It’s been 14 years, but the memory is still clear.
Shortly after taking the top city planning post in January 2002, Chris Ronayne crammed his tall, 33-year-old frame into a Jeep for a drive around Burke Lakefront Airport with a representative from the Professional Golfers’ Association of America.
On the northeastern end of the airfield, Ronayne wanted to build a golf course. Having piloted the mayoral campaign of Jane Campbell to victory, Ronayne was entrusted with shaping her developmental legacy. But he was stuck in a federal sand trap.
The Federal Aviation Administration had two options: tree farms and golf courses. “Of course, we opted for the latter,” recalls Ronayne, who sketched a short 18-hole links course and a driving range on the northeast corner of Burke. A transportation museum was planned at an adjacent site.
The whole complex was imagined to begreen and inviting, with views beckoning birders and bikers. A pedestrian path encircled the entire thing.
As part of a plan that stretched from Edgewater Park to what would later become the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve, the golf course would be a symbol of a new era. What had been industrialized for most of the 20th century was, in the 21st, intended for residents.
Ronayne and his team went up and down the lakefront taking 133 meetings — he can still remember the number — with surfers, boaters, residents and industrialists.
“The whole idea was to inspire a conversation with the people of Cleveland to focus our efforts on our greatest city asset, the lake,” says Ronayne.
The 50-year Waterfront District Plan that resulted was officially approved in 2004. It called for slowing the Shoreway speed limit to 35 mph from Edgewater to the Innerbelt Curve and creating a tree-lined boulevard.
At Burke, office buildings would replace parking lots. Behind Browns Stadium, more offices and apartments would offer views of the horizon. Boats would dock on infill land off the coast. The port would be moved and the old site transformed into places to live with a lakeside picnic meadow.
“This lakefront is a lakefront for the people,” says Ronayne. “The priority ought to be, as we espoused in the plan, [a] perpetual boardwalk and trails that are right against the water’s edge.”
Printed copies of the plan included quotes from John Ruskin, Oliver Wendell Holmes and New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger: “Urbanism works when it creates a journey as desirable as the destination.”
At the time, Cleveland’s urbanist journey was just beginning. The Downtown Cleveland Alliance wouldn’t be incorporated until 2005. Ronayne became Campbell’s chief of staff, but as the administration dealt with the effects of population loss and budget shortfalls, the Waterfront plan remained dry-docked.
Frank Jackson defeated Campbell after a single term. Shortly after he took office, the housing and financial crisis of 2008 decimated the neighborhoods. Priorities shifted.
But in 2013 as Jackson ran for re-election, he and Gov. John Kasich stood on a bluff overlooking the water and announced that the state would contribute $3 million on top of the city’s $4 million to begin transforming the West Shoreway into a boulevard.
Construction is underway with the Shoreway closed in spurts in early September for paving. The plan is lifted straight from Ronayne’s playbook: bike trails to connect West 25th Street with Edgewater Park, a leafy-green median and a 35 mph speed limit.
“The plan’s still up on the website,” says Ronayne, who is now president of University Circle Inc. and whose name is frequently floated as a potential mayoral candidate. “The city’s still using it, which is affirming.”
With characteristic eagerness, Ronayne had shown up more than a decade early. He designed a lakefront that would connect to and feed off a rollicking urban center that, at the time, didn’t exist. Now it does.
In the first quarter of 2016, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance pegged residential occupancy there at 97 percent. In downtown and on the near West Side, rents are rising — a sign of a healthy housing market.
For the people living in such neighborhoods, Cleveland’s urban core is a land of Great Lakes Brewing Co. milk stout and West Side Market honey. And as their interest is piqued by lakeside events such as Edgewater Live, they might begin to see the city as Ronayne, and Voinovich before him, saw it.
Not one for dark colors, Pace takes off his tan jacket and hangs it behind his chair. On this blustery, overcast August day, Pace is positively sunny.
As he describes what’s coming next, he looks out Nuevo’s windows and smiles from behind rimless glasses. The lakefront is the culmination of a career’s worth of planning.
While working at the firm of legendary local architect Peter Van Dijk, Pace helped draft a preliminary version of the Voinovich plan and worked on the proposed transportation museum. Pace wanted to have antique car rentals and biplane rides.
