Mid-morning on a Saturday, members of the John Carroll University rowing team pull up to the new Cleveland Rowing Foundation boathouse, located on a fingertip of land just before the Cuyahoga River winds behind Tower City Center. Shrugging off sweatshirts and ball caps, the 10 rowers make their way to the storage room's rows of yellow and blue, arrowlike racing shells racked up on shelves. On command, the first team flips its five-person racing boat so the inside faces down then carries it, surfboard style, to the Cuyahoga.
Given the signal, the rowers shove off from the dock. Pulling in sync, the team glides past graffitied walls and tangled mops of brush and trees that live under Ohio City streets and rails. As their oars cut through the water, the half moon crevice of the federal courthouse comes into view on their right.
In the middle of the river, the rowers put down their oars, strip off their T-shirts, close their eyes and bask in the warmth of the day. "I feel lucky every time I get in this boat," muses JCU coach Ron Dorchak. "As rowers we get to see another side of Cleveland — things that other people don't get to see every day."
That's because for a long time the Cuyahoga was viewed purely as an industrial passageway, a way to transport raw materials, cargo and iron ore.
In May, Cleveland opened its river to the public with the christening of the 7-acre Rivergate Park, the new home of the Cleveland Rowing Foundation, where individuals will eventually be able to rent kayaks and canoes, and benches will encourage picnicking families and daydreamers to sit and linger. A new skate park adjacent to Rivergate is being constructed by the city, and restaurants are sketched in around the edges of the Flats, in hopes of new visitors.
The goal is that the new park will be one of the first steps in transforming the Cuyahoga from a punch line to a key component of a better, more vibrant city. But the journey so far has been as murky, winding and crooked as the river itself — and there's at least a few critical bends left to navigate.
The health of a city can be gauged by the strength of its heart, and for a long time, Cleveland's rusty brown, oil-filled Cuyahoga River was our coronary artery disease.
The fouling of the Cuyahoga began in the 1850s, when schooners, steamers and canal boats clogged the river's banks. As early as 1881, Mayor Rensselaer Herrick referred to the Cuyahoga as "an open sewer through the center of the city."
By the 1920s and '30s, Cleveland was an industrial powerhouse, ranked eighth in the number of industrial workers it employed and seventh in the value of its total products. Not surprisingly, factories claimed most of Cleveland's waterfront property for production with little thought to the river. "[They] saw the Cuyahoga as a dumping ground," says Jim White, executive director of the Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization. "They used the river as a conveyor for discharge."
Everyone knows what happened next: An oil slick caught fire on the Cuyahoga in June 1969. It attracted the attention of the world, which saw the Cuyahoga's smoldering flames as emblematic of the city's declining virility. And for 40 years, the fire has defined the ethos and esteem of Clevelanders.
"Our psychology is tied to the water," explains Councilman Joe Cimperman. "The river is where Cleveland started over 200 years ago. It's where we came from, it's in our DNA, and its [health] affects our view of ourselves as a city."
In 1982, early rising Clevelanders reported a rather odd sight: a man, in a wind jacket and racing shell, rowing the Cuyahoga River.
The stranger's name was Ed Ford, a 20-something actuary with a degree from Brown University and a love of adventure, competition and the water. Ford had moved from California to Cleveland to take a job at Progressive Corp. The Connecticut native had been an avid rower in high school and college, and he wanted to get back on the water.
"I knew intellectually that the water was dirty," Ford says. But he'd learned to row in prep school just outside of Boston, where the water was really dirty.
"I'd raced in places in the Northeast where the phosphate levels were so high it made the water shimmer," he recalls. "So I guess in comparison, the Cuyahoga didn't look that bad."
One bright morning in early spring, Ford took his racing shell out of its storage space in his apartment hallway, searched out a power-boating dock, and lowered himself into the river.
"The water was actually pretty good for rowing," Ford recalls. "It was quite calm. The only problem was the ore freighters." When they'd roll through, waves tossed his boat around like a toy.
Most people, hearing of Ford's venture, recoiled in horror. And Ford received the first ticket of his life, from Coast Guard patrolmen who chastised him for not having a life jacket on hand.
It turned out, however, that there were other passionate would-be rowers in the city who saw brilliance in Ford's insanity and joined him on early morning rows.
