"They know it’s there, but they have never really experienced it.”
A teacher talks about her third-graders in one of Cleveland’s elementary schools. Many of the students have never walked along the Lake Erie shoreline looking for smooth stones or other “treasures.” Some have never taken a boat ride on the lake or stretched out on a striped towel on one of the lake’s public beaches on a hot summer day. A few have never even seen Lake Erie except for quick glances from a car window or public transportation.
But Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes which collectively provide more than 20% of the world’s freshwater, has helped shaped Cleveland’s history, economy, culture and social structure. It is as important to the city as blood is to people’s veins. Yet, for far too long, people have placed barriers around the lake in the form of now rotting logs, broken concrete chunks, rusting chain-link fences and uncrossable highways. Natural shorelines have been devoured and steep surrounding cliffs eroded with time, waves and man’s poor management.
There have always been a few voices above the waves — eyes looking far across the breaker walls and minds envisioning what the lakefront could be to northern Ohioans. Individuals and groups, including Clevelander Dick Clough and his nonprofit Green Ribbon Coalition, still speak out.
Named for its concept of creating a ribbon of green space along the lakefront, the Green Ribbon Coalition includes members of the Cleveland Waterfront Coalition, the Cleveland Lakefront Parks Conservancy and other visionaries dedicated to transforming the city’s lakefront into green living space.
The coalition was off a couple of years due to COVID-19, “but we had time to reevaluate,” says Clough, who serves as the nonprofit’s executive board chair. “Now, we are back and are gearing up our advocacy efforts.”
According to Clough, the Green Ribbon Coalition is working on two major ideas for the lakefront, including the concept of creating a harbor land bridge to replace the concept of a pedestrian bridge. The Green Ribbon Coalition’s concept was created by Bob Gardin.
“We promoted the idea of extending the mall across the shoreway,” says Clough. “The Browns picked up on the concept, changed it slightly, and they have convinced the city that it is a really good idea.”
Haslam Sports Group, owner of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, has proposed its plan to extend a bridge from downtown’s Mall C to North Coast Harbor. Meetings are scheduled to iron out the details on the land
Of the lakefront projects currently on the boards, “the most widely known is the city of Cleveland’s pedestrian land bridge that connects downtown to the lakefront,” says Grace Gallucci, Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency’s (NOACA) executive director and CEO. “This project is very important, but we must maintain mobility and access and not add to transportation congestion or delay.”
NOACA has reviewed at least eight proposals from different groups, but Gallucci says there are really only three or four basic ones because others are more or less variations. As of early spring, the plans range from doing nothing to changing transportation routes, erecting a land bridge over the shoreway, using East Ninth Street as a base for a land bridge and taking down the shoreway completely. Gallucci also is intrigued by a tunnel idea that might solve concerns involving all forms of transportation.
“The Haslams want to go straight across, but the Main Avenue Bridge comes down on an angle, and it’s hard to do,” says Clough. “You would have to eliminate the west ramp, which means you would have to change traffic patterns. We went around it with our idea.”
The other vision from Green Ribbon Coalition involves relocating the freeway near Gordon Park to follow the bluffs, opening up all of the land to the north, where the CHEERS study starts.
“Which I think is a great idea,” Clough adds.
CHEERS, (an acronym that stands for Cleveland Harbor Eastern Embayment Resilience Study) is a comprehensive plan that aims to transform part of Cleveland’s East Side lakefront beginning with its first phase in 2023.
Cleveland Metroparks has led the way for CHEERS with partners that include the Port of Cleveland, the city of Cleveland, Black Environmental Leaders Association, Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) and Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). This past fall, Cleveland’s City Planning Commission approved the $300 million Metroparks plan (involving 150 acres of land and water) to create better lake access for several neighborhoods and better water quality.
Joyce Pan Huang, the city of Cleveland’s director of the City Planning Commission, was a resident of
AsiaTown and vice president of community development for MidTown Cleveland Inc., during the time community input for CHEERS was being sought. It was also when the COVID-19 pandemic had a grip on the city and many indoor activities were curtailed.
