to recreation … yet. But plenty of muscle-stretching, heart-pounding, sweat-producing activity is happening in the area for both Cleveland residents and tourists. And the potential for more is real, particularly on the West Bank.
A core question is how recreational opportunities can coexist successfully with the vintage and newer industrial sites. Concerns about the high cost of land, land use and who is pushing whom out of the area are not uncommon. Complaints about reoccurring annoyances that can turn into dangers (think speeding trucks on narrow streets and rogue jet skiers) also frequently lap up on the banks.
But the Flats keeps evolving. Some city planners have declared another “renaissance” for the area. This time around, it includes recreation, with organizations looking to change the Flats into a place Clevelanders can physically play and seriously work out.
Vision for the Valley
First, you have to have a plan and figure out how get there, meaning not only the concept, but physically, down into the Flats. Sean McDermott is the chief planning and design officer for Cleveland Metroparks. He points to the Vision for the Valley, a collaborative effort of the city of Cleveland, Cleveland Metroparks, Port of Cleveland, Flats Forward and Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), as leaders in redeveloping the riverfront.
Vision for the Valley, he says, is guiding the “balance of recreational, industrial and maritime uses and needs with land use.” All of those assets are linked and “for the most part, exist in harmony,” according to McDermott. Access for everyone is paramount, and that is vital for the renaissance.
“There are not a lot of places in the country where you can walk or ride a bike and see an industrial area and a downtown area, and then suddenly you are down by a river where you see milkweed and butterflies,” McDermott notes.
“We have finished two sections of the (Cleveland Foundation Centennial) Lake Link Trail that take you from the lake to the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail. We are working on the final section in Irishtown Bend in the Flats and will complete that trail immediately following the stabilization project of the hillside,” he says. “We would like to be done by 2025, but we can only follow the Port of Cleveland’s work before we can start.”
In 2009, LAND Studio purchased the land for the trail that is managed by Cleveland Metroparks.
Growing Green Space
Earlier this summer, the Port of Cleveland’s board of directors voted to approve a deal involving the acquisition of a key piece of Irishtown Bend from Mortgage Investment Group LLC, which has owned the land since 2018, as part of a project to stabilize the hillside and eventually create a large public park overlooking the Flats, according to Jade Davis, vice president of external affairs at the Port of Cleveland.
McDermott; Joseph Roszak, Metroparks chief operating officer; and others envision the future Irishtown Bend Park having a “regional aspect that would attract tourists.” With a 900-foot-long riverfront promenade, the project “is different from anything we have ever done,” he says, but still would be used by walkers, runners and cyclists. The master plan for the park also includes an amphitheater, according to McDermott.
Additional plans call for 12 day-use slips at Heritage Park adjacent to Canal Basin Park and six at Rivergate Park. McDermott calls the boat docks “the first time in recent history that there will be publicly accessible boat docks on the Cuyahoga River in the city of Cleveland.”
If visionary Mike Trebilcock and his wife, Gina, executive director of The Foundry Community Rowing and Sailing Center, have their say, there will be no shortage of trained boaters and sailors to use those boat docks. In 2017, the couple opened The Foundry in the Flats. The goal has been to serve as a resource for the community — to expose the community, especially youth, to rowing and sailing.
“Our initial vision for the organization was solid, but the initial operating plan, i.e., no plan, was not as solid as it could be,” confesses Mike Trebilcock, chairman and CEO of MCPc, an international technology company headquartered in Cleveland. “The pandemic gave us the opportunity to pause, and we built a business plan. Over the past 12 months, we have doubled down on the community component.”
While the Foundry, at 1831 Columbus Road, attracts established, serious athletes in these watersports, it also has made solid commitments to high school rowing and sailing.
“We have the opportunity to address deficiencies we’ve had over the past years in Cleveland,” says Trebilcock, noting that before the Foundry launched its sailing and rowing programs for area high schools, there was no formal organized training available to all middle school and high school students. In addition, the Foundry’s summer learn-to-sail and learn-to-row classes are open to everyone.
For some, finding The Foundry’s main facility has been a bit tricky in the maze of the Flats’ streets. And if you did see it by accident, you weren’t actually sure what the Foundry was. But all of that just got a bit easier with the completion of a two-story, 150-foot painted mural on the side of the building that depicts three rowers on the river. Also look for a new boardwalk on the property.