"We got to see the city come alive," says Bill Braun, one of the original team of rowers. At daybreak, the river was quiet with few freighters and little traffic overhead. The only sounds were the slow, mathematical rhythms of the oars dipping in and out of the water.
"It felt almost romantic," adds Jennifer Frutchy, one of the early rowers and now Ford's wife. "It was like we were floating through the wilderness, like we were returning to Cleveland's roots."
Near the end of the decade, the effects of the Clean Water Act and the remedial water cleaning mandates from the state began baring fruit. Frank Samsel's hazardous-chemical-sucking, river-cleaning vessel called Putzfrau (German for "cleaning lady"), which had been working the river for years, had soaked up hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil. Herring started appearing in the water in a place that was said to have no fish.
Other signs of life also began to emerge along its banks. Sherwin Williams' Cleveland Technology Center opened behind Tower City in 1986 and developed a recreation and health trail that took employees down to the Cuyahoga.
Other young, trend-seeking Clevelanders started heading there as well. The deserted factory buildings and the gritty river made the scene industrial chic. In 1987, Shooters opened on the West Bank of the Flats, followed by national chains. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of Clevelanders were streaming down to the river for entertainment and cheap thrills.
But that lasted about as long as the fire of '69, burning out in an oily slick of safety concerns, crime and neglect by the early 2000s. "The Flats were great for a single-use moment in time, but it wasn't sustainable," says Tom Yablonsky, executive vice president of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. "If you look at the three things that generally make a place sustainable: historic preservation, mixed-use residential and public access to the river, the Flats has none of them."
On a Saturday morning in early June, Yablonsky, wearing a bright yellow shirt and running shoes, ambles down Euclid Avenue, holding an extra-large coffee. Every week, the enthusiastic urban planner holds historic walking tours of Cleveland through the Gateway District, West Ninth Street and along the river.
"What I like about giving tours," explains Yablonsky, "is that most of the people on the tours have lived here forever but have never been to these places. The tours aren't just about the history and what Cleveland was; they're about its future as well."
Yablonsky has been obsessed with Cleveland's future since moving back in the 1980s. The Parma native earned his master's in urban planning from Indiana University while Indianapolis legislators were struggling with what to do with its deserted riverfront industrial property.
Indianapolis' answer was to build parks. In 1979, the Indiana General Assembly created the White River State Park Development Commission to explore the best way to implement trails and recreation areas along the river.
It got Yablonsky, a lover of the outdoors, thinking about the potential of the Cuyahoga Valley park system. "I thought it would be great to link the park to Cleveland's waterfront, which I thought was Cleveland's greatest, overlooked asset," he recalls.
And so Yablonsky, with friend Jeff Lennartz, co-founded North Cuyahoga Valley Corridor Inc. with the goal of connecting the park trails to Cleveland and four other counties. Realizing their mission required full-time attention, the organization hired Tim Donovan, a local history buff and former speech writer to Mayor George Voinovich, as the group's executive director.
The biggest hurdle of creating trails around Cleveland and the Flats was people's limited imagination, says Donovan. "They looked at the Flats and didn't see a future of recreation and green space. They just saw a tug of war between industry and entertainment. They didn't see the value of a publicly owned waterfront and trails."
That thinking began to change in the '90s when Congress declared a 110-mile stretch from Cleveland through Akron to New Philadelphia as the Ohio & Erie Canal National Heritage Canalway. About 80 miles of trails have been carved out since. Next year the Ohio & Erie Canalway Association will break ground on a portion of the Scranton Road peninsula, connecting Tremont to downtown.
But the idea of a verdant, vibrant Flats could not be filled with just park trails alone. There needed to be other things happening in the Flats for people to want to come bike or jog down the river. That's where Rivergate Park and The Trust for Public Land came in.
Since the 1980s, Cleveland rowers had been launching their boats downriver from their home on Scranton Road in the Flats, a sparse, bare-bones warehouse on the Cuyahoga River.
It was an expensive rental unit, but the rowers were content.
In 2009, however, the Issue 3 initiative that would allow a casino to be built in the Flats threatened their comfortable existence. If Issue 3 passed, the owners of the Scranton Road property could build a hotel on the spot where their boats were stored. They could raise the rent. They could kick the Rowing Association out entirely.
