You tend to do dumb things when you’ve been cooped up for a long time, like go to the beach in the middle of winter. A few months ago, I visited Kenneth J. Sims Park in Euclid. It was a cold day, with rainclouds gathering out over the water. There was no one else around as my wife and I walked down to the fishing pier there, which juts out into Lake Erie. We braced ourselves against the freeze, and walked the length of the beach, first along the sands to the west, and then the paved path to the east, where newly constructed berms held back the dirt of the bluff, and the waves roared in, swelling and crashing against the shore.
We Clevelanders tend to think of the lake as a companion, an attraction. But here was a fiercer, meaner lake, one that had already dragged sections of shoreline into its depths, and would do the same to me if given the chance. Water levels have risen to record highs in recent years, and lakeside property owners have scrambled to stop erosion, often at incredible expense. Though that has caused many headaches, it also presents an opportunity to shake up the status quo by wrestling with the single-largest impediment to big-picture progress on the lakefront: the preponderance of private owners.
For far too long, the vast majority of Cleveland’s lakefront has been the domain of those lucky or ruthless enough to afford real estate along its banks. According to Cuyahoga County estimates, 90% of lakefront real estate in the county is not publicly accessible. That reality has made a Chicago-style lakefront, where an 18.5-mile public path winds through four vast parks, past accessible beaches and marinas and museums, little more than a dream for most of Cleveland’s history. Here, the public has been herded into the likes of Euclid Beach, Edgewater and Lakewood Park. All are excellent, but they are depressingly few and suffer from a lack of interconnection.
The erosion crisis has, unexpectedly, offered a way to upset that dynamic by laying fertile soil in which new public spaces along the lakeside could blossom. For most property owners, stopping their land from sliding into Lake Erie is absurdly expensive. In exchange for local governments shouldering the cost of stabilizing their shoreline, some owners might be willing to allow new public trails, parks or other improvements to be constructed on their property. The Cuyahoga County Lakefront Public Access Plan is being formulated to explore that possibility along all 30 miles of Lake Erie shoreline in the county. Spearheaded by Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, who announced it in 2019, the effort has gotten into full swing this year with public meetings that will stretch into the summer. “If you want people to come and enjoy the lake, they’ve got to be able to get there,” says Budish.
The underlying model for the plan is in fact Euclid’s Sims Park. For years, the area where the beachside path now stretches was covered in brush. Erosion simply wasn’t an issue, says Joe Martin, who has lived in a house high on the bluff for about 20 years. The city had a plan in place to overhaul the area with additional public access as early as 2009. But without the erosion issue to force the project along, it proceeded slowly. Martin, who was president of the Lake Edge Drive Association at the time, estimated that in the 10 years from the plan’s announcement to its construction, he held roughly 20 meetings at his house about it. “Our initial, knee-jerk reaction was we’re going to lose our privacy. The whole thing was going to change, there’d be a bunch of noise,” says Martin. But then the lake waters rose, clearly illustrating the need for the project Martin had been talking circles around for years. “Giant chunks would just break off into the lake,” he says.
As the need to control erosion forced the matter, the city won converts, including Martin, by demonstrating that it would not big-foot private owners. In addition to stabilizing the bluff, the city agreed to build a private path to the shoreline and a concrete pad just for Lake Edge Drive residents, separated from the public part of the park by a gate with a combination lock. Residents were allowed to walk their dogs on the beach in the evenings after the park closed, like they had in the past. Those concessions, and the good-faith way the city engaged with residents, made Martin an advocate for the path project in the end. “At some level, have we given up some privacy? Yeah. But we have definitely gotten something in return,” says Martin. “It’s a nice public project.”
Euclid was able to acquire the land and easements needed to build the 3/4-mile pathway without resorting to drastic legal tools, says Allison Lukacsy-Love, the city’s director of planning and development. Only one owner out of the 88 in the project area was reluctant to give up his land, and the city paid fair market value for his property without invoking eminent domain. “All of a sudden you have property owners who are interested in doing that exchange of erosion control for public access, as long as it’s similar to the ‘Euclid model,’ where there’s a separation of public and private and the trail is not right in your backyard,” says Lukacsy-Love.
Though county planners are still gathering public input about which areas of the Cuyahoga County shoreline to focus on and have yet to propose any concrete projects, Budish says they intend to follow the “Euclid model.” Planners are working hand-in-hand with cities along the lakefront and the Cleveland Metroparks, and they have pledged not to force landowners and residents into projects they don’t want. “There’s no taking going on here,” says Michael Dever, county director of public works.
Though such a diktat has calmed nervous property owners, it also restricts the scope of the individual projects that will emerge from the plan. The “Euclid model” is an immense success on its own merits. But building consensus in one neighborhood is far easier than getting sign-off from thousands of property owners from Bay Village to Euclid, or even just several hundred in the same city.
But by starting modestly and addressing the private ownership issue head-on, the Cuyahoga County Lakefront Public Access Plan still has a chance of delivering more actual change than past stabs at refashioning the lakeside. The projects that could emerge might be less earth-shattering than we have come to expect from a plan with a border-to-border scope — perhaps a few new scenic overlooks, bike paths to link up disconnected parks, or another Sims Park here or there. But those parks and trails will be accomplishable to finance and build, and open to everyone. After most Clevelanders have been excluded from vast stretches of the lakefront for so long, that will be the kind of small democratic victory that should be celebrated.
“We want this to not be a vision that sits on a shelf someplace. We want this to be a plan we can actually utilize,” says Budish. “It’s going to take a while. But if you don’t start, you never get to the end.”