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Church turned developer helps city reap a return

By Lee Chilcote

Downtown churches don’t have it easy—just getting people in the pews on Sunday mornings can be a challenge. In many cases, parishioners move out of the city, but commute from the suburbs or another county.

Few urban churches opt to tackle their location challenges through bricks and mortar. Most leave that to community development corporations (CDCs)—non-profit groups that tackle the tough task of redeveloping downtrodden neighborhoods.

Nonetheless, Trinity Cathedral, one of Cleveland’s oldest and most historic churches located at East 22nd and Euclid Avenue, was faced with a choice: Build or perish.

Spurring Trinity was a need for additional space for the church and the Episcopal Diocese, whose Northeast Ohio offices are headquartered here. But, at the center of the project was a prayer that the expansion would serve to revitalize a tired stretch of Cleveland’s old Grand Avenue.

Euclid has lost considerable luster since the early 20th century when families like the Hannas and the Rockefellers were building extravagant mansions across the street. Then, Euclid was known nationwide as Millionaire’s Row, and Cleveland’s wealthiest, blue-blooded families built Trinity Cathedral, filling it with invaluable treasures, including stained glass from Tiffany Studios. Today, Millionaire’s Row is gone, replaced by Cleveland State University—an example of 1960s Brutalism with long stretches of poured concrete fortresses forming a panoptic prison.

Trinity not only faced the challenge of rebuilding within a street context that barely existed, it wanted to do everything in an environmentally responsible fashion. The concept of a ‘green’ building was seen as an expression of spirituality through design carried through even in the choice of tenants— community-based retail with an ecological bent.

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Spirituality through design

Sipping a hot drink in Trinity Commons’ outdoor piazza offers a respite from Euclid Avenue. A semi-circular doorway bridges the beautiful, imposing cathedral and Diocese offices at the rear entrance off Prospect. Inside is a second piazza—a vaulted, light-filled space whose soaring ceiling mimics the cathedrals of Italy.

A third piazza faces Euclid next to several redeveloped storefronts, including Ah-Roma, a café that serves fair-trade coffee, tea, and hearty, healthy sandwiches and soups that are a cut above the fast-food offerings nearby. The café has brought life to this corner day and night. Next door is a bookstore, Sacred Paths, and Ten Thousand Villages, a non-profit that sells fair-trade handicrafts produced by third-world cooperatives.

Standing on the inner piazza’s terrazzo floor inlaid with subtle religious symbols, one hears the hush of a fountain pouring water over a sheet of copper. From here, hallways shoot out like spokes – one leads to the Diocesan offices, another beckons towards the cathedral, and a third leads outside to a path lined with stepping stones and a courtyard filled with tables.

The Commons was based on a plan to connect the architectural styles of three very different buildings. For more than one reason it’s also ‘green’— featuring recycled carpets, triple pane windows, energy saving electrical and plumbing systems, open spaces with natural light and a geothermal heating and cooling system. It’s more expensive, but “you have to look at the full cost of doing business,” insists Trinity’s Dean, Reverend Tracy Lind. “[It’s] not just the economic cost but the environmental cost. The energy savings will pay back in the long run.”

The development is in stark contrast to the rest of this stretch of Euclid Avenue, which is filled with low-end retail and soulless institutional buildings. In total, the project cost about $10 million. Trinity and the Episcopal Diocese invested $6 million from their endowment, and raised $4 million from parishioners.

“One of the things that was really obvious to me, as someone coming back to Ohio after two decades away, was that there was no place to get a cup of coffee on Euclid Avenue,” Lind says, sitting in her spacious office framed by large, bay windows radiating brilliant sunlight.

“We need to look at opportunities to reconnect with the community. Let’s build some space that the city can use. Good stewardship mean[s] that if we only use the Sunday school classrooms two hours per week, we shouldn’t let them be locked up for the rest of the week.”

As she speaks, Lind draws airy visions with her hands. It seems as though sitting down in a chair is a challenge, as if at any moment, the lightness of her ideas might lift her off the ground. Judging by Trinity Commons, she has the follow-through to pour her invisible sketches into marble and stone.

As it turns out, Lind’s interview for the position of Dean at Trinity Cathedral was a turning point in the project. Although the development was underway with City Architecture heading up the design process, Lind's entrance helped to shape the Commons.