“In AsiaTown, there really is no big public open green space, so residents resorted to going outside and playing in parking lots,” says Huang. “The lake is our biggest asset here and should be celebrated. But only 22% of the county shoreline is publicly accessible. We have seen that Edgewater Park is massively popular. It’s become an important place for people to celebrate nature and the community. It has also jump-started and strengthened economic activity for the neighborhoods surrounding it.”
Sharonda Whatley is a City Planning Commission’s district city planner for Cleveland’s northeast side neighborhoods of St. Clair-Superior, Glenville, Collinwood and Euclid-Green — areas directly affected by CHEERS. Whatley assumes that “with the great job the Metroparks is doing with partners and funding, there would be no reason to think the city’s support would not continue under the new administration.” She welcomes the proposed trails, playground, shelters and green space, part of the 10- to 30-year project.
But, some believe those amenities and lake access have been a longtime coming in some neighborhoods.
“As we look at the history of how the East Side has been separated from Lake Erie, we see a legacy of equity concern. We have opportunities to change that,” adds SeMia Bray, co-director in the legacy of Jacqueline Gillon of the Black Environmental Leaders Association.
CHEERS has the distinction of being part of the Port of Cleveland’s long-term mission and vision, according to Linda Sternheimer, director of urban planning and development. Keeping the port open for commerce is vital. This plan, with EPA guidance, allows for clean, recycled dredged sediment from the Cuyahoga River to be used to create approximately 6 acres of new lakefront parkland between the East 55th Street Marina and Gordon Park. It will also establish an offshore isle dedicated to more open green space for residents’ use. The area could even become a tourist destination.
Dr. Scudder Mackey, ODNR’s chief of the office of coastal management, believes CHEERS can “address multiple challenges” found along the lakefront. Mackey sees it as an example for other Ohio shoreline or coastal areas that could be improved by changing from the present gray infrastructure, often with large armour stone and concrete blocks, to a green infrastructure — “a softer, nature-based shoreline.” It’s a vision many environmentalists share.
“This is a hybrid type of project where we try to protect shoreline, create wetlands, offer fishing opportunities and more open space,” says Mackey.
Visionaries also say any lakefront changes must not make things worse.
Kelly Coffman, principal planner for Cleveland Metroparks, understands that in certain places “an outer layer of protection from waves that come roaring in from Lake Erie” is important. Coffman says solutions and compromises are possible. She points to part of the Metroparks’ lakefront plan to create an inner cove to support watersports and additional wildlife habitat, especially for birds and migrating insects. The CHEERS project can serve as an example of what can be successfully done to enhance lakefront opportunities for all of those living lakeside or nearby, as well as Northeast Ohioans, she says.
CHEERS is basically full steam ahead, depending on additional funding and design/planning tweaks. Sean McDermott, chief planning and design officer for Cleveland Metroparks, says the goal is to have some aspects of the plan ready to go in mid- or late-2023, but that it “will take time to be finished.”
Of course, there are other visions for the North Coast that have merit, are pure folly, or fall somewhere in between, depending on who is doing the evaluating. Various stakeholders with assorted visions speak on record of plans complementing and enhancing each other.
But, like the waters off a Lake Erie pier at night, the cooperation and can get a little uneasy and murky at times. Still, it’s amazing how much cooperation has occurred recently, and it is a focus of the NOACA. The organization’s Lake Erie Connect Plan covers five counties
“We have a cornucopia of lakefront projects in Ohio,” says Gallucci, whose powerful regional planning organization covers three lakefront counties — Cuyahoga, Lake and Lorain — and also includes Geauga and Medina counties. “Our Lake Erie Connect is a Transportation for Livable Communities Initiative (TLCI). Usually those cover smaller areas, like neighborhoods. Rarely do they cover this much geography.”
TLCIs provide help to communities and public agencies for integrated transportation planning for better livability.
The far-reaching benefits for lakefront connectivity begin with identifying the assets along the lakefront and enhancing their connections to neighborhoods, says Gallucci. Then, Lake Erie Connect would link the assets of all three of the lakefront counties. The third aspect of the plan is to connect those waterfront counties with the two landlocked counties under NOACA jurisdiction.