One thing was certain: "Whatever happened with Issue 3, we needed a permanent house," says Theresa Gang, executive director of the Cleveland Rowing Foundation. "But where do you go on the river with 120 boats?"
Their answer arrived when the rowers learned that the Commodore Club, a seven-acre marina with 1,000 feet of riverfront access, was for sale for $4 million. "It was a really good deal," Gang says.
But to purchase it, the association needed to raise a seven-figure sum — a large number for anyone, but especially for a group that had never raised a single penny before.
They needed investors. But few foundations were willing to donate $4 million just so 800 rowers could boat the Cuyahoga. That's when they realized the value of a connected Flats, a mixed-use recreational and commercial area that links the Ohio Canal Corridor Project, the Flats East Bank Project, the casino and the river.
It was an idea that was gaining traction nationally. In the 2000s, the value of land near natural bodies of water had increased like algae in August, spurred by the new creative class who wanted to live near places with park trails and natural waterfront recreation.
"Riverfront and waterfront areas in every area of the country have become very, very successful financially," explains Norm Krumholz, a planning professor at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. "Water is a magnet for commercial and residential areas."
That's what Pittsburgh discovered when the city started cleaning up its riverfront in the 1970s and '80s. Like Cleveland, Pittsburgh's waterfront had long been a conveyor for industry. The Allegheny River was so polluted that homes built near the water were purposely designed to face away from it, says Dennis Davin, director of Allegheny County Economic Development.
But when Pittsburgh started looking to redefine itself after manufacturing's decline, developers and planners looked carefully at the city's assets. "One of the main benefits we found was that more than any other city of our size, we had miles and miles of riverfront," Davin says. Bordering the waterfront were hundreds of abandoned brownfield sites, ripe for redevelopment if they could be cleaned to EPA standards.
The problem, though, was that developers didn't want to buy or invest in the property, for fear they'd be liable if later environmental transgressions were found. So, starting in the '80s, the city began buying the waterfront property itself, remediating the asbestos and diesel fuel-filled land with help from EPA monitors. The hope was that the cleaned waterfront land would be a selling point for businesses seeking to expand or relocate and young professionals looking for waterside living.
Today, 185 miles of mixed-use riverfront properties line the Allegheny, Monongahela, Ohio and Youghiogheny rivers in Allegheny County. Southside Works in Pittsburgh, former home to miles of hulking, abandoned steel mills, is now one of the most happening spots in Pittsburgh, lined with residential units, national restaurants, big-name retail stores and corporate offices. Residents and workers see boaters with billowing, colorful sails on the river and joggers running along the riverside trail most any time of day.
"It put us on the map," says Davin, who attracted corporate entities such as American Eagle to relocate to the Steel City in 2007.
So the Rowing Foundation approached the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that helps facilitate land acquisitions for conservation groups, with a similar idea: The Flats would benefit from a marriage of recreation and industry along the river.
The Trust for Public Land agreed to help finance the acquisition if the group agreed to think larger. For the Trust, success was not just about preserving the row house; it was about connecting Rivergate Park to downtown Cleveland. It was about creating trails to Scott and Iris Wolstein's planned residential units on the East Bank of the Flats so residents could go out in the morning for a jog on a paved path that curved along the Cuyahoga River.
"What we started doing is bringing all these nonprofit groups that had been working singularly together," says Dave Vasarhelyi, the project manager for the Trust for Public Land.
The goal is that, by 2015, the Towpath Trail will link the Cuyahoga Valley National Park to Cleveland with paved paths leading from Rivergate Park to the nearby 21-acre Canal Basin Park. People will be able to rent canoes and kayaks at Rivergate, then walk to the Flats East Bank for some shopping and outdoor dining.
In May, Fairmount Properties announced that a burger joint and seasonal night club had agreed to open in the Flats by next summer. And the Wolsteins' vision of a Flats East Bank neighborhood with an 18-story office tower, hotel, residential units and riverfront boardwalk grew one step closer to reality in May with the pouring of the first round of concrete.
"There is a lot of synergy going on between the Wolstein project, the Towpath Trail and local government," Donovan says.
