Monday, November 16, 2015 – Today our staff heard about the changes coming to Public Square from Jeremy Paris, the Executive Director of the Group Plan Commission. The Group Plan is responsible for the massive construction project that is re-imagining Public Square, which is the central crossroads of our city. After hearing the updated detailed plans, the first thing I thought was, “Why in the world did we let the center of our downtown sit in such disrepair for decades? Thank goodness this is happening!”
When Cleveland was in its infancy, the founders viewed the area where Euclid & Ontario meet as a New England style commons, a central gathering spot for merchants, residents and visitors alike. But 200 years later, we had let it dissolve into four disconnected quadrants of crumbling brick and cement that few people visited as walking through the square required crossing many lanes of busy traffic and avoiding people sleeping on benches and panhandlers. Only the Soldiers & Sailors Monument, with a steady group of volunteer caretakers, provided a bright spark on the southeast corner (and it’s staying and will finally receive the visitor attention it deserves!).
Most of us have seen the sketches of what Public Square will look like next summer, so it was fun to see the construction progress first hand from a 2nd floor condo in a building across the street. Huge trees were planted just last week, and you can really begin to see the butterfly shape the park will take. Although the first year of the project was planing, followed by several months of replacing and upgrading the utilities below the street (20 different utility companies involved!), the next parts will be fun to watch. By June of 2016, downtown will have a new six-acre green space that will be pedestrian friendly, thanks to the new traffic round-a-bout that will eliminate all vehicular traffic (except RTA buses) from the park.
More than 200 days of programming a year will create a lively scene including farmer’s markets, live concerts, food truck days, an ice rink in the winter months, and wellness and fitness events (1,000 people in their yoga pants doing downward dog as the sun rises?). Because as Jeremy said, “Public spaces are great not because they are beautiful but because they are used!”
James Corner Field Operations, one of the most respected urban landscape architecture firms in the country (they designed the High Line in New York City), is responsible for the design of the square and came up with great ideas including how to soften the concrete and grey that dominates the square now as well as add much needed color with flower gardens, grassy hills and flowering trees. Paths and paved surfaces will be done in flat to grade granite, meaning that even visitors in high heels and in wheelchairs will be able to easily traverse the park. This hardscape will be permeable allowing rain water to be recaptured for the trees, grass and flowers. And, Donley’s Construction crews have been working double time to make sure it all happens in time to unveil it to the world when the masses descend for the political convention this summer.
Now we all know that the instant a plan is announced the haters will immediately think of 100 reasons why the idea is a stupid waste of time and money. They should know that the majority of the $50M raised to pay for this project has been donated by the private sector (corporations and foundations) with a minimal amount of government involvement. And, there are dozens of case studies that show for every $1 you spend on public spaces in urban environments, you generally see a $6 return – meaning they turn into great economic engines for cities. One example is the three-acre Bryant Park in New York City’s Midtown which underwent a major face lift in the 1990’s and went from a drug infested section of the city that people walked around, not through, to a sun-filled park surrounded by restaurants that is home to dozens of special events a year. And, for those that complain that there won’t be any place to park nearby, consider that the RTA train hub is in the adjacent Terminal Tower, and that office building have huge parking garages. And let’s face it, no cool place in any big city has a giant parking lot nearby. That’s what the malls in the suburbs are for.
Public Square will have an event lawn/concert hill on the north side that can feel intimate for a group of 50 or can handle 5,000. The southern portion (sunny side) will include a new cafe with a large outdoor seating area and a beer/wine garden. The restaurant operator will be named soon. The park will also have a water feature (think of how the water just skims the top of the stone in New York’s High Line Park) and will feature the return of the Moses Cleaveland [sic] statue that has graced Public Square for decades.
Adding people on the streets will not only improve safety in downtown Cleveland, but it also changes people’s perceptions about how safe the area is. Most of us would not be willing to walk from a restaurant on E. 4th Street to a bar in the Warehouse District just 5 or 6 blocks away when that would be a no brainer in a city with a lively streetscape. The new Public Square will dramatically improve the connective tissue in downtown!
The Group Plan Commission is also responsible for the Malls in downtown and the future Link to the Lake, a pedestrian bridge that will traverse rail lines, the freeway and a 100′ elevation change that disconnects Public Square and much of downtown with the shores of Lake Erie. This bridge will feature a 185′ tower with curved cables, and a search is on for the right designer to help them finish this project by 2017 (They city could have rushed to finish in time for the RNC, but but would have sacrificed beauty and design for speed. Cleveland took a thoughtful step back, thank goodness.).
The Atlantic had a great article about what public squares mean to urban centers if you want to read more.