Words: Steve Rugare
Art: Steve Manka
For this issue, Hotel Bruce gave us a particularly
tough assignment: Find a compelling design response to the problem
of affordable housing in Ohio City.
Why is it so tough? Partly for reasons particular
to Ohio City (and we’ll return to those in a minute), but
mostly for reasons having to do with current thinking on the issue
among planners, developers and architects, all of whom contribute
to—or simply ignore—the economic and social dysfunctions
that have made our society inept at providing suitable housing for
many of our most vulnerable citizens.
There are experts in the field who know a lot more
than us about those dysfunctions and could explain why private and
public institutions have such a hard time delivering an adequate
supply of housing suitable to the needs and means of so many people.
But we were faced with a deadline to get something interesting on
paper, so we were more concerned to look at what’s happening
in architecture and urban design.
Upon reflection, we didn’t find that
situation too encouraging either. For the last few decades, most
architects have been pretty much content to churn out the high-end
products that private developers seem to want. (In Cleveland right
now, this usually means $300,000 townhouses with inconvenient floor
plans but very fancy bathrooms and kitchens). This ought to be an
embarrassment to the profession.
During most of the last century, architects were very
concerned with the problem of housing for people of modest means.
This was particularly true during the heyday of modernist architecture,
and Cleveland was actually a pioneer in the modernists’ program
of decent housing for the poor.
changed our perceptions of public housing
Just north of the Shoreway from Ohio City is the Lakeview
Terrace public housing project. If you take a ride through the place,
you probably won’t believe that this was a nationally celebrated
achievement when it opened in 1937. Places like this promised clean
housing, up-to-date facilities, and the modernist ideal of a sunny,
green setting. Actually, there were waiting lists of working poor
people who wanted to move into these low cost apartments. People
had to prove that they were employed and of upstanding character
in order to qualify.
Obviously, our perceptions of places like Lakeview
Terrace have changed completely since the 1930s and 40s, largely
because their condition has changed so dramatically for the worse.
Fair enough, but architects tend to blame the problems solely on
design, ignoring the social forces that messed up American public
housing. Many of them have thrown out the idealism that informs
modernist housing projects along with the planning principles.
It began with the early postmodernists of the 1970s,
who were motivated by a zeal for revenge against their modernist
forefathers. As they told it, the modern movement “died”
when the disastrous Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis was dynamited
in 1971. Their story focused mostly on the style of the buildings,
giving less attention to the fact that Pruitt-Igoe (built in 1949)
marked a break in scale and attention to community from earlier
public housing. It was higher density, had fewer amenities and was
almost ideally suited to become a warehouse for the poorest of the
Since the 1980s and 90s, architecture journals have
been dominated by the glitzy object buildings of the leading postmodernists
and deconstructionists. To say the least, there has been something
of a disconnect between housing activists (interested in low-cost
construction and modest alternatives like co-housing developments)
and the design community— and between the very few designers
who really care about these issues and the rest of the profession.
You won’t find low-cost housing as a studio
project in many architecture schools, and you won’t find much
about it in most of the magazines. That’s not to say that
there hasn’t been activity. There have been a number of efforts
to define new
concepts for affordable housing , and almost all of them could
be relevant to the complex situation in Ohio City.
A number of architects have produced innovative
projects for affordable, cooperative or even single-room occupancy
(SRO) housing, often with various sorts of social services included
in the facility. The recent foreclosure of the Jay Hotel in Ohio
City points to the need for something of this sort.
|Current view of homeless housing
Even as the neighborhood prospers, it continues to
be frequented by a substantial population of homeless or marginally
housed people, many of them with multiple and overlapping substance
abuse and mental health problems. Their situation might be addressed
compassionately by providing updated and more socially responsible
versions of the traditional “flophouse” (e.g. the Jay).
One of our colleagues at the Urban Design Center,
Gauri Torgalkar, designed one of these supportive housing projects
for a site on Lorain Avenue, southwest of the core of Ohio City.
She worked with activists from St. Patrick’s Church in developing
the program for a facility that would include housing, a garden,
community rooms, and facilities for drug and alcohol treatment.
While this model may be a bit too paternalistic for many, it could
be just the thing for some people who really need help putting their
lives together. (Click here
to take a look at a PDF file of Gauri’s project.)
Another important initiative of recent years has been the Department
of Housing and Urban Development’s Hope VI program, which
provides funding to help re-develop public housing projects. This
program is being implemented in Ohio City at the Riverview site
on West 25th Street. It involves replacing public housing projects
with new communities that have a mix of market rate and subsidized
Of course, the reason the program has “worked”
is that many of the sites (like Riverview) have actually become
quite valuable, and the result sometimes is little more than federally
subsidized gentrification. Experience elsewhere suggests that very
few of the residents who’ve been displaced at Riverview will
end up living in the New Urbanist enclave that will replace it.
