Cleveland Lakefront Rendering Comrade Lakefront Comrade
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Richard Pace breezes past the hostess station at Nuevo Modern Mexican & Tequila Bar on the East Ninth Street Pier as if he owns the place. Which, in fact, he does. “You mind if we just grab a table?” he asks the pair of young women, not really asking. 

He points inside. “They are really busy … ” one hostess says half-heartedly. Pace dives ahead anyway, swinging open a glass door with one hand, black portfolio in the other.

He stops short, looking around. Customers are packed shoulder to shoulder at the bar. The rows of booths with orange seats are almost all full. Folks are crowded around the tables too. It’s 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, and to Pace’s surprise, the joint is hopping. 

Pace breaks into a sheepish grin. The guy who built the place can’t find a table. He retreats to the hostess station. “I didn’t expect it to be like this,” he says as they set up a high-top in the corner. Then, the ultimate Pace superlative. “This is cool.” 

Pace orders a Diet Coke and pulls out a set of plans for an apartment building. Just a few steps away near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, he wants to build 20 apartments atop 7,000 square feet of retail. 

“We haven’t released it architecturally because I’m meeting tomorrow to find out if I can afford it,” he says with a laugh. “You never know. You never know.”

Each apartment will have a balcony with two sweeping views of either the water, Burke Lakefront Airport or the city skyline. Beneath them Pace wants vibrant, street-level shops to energize a mostly forgotten stretch of the pier — a tour outfit renting bikes beside sausage and fries joint Picnic or the Cleveland Pickle sandwich shop, for example. 

If things go as expected, it should all be open by the end of 2017, Pace says. 

The mixed-use building is the next step in Pace’s grand scheme for North Coast Harbor — a new hotel, school, corporate headquarters or two and about 1,000 more apartments. A promenade would hug the water. Aimed at young families, the development intends to knit FirstEnergy Stadium, the Great Lakes Science Center and Rock Hall into the fabric of a neighborhood. 

Cleveland’s planners have long dreamed of such a waterfront. 

In 2004, then city planning director Chris Ronayne envisioned a city that flowed to the water’s edge. Apartments perched above street-level retail would look out onto our Great Lake. Bike trails would wind from the West Side to the East. Children would swim, adults would row and Cleveland would look into its heart and find, to its surprise, that a maritime city had been there all along. 

It was an idea many tides ahead its time. 

But with Pace’s development, Ronayne’s vision has finally found a friendly port. The city’s urban environment has changed immensely in the past 12 years. Driven by jobs in health care and professional services, 14,000 people live downtown. Public Square is imbued with new life. On the near West Side, thousands flock to events at Edgewater Park and dine along West 25th Street. 

Cleveland’s civic current is finally pointed toward our oft-neglected lakefront. New ideas for development by the water, including an outlet mall, a transit hub and a bike trail network, are taking shape. And in another decade, it could mean a radical shift in how we view the city.

“Opening up the lakefront and drawing people to it will also contribute to changing the mentality of the city for people who live here, and also others,” says city councilman  Kerry McCormack, whose ward includes the development. “We really start to think of the city as this port town, a waterfront town — starting to think of those ideas as leading descriptors of the city of Cleveland.”

As Cleveland grew into a boomtown, the lake was at its heart. 

Around 1900, pedestrians walking toward Lake Erie on East Ninth Street (then called Erie Street) arrived at Lake View Park, where a carefully tended swath of green hill sloped toward the shoreline that extended to Seneca Street (now West Third Street). Purchased with a bond issuance in 1874 as one of the city’s first public parks, the expanse offered unfettered lake views.

Closer to the shoreline, trains rumbled to the coal and freight piers where Seneca met the water. Passenger trains thundered past too, full of riders who had departed the cavernous Union Passenger Station just inland from the freight yard. 

In 1912, during the port’s heyday, the Cleveland River and Harbor Commission measured 5.2 million tons of cargo came through the port. Almost half was iron ore from the Lake Superior region, bound for the mills and forges along the Cuyahoga River. 

But as the city grew, the shore grew grayer. By the late 1920s, Lake View Park disappeared from city maps. The 1930 grand opening of Terminal Tower and Cleveland Union Terminal further shifted focus inland.

Still, planners dreamed that the city could once again stretch to the water’s edge. One drawing, created by the City Plan Commission in 1929, shows Mall C extending all the way to the shoreline, past a soon-to-be constructed Cleveland Municipal Stadium. A super highway tunnels underneath City Hall and emerges on the west side of the county courthouse, letting public space spill to the water uninterrupted. 

By midcentury, though, Cleveland’s waterline was so unattractive that city planning director James M. Lister wrote that it “looked worse than a back alley.” 

Railroads and industrialists overtook both the lakefront and Cuyahoga River valley. “This was logical and efficient,” wrote Lister in a 1950 report. “Yet it cut off the lake by a barrier of tracks, factories, slag-heaps, and cinders, and for all the aesthetic and recreational good that the men, women and children of Cleveland got out of living on one of the great lakes of the world, they might have been in Kansas.” 

As our lake faded into the background, other cities began to embrace their waterfronts. Places like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor showed what could be. 