“Being on the water changes your perspective,” says Trebilcock. “It physically changes it, and it changes it for good. If you want your kids to think about where they are going and why, the water is a great metaphor for that.”
See the City by Kayak
Joshua Allen, owner of Great Lakes Watersports since 2021 and a computer engineer with NASA’s Glenn Research Center, often rented kayaks from the recreational watercraft business with his son before he purchased the 20-year-old operation. Allen knew a good location when he saw one — the Cuyahoga River was voted the 2021 Best Place in North America for Urban Kayaking by USA Today 10Best.
“Kayaks get the most attention, but we are a bigger boat rental business,” says Allen, citing five boats for rent (including three that are new), 40 kayaks (the largest fleet in the area), plus a huge dock, six boat slips and six kayak slips. “We are bringing back jet skis this year as well. You can rent here, but we will also launch people’s kayaks and bring you back up from the river for just a $5 tip to our staff. Kayaking through downtown Cleveland is a unique experience.”
Allen generally dismisses any major safety issues someone might bring up about the Flats — on land or on water. He calls his location “a really bad place to commit a crime because it is a one-way street with nowhere to go.” Also, he believes he has “really good security monitoring around the clock, being under the Nautica Entertainment banner,” so issues are usually quickly handled.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people who come down here are here for a reason, and they want to have fun and not cause trouble,” says Allen. “On the West Bank, we don’t have the clubs or all of the bars like the East Bank. I think with what is going on with the West Bank, including the improvements Nautica is implementing, that the Flats is headed in the right direction. It’s been an amazing journey already with the U.S. Coast Guard, ODNR and the city of Cleveland Police Department, which patrols our area. And the city of Cleveland has embraced me as the new owner.”
Allen also points out that with jet skis and other emergency equipment, he can get to any kayaker in trouble.
Of course, like the Cuyahoga River, there are twists and turns and nothing is a perfect line when you operate a business in the quirky Flats. Allen says his biggest challenge is keeping his customers on time because of one particular bridge operated by Norfolk and Southern, which must open to allow his watercrafts out to Lake Erie. The bridge operators are given a 30-minute notice, but Allen says it isn’t guaranteed the bridge will go up in 30 minutes.
“We are at their mercy,” he says.
A Hole in One
Of course, if you are a golfer, water is one thing you want to avoid. That’s no problem at the West Bank Golf Club, which opened in April in the Flats. Co-owners Jim Basar, Gabe Adams and Jay Graham are first-time businessmen who call themselves “avid but average golfers.” They joined the growing recreation movement on the West Bank because “it’s a little more affordable” than the East Bank for business owners, and they have an enviable 50-space parking lot, along with nonmetered street parking.
“There are other golf simulators in Northeast Ohio, but from Downtown Cleveland you have to drive 20, 30 minutes to get to them. We wanted to cater to young professionals who live and work downtown,” says Basar. “With our conference room, full-service bar and golf simulators, we have quite a few corporate events, corporate memberships and local sales teams that host clients. But we were surprised to get so many individual memberships. People say, ‘I’ll be here more than 10 times a month, so I might as well buy a membership.’”
The simulators have a driving range component, but they also have what Basar calls a “whole fleet of arcade-style, golf-related games that attract people who may not have the time or interest to play Pebble Beach.”
Other sports games also are available.
Locating in the Flats in a historic building (that started life as the Eclipse Iron Works foundry in 1879) with its high ceilings was perfect for his company, says Basar. He’s not quite sure how he and other West Bank stakeholders can “keep the area from turning into the East Bank,” but he says he’d like to keep his side “more active-oriented.”
He points to additional recreational activities that include indoor and outdoor volleyball at Mulberry’s, a social sports bar, as well as tennis opportunities.
Basar, too, has a bridge problem. He is not happy that the Center Street Bridge that directly connects him to Downtown Cleveland is still under construction.
“It was slated to open in August 2022, but we were recently told it wouldn’t be until next winter. That’s a little painful for a new business. We were hoping to use that connection to include Browns tailgaters and Guardians games attendees. It’s not impossible to get here, but it’s a little more difficult. We’re thinking shuttles.”
With all of this healthy physical activity going on in the Flats, though, the West Bank could soon be known as the place for flat abs and six packs.