By Steve Rugare and Steve Manka
If it's possible to sum up Cleveland’s problems
in a sentence, this seems like an appropriate one—the city
hasn’t found a way to shrink with its declining population.
We now have less than half a million people knocking around in a
physical container built for twice that number or more.
The result is too much land but too few sites with
any opportunity for a return on investment. Rather than spreading
the available capital around evenly, we need to concentrate it into
relatively few places to create viable islands of development. Much
of the rest of the city needs to be “banked” into low-density
uses that enhance the value of the viable nodes.
We decided to take on the challenge of imagining an
appropriate urban future for the area around the former Hotel Bruce,
because the site exemplifies the key challenges posed both by Cleveland’s
current situation and by the limitations of urban design theories
and development strategies.
“New Urbanism” is all the rage these days,
and it tells us a lot about what the islands of development should
be—pedestrian friendly, close-knit, with a rich mix of uses.
However, it tells us very little about the surrounding, low-density
sea, about the in-between spaces of a shrinking city.
In addition, planners and designers don’t really
have the legal and financial means to rationalize the worn out patches
in the urban fabric and implement careful, site-specific plans.
The city and state are broke, and the only source of public funding
seems to be transportation dollars. This often results in a deranged
sort of urbanism that is charged with finding after-the-fact rationales
for infrastructure investments, even when the infrastructure occurs
at a site where there is no demand for development and where pre-existing
environmental qualities offer little potential for place making.
While the public sector offers what carrot it can,
private money has come to favor a kind of thematic “lifestyle”
development based around a blandly up-scale boutique culture. To
hear most commercial developers talk, there must be an endless supply
of laptop toting, latté chugging, on-the-go, creative, affluent
people out there, just waiting to occupy new “urban villages.”
You’d think no one else’s money was even green.
Population loss and the lack of appropriate development
strategies have resulted in a profusion of sites like the midtown
Euclid corridor—leftover places that pose novel questions
for urban designers. We formulated them like this:
Question one: Why
adhere to contextual design when the context is so damaged or vacated
that it gives weak or mixed signals?
Aerial view of Midtown
Question two: Much
of Cleveland was settled very quickly between the 1880s and the
1950s, and much of it has been de-settled just as rapidly. We think
of urban revitalization as a process of infill development, capitalizing
on the remaining fabric, but only a relative handful of areas in
Cleveland are obvious candidates for intensive re-settlement. These
are places like Ohio City and Tremont, where there is the right
kind of surviving housing stock and where the scale of the street
network is unusually intimate. What procedures can make sense of
midtown Euclid, where very little is left to work with and where
the street network (especially Chester Avenue to the north) isolates
the site from its surroundings?
Question three: How
does one make a distinctive and rooted urban place when a culture
driven by marketing and entertainment favors a generic theme attached
to anything new? More generally, how does one make a valid urban
place while employing the buzzwords and “consultemes”
(e.g. “creative class”, “innovation”, “active
lifestyle”) that excite the glands of the people with money?
Attempting to address these questions, we formulated
three possible development approaches for the street around the
former Hotel Bruce. We sketched each out in plan, and aspects of
each made it into the preferred solution we finally developed.
Option 1: Developer-friendly
"new urbanism" with catalytic shards of the real
of the new Hotel Bruce.
Click image to enlarge.
The idea here is to use the familiar approach—taking
cues from the context and attempting to create a facsimile of the
historic fabric. We hoped we could avoid the generic environment
that can result from this procedure by including a few site-specific
gestures (such as a new Hotel Bruce) to recall some of the social
complexities of the place’s history.
As you might gather from the comments above, we had
doubts about this approach because it often looks and functions
like the work of carpetbaggers from the suburbs. More importantly,
new urbanism uses buildings to do all the work of place making.
The likely result in this case would be high vacancy.
We propose that only one small section of the study
area could support this approach, the group of surviving loft structures
near Gust Galluci’s at Euclid and East 65th.
Option 2: Drive-by investment park
Here we were inspired by the proposal to build biotech
start-up space in this area. At the same time we had to keep in
mind the record of this sort of “new economy” investment.
We’ve already had one highly touted biotech startup do its
basic research in Cleveland, only to pack up after a couple of years
and build its production facility in California.
Bearing in mind that salvation through biotech might
be a little bit of a mirage and that many of the businesses in question
will come and go very quickly, we wanted to develop a flexible architecture
for the start-ups and fly-by-night investments of the new economy—a
sort of glass tent city that might de-camp at any moment.
Detail of mural in front of Biotech Center.
Click to enlarge.
To address the street, these buildings would be the
armatures for large-scale (but equally evanescent) public art that
could respond to the speed of travel between the two hubs on the
We think this concept expresses some of the transience
of the urban environment and the speed with which settlement and
de-settlement have occurred. Also, it creates a distinctive setting
for new investment without sapping energy from more competitive
areas struggling to achieve density and urbanity. On the other hand,
it’s less successful in meeting the difficult challenge of
making social and physical connections to the north and south of
the corridor, and it undervalues the significant (though few) older
buildings in the area.
Option 3: Improvisation district
Trying to give some social relevance to new investment,
we imagined introducing new uses related to the medical industry
while providing a symbolic framework for reviving old entertainment
uses. Biotech and entertainment could coexist within a loose fabric
based on flexible exploitation of historic and new structures.