“They asked me what my vision of an urban cathedral was, and I said, ‘it should be like a piazza,’” she recounts. “The first rule of St. Angela DeMarricci, a 16th century Italian woman who was a part of the Ursuline community, [is that] an urban cathedral should be open, vibrant and energetic. Paul Volpe, the principal architect at City Architecture, is Italian, so he understood piazzas.”

City Architecture rose to the challenge of creating the public space that Lind envisioned.

“We wanted to create something worthy of standing next to the cathedral,” explains Kathleen Tark, lead architect on the project. “We decided to take common elements and use them in new ways. For instance, the copper on the existing roof was re-used on the main window base of the new construction” and on the fountain.

If the vision came quickly, the work to see it through was rife with challenge. First, the contractor encountered pipes that needed to be replaced beneath the main parking lot. While excavating for geothermal wells, crews ran into foundations from previous buildings. Other challenges included replacing wooden roof trusses, and leveling floors. Because delays in one layer of work affected the next, it was tough to keep up with the project’s tight timeline.

“Reverend Lind inspired us,” Tark says. “We wanted this entrance to be a grand, welcoming statement.” Previously, visitors traveled through a dark hallway to get into the cathedral, but “the piazza became a common nexus between the three buildings and the people that worked there; it’s a kind of ‘town hall’ where people meet.”

Church as developer

 


Reverend Tracy Lind poured vision into concrete and stone at Trinity Commons.

If you’d never met Tracy Lind, you might ask, 'what does a church know about being a developer?' In this case, a lot. Before becoming a priest, Lind completed a Master’s degree in Urban Planning and worked for ten years in the field. While heading up a church in Patterson, New Jersey, she formed a spin-off community development corporation. She is as comfortable talking about loan amortization and streetscape design as scripture.

“I think that one of the core missions of the church is community development,” says Lind, “so I’ve always combined my planning background with my ministry.

"I’ve heard that CSU students spend seventeen minutes on campus outside of classroom time. There’s no reason to come outside – there’s nothing on Euclid. This is a form of campus ministry, and promoting fair trade coffee and local entrepreneurs is also something that we are committed to. This is just the second location for Café Aroma, and all of the coffee that they sell is either fair trade, organic or shade grown.”

The financial risk inherent in supporting entrepreneurial, mission-based businesses may not be a developer’s cup of tea. After all, developers expect a level of return on their investment, and small, street-level retail isn’t the quickest route towards profit making. The visionary Lind seems motivated by a different bottom line – and wants to pull her congregation along with her.

Like the artists that rented floors of abandoned Warehouse District buildings in the 80s—lighting up the old buildings that had been dark after 5 p.m.—Trinity is a pioneer. Lind hopes that others will follow, and there are signs that she could be right. The Euclid Corridor Transportation Project will bring an enhanced streetscape and improved traffic flow to the area. In an effort to undo the fortress-like developments of the 60s and 70s, CSU has recently completed a Master Plan that will create new housing, an improved streetscape and more of a campus-like feel.

“If the church can’t take this risk, then who can?” asked Lind. “There’s no government or public money in this. The businesses are doing well so far, but the challenge is street traffic. What comes first—the commerce or the people? Downtown residents, or the reasons why you want to live downtown? We have to get people to climb out of their cars, cross the street and come and look.”

And though not every church can afford to take a risk like this, complementary efforts such as the Church in the City initiative of the Catholic Diocese suggest there is interest from congregations of all sizes in redeveloping the city.

Lind draws a link between the physical vitality of the city and its cultural and spiritual vibrance. “I believe the malls have become our main streets, and the mega book stores our churches and synagogues,” she says. “We live in a city with a high rate of depression, smoking and obesity. We’re not doing something right, and a part of that rightness is connectivity and energy. People are hungry to gather. They want places to have a conversation, buy a cup of coffee, sit for a while and read a book.”

At this, a smile lights Lind’s face. “If, in the process of experiencing Trinity Commons, folks decide that they want to come to church—or to a synagogue or a mosque – then that’s great,” she says with a shrug. “People say to me all the time, ‘Is this really a church?’ We have five services here on Sunday. I tell them, ‘Come and see where we get the inspiration to do what we do. Come and see.’”

 

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"People are hungry to gather. They want places to have a conversation, buy a cup of coffee, sit for a while and read a book...”

—Tracy Lind

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