Shaker Square has everything.
Dining, entertainment, services, a development fight, systemic racism, several engaged civic groups who see the square as in need of revitalization, and zero agreement about how to go about it.
Most of the recent coverage of the square has been focused on the contentious issue of whether to close a section of Shaker Boulevard to cars. But one can’t help but wonder if the fight is really just a proxy for an underlying tension that continues to fester in Cleveland: For whom do we plan, build, operate and govern?
Like Cleveland’s Public Square prior to redevelopment, Shaker Square has seen decades of deterioration and under-utilization. A nationally recognized historic landmark since 1983, Shaker Square was built in the late 1920s as a car-centric shopping center complete with clothing shops, restaurants and entertainment amenities. The square, completed by the Van Sweringen brothers, sat between the austere, majority-white Shaker Heights and the working-class (and soon to be majority-black and red-lined) neighborhoods at the edge of the city.
Calling it a “square” was oxymoronic branding by the Van Sweringen’s hand-picked architect Philip Small, who embraced the Georgian Revival architectural style, with its focus on symmetry. Despite its name, the square was not designed to be fully square-shaped. Instead, it was shaped like a squished octagon to better accommodate the automobiles of its intended clientele — Shakerites wealthy enough to purchase a car and fill it with merchandise.
Over the last 90 years, however, the square has aged, and the community around it has changed dramatically. White flight and segregated living patterns have shaped those neighborhoods, despite efforts like the Ludlow integration experiment, which paved a path to homeownership for black residents in the areas to the south and west of the square.
The square has become a crossroads between two very different Clevelands, stuck in a pattern of decline. Neither path available in the current fight — build a greenway or keep a roadway — will somehow magically reinvigorate a space where the underlying tension has little to do with automobile access and far more to do with social access.
The idea that tensions caused by bad historical actors and institutional design can be resolved through a new physical layout is laughable. Can a newly revitalized and designed space move an equity-driven process along? Certainly. However, rather than focusing on a direct effort to deal with the question of the square’s relationship with its constituencies, dozens of organizations are attempting to manage those concerns through physical redesign. Business owners, nonprofits, public agencies and community groups have dedicated countless hours to that redesign effort led by Land Studio and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress.
To their credit, Land Studio and CNP spent months collecting data and insight into the various uses and preferences of those who work, live and shop in the square. They held numerous neighborhood meetings and created accessible online surveys. They gave press interviews. They even released several episodes of a podcast.
But the conclusion they reached after all that engagement dealt narrowly with physical preferences: what people wanted the space to look like (pedestrian-friendly), rather than how underlying social tensions manifested in people’s experience of the space.
Their proposal included eliminating the portion of Shaker Boulevard that cuts through the middle of the square. Planners were hoping to replace the road with a walkable central area, like a park with benches and grass, that would be better suited for the square’s events, such as a farmers markets and concerts, and would encourage more everyday strolling and shopping. Traffic would have been redirected to the outer ring of the square to allow for a more cohesive design inside the octagon.
The plan quickly attracted many vocal supporters. But it also attracted a group of detractors, most notably several prominent members of the business community, who organized a protest.
Former Cleveland city councilman John Lawson, who organized a protest group, says closing the boulevard to cars would do more harm than good. He argues the vitality of the square relies on car access.
“Everyone wants to see improvements, but we don’t want to see it all closed off,” says Lawson. “[Proponents of the redesign] want to change the historic character.”
Brandon Chrostowski, who owns Edwins restaurant on the northwest corner of the square, as well as other businesses in the area, has also emerged as a vocal opponent.
He lives near the square and says completely eliminating access isn’t the right answer. He recommends installing bollards to close the road at specific times.
“One thing that needs to be cleared up is that we’re not against any change here. Let’s just do that in a way that’s not going to cripple the business community, transportation, etc.,” says Chrostowski. “Bollards could go up on the weekend and then the bollards decrease, and traffic remains during the weekdays.”
As of early January, the whole mess had clearly spooked the “pro-closure” planners. Most of the stakeholders I spoke with preferred to only provide background information. A community development professional, a city of Cleveland employee and several nonprofit and academic sources asked that their comments not be on the record.
As far as the future of the plan, Gregory Peckham, executive director of Land Studio, confirmed that Burten, Bell, Carr Development Inc. will be the primary contact for the redesign effort moving forward.
“The absence of a high functioning community development corporation in the area was most certainly a critical missing component during the planning effort for Shaker Square and its connected neighborhoods,” Peckham said in a statement. “We couldn’t be happier that BBC is ramping up their involvement in this part of the neighborhood and its future.”
A representative of CNP confirmed the news.
Will Burten, Bell, Carr’s involvement reorient the issue back to the central concerns of the square? Perhaps. But, like the city it resides in, Shaker Square’s slow decline exemplifies the need for Cleveland to face towards equity and resolution rather than business as usual. The challenge now, over 90 years after the square’s creation, is whether we can do the emancipatory, equity-focused work required, especially in a legacy space built in an era of segregation and shaped by modern market pressures.
If a large, communal green space can unite the area around the square, it’s worthwhile. But that alone won’t be enough. Otherwise, like its city, the square will spend years chasing dreams of imagined future success instead of investing in real, plausible changes that start with people, not landscaping. Those changes might irritate a few. But they can be transformative for many.