“My parents spent time out in California in the winter. In Palm Springs, you can rent a flight in a biplane,” he says. “It’s cool.”
In the late 1980s, Pace also helped plan a headquarters tower for Progressive Insurance. Designed by Frank Gehry, the proposed 60-story tower on the bluff overlooking the lake would have been topped with a replica of a folded newspaper. Progressive killed the project in 1991.
Pace left Van Dijk’s firm in 2001 and entered the development business. Since his early days renovating University Circle apartment buildings, Pace has amassed a reputation for subtle stylishness. At the Baker Electric Building, once home to one of Cleveland’s historic car manufacturers, he built an incubator for biotechnology startups. His management of the 5th Street Arcades transformed an underutilized building into a pedestrian-driven haven for locally owned small businesses.
Pace’s philosophy can be summed up simply: Build bit by bit with a useful purpose in mind. And make it cool.
“I think incrementally,” he says. “Instead of doing the big ta-da thing: Here it is, you’ve got a ribbon cutting, and it looks perfect. It’ll last 100 years. Well, it doesn’t.”
When the city put out a request for lakefront designs, Pace and his partners at Texas mega-firm Trammell Crow envisioned an amenity-rich neighborhood on the water with a school as its crown jewel.
The plan was submitted in July 2013. By 2014, Pace’s partnership earned a 50-year lease from the city with an option to re-up for another 47.
The plan is to build in phases. Nuevo, part of the first phase, opened in July. Behind the restaurant is an oddity: sand volleyball courts. The city didn’t have money to build them, so Pace picked up what an Ohio Department of Natural Resources grant didn’t cover.
“My wife kept asking me, ‘Why’d you build sand volleyball courts?’ ” he says. There is, after all, no money in enhancing a public park. “We need to add more activities like that,” says Pace.
Pace wants similar improvements to Voinovich Park, things that suggest an active space, a vital part of Cleveland’s everyday goings-on. “My landscape architect wanted to lower that slope,” says Pace, pointing across the restaurant to the park’s white concrete hill. “Then, from here, you have a 360 [degree] view of the water.”
Although he won’t divulge the exact figure, Pace says he spent twice what he budgeted to build Nuevo. “I wanted to set a quality standard here,” he says. Looking at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor now, he says, it hasn’t aged well: “It’s really cheap.”
The next step includes those plans for a 20-unit apartment building, followed by a 175- to 200-room boutique hotel on the grassy knoll between the Rock Hall and Science Center. Between the museums, Pace envisions a one-story indoor walkway.
“You’ll be able to walk from the Science Center parking garage over to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in February without going outside,” he says. “And not just as a corridor — with retail all along it.”
Pace had to reset the project with a new builder, but he intends to break ground in 2017 and have the hotel completed by the end of 2018.
The second phase of development — slated for north of FirstEnergy Stadium where a pair of former port warehouses currently sits — could start as early as next year. Near where Voinovich proposed an aquarium, Pace plans a corporate headquarters building, a set of 300 apartments and a school.
Just 15 years ago, planners and developers were practically begging people to live downtown. But now Pace feels there’s enough oomph in the market to expand beyond the millennials and empty nesters already living there.
“The demographic that’s not being served downtown is young families,” says Pace.
The school will be a primary attraction for those families. Although the specifics are still in flux, Pace is in talks with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. “There are a lot of good reasons for it to be CMSD,” he says. “But that’s not definitive.”
As a board member of Breakthrough Charter Schools, Pace has other options too.
The school is the keystone for Pace’s big gamble. He won’t say how much the development will cost until the end of the year, but it’s “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
In 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that mortgage bank Bellwether Enterprise was working to secure $700 million from a variety of sources to anchor the project. The mix of debt and equity financing, like the construction, will be completed in phases, according to a release from Bellwether.
With that kind of backing, Pace is betting on a socioeconomic pattern that has yet to play out: well-off young professionals valuing the lakefront enough to build families there. It’s a big play.
For Pace’s plan to succeed, the physical and psychic separation that shaped the lakefront for the better part of the last 100 years will have to be overcome. Residents must be able to bike easily to purchase groceries at Heinen’s Fine Foods and walk to their downtown jobs. More importantly, they will have to feel that the shore is a part of Cleveland and the urban fabric they so desire.
“This should be downtown’s waterfront,” says Pace. “It should be one.”