So in the 1980s, Republican Mayor George Voinovich assembled a committee to refocus the city’s attention. The Waterfront Steering Committee drafted a plan in 1985 that extended a sliver of the Mall C greenway to Municipal Stadium, where it would meet up with an aquarium and harbor.  

A version of those plans were realized during the Mike White mayoral era, with the opening of the Rock Hall in 1995 and the Science Center in 1996. It was a toe in the water to reconnect the city and lake. Yet North Coast Harbor remained literally and figuratively cut off from the rest of the city. In Cleveland’s civic imagination the lakefront was a place to visit, not live. 

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.” 

John Stahl always looks like he’s ready for a day on the water. 

Sitting on the second floor of his company’s offices, he’s wearing a T-shirt and flip-flops. The light fixtures above him sway slightly because Stahl’s software, design and consulting company, LeanDog, is headquartered on a barge floating in 14 feet of water. 

His employees get three seasick days per year. He also keeps a few doses of Dramamine on hand. It isn’t just for show. Beside the barge, Stahl keeps a fishing boat and a few personal watercrafts to entertain clients. 

“I had two summer interns that all they did was clean the fishing boat, rig the poles,” says Stahl. ”We’d take the clients out fishing, catch fish, come back, they’d clean the fish, serve us lunch, clean the boat and go home.”

Stahl speaks fast and thinks faster. He dreamed up the Cleveland Skylift, a wonky proposal to string cable cars across the lakefront. Among many other things, he wants to build floating offices, mixed-use apartments and retail maybe, all on the lakefront. 

Few of his ideas have gotten traction yet, but the most successful product of Stahl’s fervent lakefront proselytizing is the Cleveland Lakefront Collaborative, a group of C-suite executives from more than 20 organizations that meet to discuss the waterfront. 

“We meet once a month and basically throw a happy hour,” says Stahl.

The Cleveland Metroparks, Great Lakes Science Center, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Port of Cleveland, Forest City Inc. and Keybank are all financial supporters. 

Although the lakefront is nowhere near his ward, city councilman Anthony Brancatelli secured $5,000 from the city for the organization’s marketing and advocacy efforts. He occasionally drops in too, as do Pace and developer Fred Geis. 

In addition to their website, the collaborative advocates for projects that could transform the lakefront. 

“We can’t have enough people living downtown. And seeing all the millennials come back, seeing the older people from the suburbs come back, to make that work, you need stuff around it,” says Stahl. “That means more development.” 

Before that can start, the group is trying to bridge major obstacles — including the much-delayed lakefront pedestrian walkway. 

Among the host of projects slated to be finished by the Republican National Convention, the bridge was back-burnered as attention was focused on Public Square. 

Originally designed by Miguel Rosales and engineered by Parsons Brinckerhoff, the bridge would span Mall C to North Coast Harbor. A symbolic link between the two, it rejects the concrete, car-centric brutalism of East Ninth Street and West Third Street. 

Jeremy Paris, executive director of the Group Plan Commission, has witnessed the disconnect: People stand on the roof of the convention center, look down, see the lake and say, “I want to get to there.” But the best anyone can offer is two unfriendly sidewalks, blocks away, and a hearty good luck. 

“You can see the palpable need for a connection downtown,” Paris says, “which is the animating thing for our project.”

About $25 million has been assembled, $10 million each from the city and county plus $5 million from the state, to get the project rolling. But the project will need more cash before it can move to the next stage. Paris says the county is still trying to find the right design-builder. 

“We’re working toward finalizing the financing that we need to do this project the right way,” says Paris. The Group Plan Commission is pursuing private sector funds, he says, in part via possibly selling naming rights for the bridge. 

With much uncertain, Paris cannot yet provide a groundbreaking date or final cost estimate. 

“This is what’s next. We think this is the right time to re-energize [the bridge] effort. We’re building from the momentum of Public Square,” says Paris. “People see what happens when you try to do a project the right way and with the right resources.”


An era of ideas is dawning on the lakefront — some as wild as a Lake Erie thunderstorm.

The most conservative is a proposal for a multimodal transit hub. Renderings show a sleek building that would enliven part of the rail trench dead zone. The hub would combine Greyhound, Amtrak, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority rail and cyclist amenities in a single building. It could potentially route passengers toward the water every day and, in the process, hit refresh on RTA’s little-used Waterfront Line. 

Planners applied for a $37.4 million grant from the federal government this year to cover part of the project’s $46.7 million total costs. Money went toward two cheaper Northeast Ohio projects instead: $5 million to Akron’s downtown promenade and $7.95 million to the Cleveland Metroparks’ West Side bike trail system, a possible bridge across the river at Wendy Park and the Red Line Greenway. 

Pace supports both the multimodal hub and pedestrian bridge. But there’s also a bigger, if somewhat crazier, idea floating out there: Build on top of the highway and rail trench. Harkening back to plans from 1929, a deck could be constructed above, creating a tunnel for trains and cars while joining the city grid directly with North Coast Harbor.