Ideally this would lead to chance meetings between
knowledge producers and cultural producers within a semi-nomadic
population (performers, researchers, service industry workers, etc.).
We even considered the idea of a magnet school of music and life
sciences to further reinforce the theme.
Ultimately, we had a hard time figuring out how these
goals might be achieved, either visually or socially, and we wondered
whether the new district could attract the needed investment. Obviously,
the issue here is making a substantive connection with social and
cultural memory and with the life of the surrounding neighborhoods.
We tried to keep those priorities in mind as we went to work.
new RTA Midtown stops. Click images to enlarge.
Our more developed plan includes features of all three
of the preliminary options. These are bound together by a critical
background feature: The cultivation and restoration of the de-settled
landscape. Drawing on emerging concepts of “landscape
urbanism” we began generating concepts for agricultural
re-use of large portions of the site—“returning”
it to the character it had about 150 years ago, before it was urbanized.
Specific interventions include:
- Restoration of the area around Dunham Tavern Museum, a surviving
fragment of the pre-urban agricultural landscape.
- Reconstruction of a buried stream (found on Sanborn maps from
the 1870s to be just to the west of Dunham Tavern) as a prototype
for the restoration of natural surface drainage in other parts
of the city.
- Community gardens and educational fields to serve residents
within the study area and children and families from the neighborhood
north of Chester Avenue.
- An “orchard streetscape” to give continuity without
unnecessary new building mass. The streetscape is planted with
rows of serviceberry trees, providing year round visual interest,
not to mention the seasonal availability of a new Pierre’s
flavor: “Euclid Serviceberry” ice cream.
Against this background of re-cultivation, we propose
a number of new or re-used structures. These draw on the development
concepts described above, and their functions and meanings can be
organized around three themes:
New uses and old fragments
Our flexible biotech incubator space follows a different
physical model from the mute suburban office park currently proposed.
A light, glazed frame creates an unbroken linear band between the
orchard and the gardens along Chester Avenue. Several stories of
well-serviced space can be let to small and large tenants for research
and start-up production. Graphics on the glass walls recall various
phases of the corridor’s past, both prestigious and popular,
and overlay glimpses of the activities that could lead to a future
Overview of Midtown plan
Relatively good automobile access makes the East 55th
Street intersection a potential site for big box retail. Rather
than a generic chain store we propose a “Deconstruction Depot”
where fragments of old structures demolished as part of the re-tooling
of Cleveland’s housing stock could be re-sold to people restoring
buildings or building anew in Cleveland and its suburbs. The buildings
on the south side of Euclid could house more specialized salvage
The parking lot doubles as a drive-in movie theater,
with the screen structure housing convenience vending for shoppers
and biotech workers.
Memory in Transition
Rear view of drive-in
theater screen. Click to enlarge.
The images screened on the Biotech Incubator and both
sides of the drive-in theater screen are fragmentary and evanescent,
reflecting the rapid pace of settlement and de-settlement in a site
that was essentially countryside less than 150 years ago. They include
reminiscences of musicians and entertainers, fragments of the houses
and buildings that once lined the street, of the vehicles that once
traversed it, and of the marginal characters that made it their
own after its heyday.
Many of these memories condense at the West end of
the Biotech Incubator in a new Hotel Bruce, which will feature leisure
opportunities and a bit of nightlife for the researchers and their
visitors, as well as neighborhood residents.
A further layer of memory is found in the re-cultivated
area around the Dunham Tavern Museum, where the reconstituted stream
begins to bring back elements of the site’s pre-urban character.
Gourmet Ghetto: A settlement for urban pioneers
- The proximity of Galluci’s to a number of surviving loft
buildings suggests the possibility of creating a viable residential
island around East 65th and Euclid. This would include new housing
and rehabbed space designed to attract a hardy group of residents
who appreciate some of the finer things but don’t need a
full range of convenience amenities.
- Connections to the main traffic arteries (Chester and Carnegie)
are improved at this point, to allow better access to the Biotech
incubator and Galluci’s and make connections to the surrounding
- The Dunham Tavern farm space is complemented by a more urban
open space at East 65th and Euclid, creating a variety of recreational
and gathering space options for neighborhood residents.
Gourmet Ghetto &
orchard at night. Click to enlarge.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned working
in Cleveland over the last few years, it’s that getting designs
implemented in this town is really tough. Even relatively modest
proposals can languish when demand is as low— and money as
tight—as it is here. We’ve tried to respond to that
reality by thinking outside the conventions of current urban design,
which too often result in grand master plans that might be realized
in some unknown (but always rosy) future.
Working a bit more modestly, we’ve tried to
devise a series of urban episodes that seem pretty feasible in the
near-term. This approach leaves the door open to further development
later on, should prevailing conditions improve. In the meantime,
it suggests that a shrinking city like Cleveland could be a lot
more interesting to live in.
Instead of nearly uniform decay, there could be a
range of compact but distinctive places to live, work and shop.
Instead of tracts of derelict land, there could be an abundance
of re-constituted and cultivated landscapes, enhancing quality of
life and creating a degree of sustainability that no one even imagined
during the boom years of the last century.