Indeed, collaboration is the new buzzword in the Flats development. "New private developments don't think of themselves in isolation," says Steve Strnisha, Project Management Consultants' director of finance services, who helped the Wolsteins receive $280 million in financing to jump-start their Flats East Bank project. "The new thinking is to integrate with the environment. Tenants and future tenants want water to look at. And on the other side, what good is it to have a trail that goes nowhere? I think the two developments go hand in hand."
Which all sounds pretty and nice. But the reality is a little bit less Disney-esque. There is a lot of work left to be done.
Rivergate Park consists of little more than a few patchy acres of green along the water, the boathouse and a gravel parking lot. It also has limited hours; on Memorial Day, car after car approached the park, only to be turned around by a locked chain-link fence.
By 2012, the Rowing Foundation hopes to acquire two more riverside acres and turn the bald, concrete brownfield into a place with trees, grass and picnic benches for families to lunch and gaze at the river. It also plans to add a concession stand for kayak and canoe rentals. "A lot needs to happen before then," Gang admits. "We have to raise the funds for seeding and removing concrete. It's a lot to do for a team of people who are primarily volunteer."
There are also environmental concerns that need to be dealt with before the Flats become the next San Antonio Riverwalk. A potential one-mile stretch of the Towpath, located between Harvard Avenue and Steelyard Commons, has already been slowed. The path runs through land where Harshaw Chemical refined uranium for the Manhattan Project during World War II. In January, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found evidence of uranium contamination and warned that the land should not be used for recreation until it's removed.
"The good news is that we're continuing to make progress in the cleanup," Donovan says. "The bad news is that it won't be finished till 2015."
The last miles of the Towpath are also supposed to run adjacent to Scranton Road industrial sites; supporters are holding their breath that there won't be more undiscovered, contaminated waste. "This just might be one of the most difficult miles of trail to be built in America," says Donovan.
Conservative regulatory agencies have also not been friends of development. It took the Ohio Department of Transportation more than a year to review a proposal for the stretch of the trail between Steelyard Commons and Literary Road in Tremont.
"We lost a whole year waiting for ODOT to review our plans, when they told us it would take two to three months," Donovan adds. "That's a lot of time to make up."
Further trail development might be hampered by the agency during the construction of the Inner Belt Bridge, which will rise right above the trail leading to Canal Basin Park.
There are also those who worry about the collision of an urban waterfront with everyday recreation users. Rivergate Park's open waterfront policy alarms them. "I'm greatly concerned about this plan," says White of the Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization.
"These waters are frequented every day by freighters," he continues. "People don't have the appreciation for their power or size. Putting amateurs in tiny kayaks alongside these freighters is putting them at great personal risk."
And even supporters of the Flats development project, such as Krumholz, are dubious that these new plans will change the entire economy of the city. "We will never be what we once were," Krumholz says. "The best we can hope to become a very nice city that provides decent services for the people who live and do business here."
These concerns don't dampen Yablonsky's spirit. "Cleveland started as a city on the water," he says. "All these renewal plans are taking place at the core or near the river. ... They are what will redefine our city."
On a recent Tuesday night, more than a hundred rowing and Cleveland supporters gathered at Rivergate Park to christen the new boathouse. The ceremony was supposed to take place outside on the dock beside the Cuyahoga, but persistent bone-chilling rain forced the ceremony indoors.
Inside the cavernous boathouse, high school rowers, still in spandex leggings and sweatshirts from their practice, milled about talking with donors in suits and name tags. In the snack room, a large sign greeted guests with the words: "Rivergate Park: The New Home of Recreation along the Cuyahoga."
About 15 minutes before the ribbon cutting, Mayor Frank Jackson arrived with his entourage. Braun and the other executives rushed to shake his hand. "Have you ever rowed in Cleveland before?" someone asked. The mayor shook his head no. "Well, if you ever want to go out on the river, just call us," Braun said earnestly. "Let us know, and we'll take you out." The mayor smiled politely but remained noncommittal.
But the Cuyahoga River was the unofficial guest star of the night. The water ebbed and flowed, lapping up against the edges of the dock as the guests looked on.
"A lot of Cleveland thinks that the Cuyahoga is a place that divides Cleveland," said Robert Valerian, chairman of the board of the Cleveland Rowing Foundation. "But rowers don't look at it that way. We see the Cuyahoga as a place we all come together, East Side, West Side. When we are on the Cuyahoga, we are all in the same boat, literally."