“You’ve got to add office, add residential to make it into another city block,” says Pace. He suggests a couple of not-so-crazy, three- or four-story buildings with 500 to 1,000 people living and working there. “Then it’s just a city,” he says.

It could require rerouting the 70 to 90 freight trains that pass through on the Norfolk Southern line every day. A 2003 study estimated the cost at $142 million. 

“But that’s probably gone up because the traffic has gone up,” says Ken Prendergast, the study’s author and executive director of passenger rail and public transportation advocacy organization All Aboard Ohio. 

A similar development is already happening in Toronto. There, most freight rail traffic was rerouted away from lakeside lines and city leaders are planning to deck over them to create a 21-acre public park. The cost, according to a report by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., could be as much as Chicago’s Millennium Park, at $33 million per acre. 

“What will probably happen [in Cleveland] is more and more development will push against the railroad right of way until finally there’s undeniable pressure to deck over it,” says Prendergast. 

Even as Pace plots out North Coast Harbor, other developers are turning to the east along the waterfront. Fred Geis most recently floated an outlet mall on a site that is currently a Burke Lakefront Airport parking lot. The proposal, which is in its early stages, would create 350,000 square feet of retail space beside the highway, according to The Plain Dealer. Citing a confidentiality agreement, Geis turned down an interview request from Cleveland Magazine. 

Pace is open to the idea, athough he has a few critiques. “Gee, it’s a building with no windows,” he says. “Why not put it on the Muni Lot instead?” 

There, the mall could also be configured to have free surface parking too, he says. 

Councilman McCormack says it’s too early to comment on the specifics of the project. 

“I’m not against building structures there,” he says. “But I just want to make sure that what we’re doing is public and public-friendly. People-friendly. And that we’ll look at it in 30 years and say, ‘It’s awesome.’ ”

Ronayne doesn’t dismiss the idea either. “The only concern I have with this outlet box retail is the amount of parking that it requires,” he says. He’d be excited about a plan that also had some housing and other types of retail. “But to have a sea of surface parking that services a big box outlet store like we see in the 1990s is not necessarily what we envisioned for the 21st century lakefront plan.”

Still, Ronayne says, the future of the lakefront lies from Burke out to the lakeside nature preserve. “We need to see some big plays on the East Side,” he says. “I just hope that, year by year, we methodically continue to make neighborhood connections to the waterfront.” 

Campus District Inc. is among a group of organizations pushing a project aimed at that goal. The Lakefront Greenway, a 10-foot wide bike path and two small pedestrian bridges along North and South Marginal roads, would provide a connection between North Coast Harbor and easterly neighborhoods. 

The project, approved by the City Planning Commission earlier this year, is inching closer to applying for federal funds, says Campus District executive director Bobbi Reichtell. 

With the sheer number of ideas for the waterfront bobbing about, the lake is moving back to the fore. “We’re beginning to tame the beast,” says Ronayne.

Stahl puts his feet up on the console of his speedboat as he grips the wheel. 

It hops a bit as he steers out of the no-wake zone, past the Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The sleek, stucco-chrome façade of Nuevo comes up on the left. He’s been making regular trips to the restaurant, docking at the public marina there.

“I think I’m the Uber shuttle service to Nuevo,” he says. “Just today, my friend from Pittsburgh came in. He’s a lawyer and had a case up at City Hall. He came down and parked here, and I shuttled him to Nuevo and the Rock Hall.”

Stahl steers the boat past a pair of warehouses north of FirstEnergy Stadium, the heart of Pace’s development site, and toward the port’s current piers. As the boat makes its way west, a checkerboard wall of shipping containers comes into sight — blues, whites, reds and yellow all in neat stacks. 

Then, it bobs into the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. On the west side is the former Coast Guard Station, boarded up and freshly painted in white. It is guarded by an empty ranger squad car, waiting on, or guarding against, some unseen future. Across the river, behind the port, RTA train tracks curl toward the Flats East Bank development. 

“That’s where we want to land our Skylift,” says Stahl. “That’s where we want to have our garage so we can put more [cable] cars on and take cars off.”

It’s an idea whose time may never come. “We’ll have custom cars,” Stahl imagines. “Let me hop on my Market Garden car and there will be a flight of beers for your flight.” 

He continues to rattle off waterside attractions — the rowing facilities at The Foundry, private jets flying in for Cleveland Cavaliers games, the kayak rentals at North Coast Harbor. The waterfront, it seems, is more alive at this point than anyone can remember.

“Cleveland’s riding a wave,” says Stahl.

But as previous eras have taught, the tides of civic priority are fickle. Today they are drawing urbanists, millennials and, maybe, young families to the shore. Tomorrow they might recede once again, pulled by the force of some unforeseen economic disruption or political realignment. 

But for now, Pace will build and Stahl will see what ideas stick. And Ronayne, in the event of an open seat, just might run for mayor, with his lakefront plan likely to be front and center. 

Once again, the city is looking toward the water after decades of simply letting it shimmer in the background. 

“When people experience the lakefront, it’s going to change their perceptions of the city. People are going to start to say, ‘What else could happen here?’ ” says McCormack. “Or, ‘Yes, Cleveland really is a waterfront town.’ ” 

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