Cuyahoga County hopes to increase access with its plan.
The Cuyahoga County Lakefront Public Access Plan, developed by Smith Group consultants, was released to the public on March 30, 2022, says James Sonnhalter, planning manager, design and implementation, for the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission.
The current plan notes that the county’s lakefront presently covers 30 miles of shoreline and six lakefront communities, including Bay Village, Bratenahl, Cleveland, Euclid, Lakewood and Rocky River. Public access stands at 22% of the area’s shoreline. The recommended plan would increase public access to 50% of the lakefront and add 8.3 miles of newly accessible shoreline.
“Accessibility is important, but so is the stability of the shoreline. We have a lot of erosion issues happening all along the east and west shoreline,” says Mary Cierebiej, Cuyahoga Planning Commission executive director. “A lot of homeowners along the lake have been investing millions of dollars putting down rock and other materials to try and stabilize the area. They can’t access federal dollars to help with private access. But we can. So, if we get public dollars to help stabilize the area, we can look at a more systemic approach to the problem, as well as a return to public access.”
The Beulah Park-Euclid Beach Connector Trail project on Cleveland’s East Side consists of two-thirds of a mile of rapidly eroding lakefront. Cierebiej calls the situation “an emergency — not something that can wait 10 or 15 years.” With an $11 million budget and cooperation from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, Cleveland Metroparks and private landowners, and supported by state and federal funding, recovery and new construction is expected to begin in 2023.
Ultimately, the adopted overall vision for the lakefront will be determined by the city of Cleveland, ODOT and NOACA, with stakeholder input, according to Gallucci.
The estimated costs for the various visions start at $200 million, but Gallucci says she is not particularly worried about where the money will come from. She says federal funding, ODOT’s Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC) money and local support (municipal and county) will cover it “if everyone comes to a consensus.”
As some of these ideas (and even probably some yet unannounced, newer plans get accepted, changed or discarded), the responsibility we all have to protect and respect the lakefront becomes dramatically more apparent.'
The Inside View
Patrick Nortz is co-owner of Otisco Engineering, which provides engineering, consulting and project management services that involve the environment, soil, water and underground utilities.
Nortz has been active in the Cleveland Waterfront Coalition and the Green Ribbon Coalition. He considers the founder of the latter, Dick Clough, to be a “visionary in terms of what is needed to help the lakefront in primarily Greater Cleveland.”
“But at some point, we will need more people like Dick Clough who will pick up the ball from the community standpoint for the good of the lakefront,” says Nortz. “With a new administration and Mayor Justin Bibb, I hope things will speed up and there will be more changes and access to the lake.”
Baiju R. Shah, president and CEO of Greater Cleveland Partnership, says the city of Cleveland asked his organization to continue serving as a “convener and coordinator for the many stakeholders that support lakefront development.” To ensure the city’s lakefront vision comes to full fruition, Shah says an “all-in alignment” is required, as well as an “all-in sustained effort.” Then the lakefront, downtown and neighborhoods will be available, accessible and broadly inclusive, he says.
“This is not a project that will be completed in two or three years. A lot of work is required before it becomes a space people will enjoy with lake connectivity and continuity to downtown. But, it will be incredible,” says Shah. “The mall vision — whether it is commercial, hotels or residential development and developed alongside this beautiful park — is a vision we want to see.”
Jeff Homans, vice president, building and places, at AECOM, an infrastructure consulting firm, says the CHEERS plan “seems to fall short on establishing better access to the lakefront from the St. Clair-Superior and Glenville neighborhoods.”
“Here again, Interstate 90 is the culprit, where vehicular passages under the Shoreway at East 55th Street, East 72nd Street and MLK Jr. Drive are less than pedestrian friendly. Today, all that connects the severed remnants of the original Gordon Park is the aging pedestrian bridge crossing the Shoreway between East 72nd Street and MLK Jr. Drive,” says Homans. “With a 30-year timeline and several 100 million dollars at stake to make the plan a reality, it seems that further reconsideration of a modest land bridge to better connect East Side neighborhoods and Gordon Park to the lakefront would be worthwhile.”