(One of our students at the Urban
Design Collaborative, Courtney Wise Lepene, is doing a thesis
project to try to improve on the record of the Hope VI program in
a design for Lakeview Terrace. Check back here
in May to see how that turns out.)
As you can see, there’s a lot to think about.
Looking at Ohio City, which probably has more positive physical
features than any neighborhood in Cleveland, it should be pretty
easy to take “cues” from the context and come up with
designs that help reinforce the good things that are happening.
But add issues of affordability and social justice into the design
mix, and it’s hard to decide which cues to take.
As we started batting around ideas, every observation
that seemed useful to generate design ideas also came with an “on
the other hand.” That’s fine in theory, but designers
eventually have to start making marks on paper. Here, in highly
condensed form, are the minutes of our deliberations:
- On the one hand: There’s no affordability problem in Ohio
City, because there’s no problem in Cleveland overall. In
fact, Cleveland’s biggest problem is that the city is depopulated;
property values are too low.
- On the other hand: People can’t get out of poverty when
they’re continually pushed to the periphery of the economic
action. The reason to have affordable housing mixed into Ohio
City is precisely so poor people have better access to economic
and cultural opportunities.
- On the one hand: Most of the miserably poor, homeless and ill
people that hang out on West 25th Street are there for good reasons,
especially the presence of institutions that help them. It’s
both sensible and moral to find ways to make room for them in
the area’s housing stock.
- On the other hand: In a market economy, there’s no way
to justify housing them in one of Cleveland’s very few hot
real estate markets. We should just get real and start thinking
about peripheral sites where their needs can be met.
- On the one hand: If you want affordable housing for the working
poor to be integrated into the community, is there really a design
issue? Affordable housing should be just like everyone else’s
housing, but it should cost less. This is what Section 8 vouchers
do, and the long waiting list for them is a policy issue, not
a design issue.
- On the other hand: Is it possible to give some uplifting expression
to the ideal of social integration, rather than simply engaging
in subsidies? That’s part of what modernist public housing
originally wanted to do, and there really is something admirable
in that now-derided legacy. More importantly, since federal housing
subsidies are likely to dry up in the next four years, can we
go back to the drawing board and develop models that are inherently
affordable without subsidy?
please click to
Obviously, we did a great job of running circles around
ourselves. We finally decided to extricate ourselves from our troubles
by, in a sense, dramatizing them. We took a highly visible and fairly
impossible site—the bluff just to the east of the West Side
Market—and tried to find an expressive or poetic approach
that invites the inexorable forces of gentrification to cuddle with
the framework of a micro-economy that might give a leg up to some
of the poorest of the poor. In addition to its location right near
the heart of the neighborhood, this site has two other intriguing
1) There’s some basic unfinished urban business
to the east of the Market. The enormous parking lot and the Riverview
public housing have left a tiny, isolated fragment of what was once
the Hungarian neighborhood around St. Emmeric Church. This no-man’s
land needs some help, especially as the city tries to address the
river valley more positively.
2) The planned Hope VI project for the Riverview site,
which has the virtues and limitations described above, provides
an instructive contrast/backdrop to our efforts.
The plan we developed
has a number of significant features. Some of them are just good
urban design, but some go in more provocative directions...
A new parking structure north of (or behind) the Market
replaces the current lot. It’s wrapped with a mixed-use layer,
mostly of small apartments. The main portion of the structure is
flat, so the top level could be used for outdoor recreation.
click on the thumbnail to view the larger
A new green space east of the market organizes traffic
heading to the garage and creates a setting for a mixture of townhouses
and more affordable “carriage house” units focused around
the church. All of the other "obsolete" existing buildings
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Running downhill (toward the river) and parallel to
the Rapid tracks, is a publicly accessible, working greenhouse that
grows salad greens and other quick turn-over produce for sale at
the market. We’ve shown the greenhouse as a one-of-a-kind
structure, but the concept would work with adapted off-the-shelf
Since the greenhouse also doubles as a novel passage
into the valley, we’ve cut quite deeply into the slope, leaving
the church perched above a substantial retaining wall and making
it a highly visible beacon from more than 180 degrees around it.
As the greenhouse passes the church it sprouts a series of small
This wouldn’t be a desirable site for market
rate housing. The rail line and the truck route through the valley
are problems. In addition, the site isn’t all that accessible,
which is one reason a lot of homeless people already camp out in
out-of-the-way spots along the bluff. But its visibility and proximity
to the West Side Market make it an ideal site for a specialized
transitional housing project.
Interested homeless people could live and work in
the greenhouse. Meanwhile, they still have good access to transit
and the social services that churches and public agencies have developed
in the neighborhood. This “micro-economy” would be a
compelling model of sustainability, and it could be extended further
into the agricultural terraces (see below).
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the larger image
Below the church we’ve cut a series of terraces
that function as the outdoor part of our mini-farm. On some of the
terraces, we’ve placed more housing in the form of pre-fabricated
units converted from shipping containers. Think of these as a somewhat
formalized and more productive version of the “shanty-town”
that already exists in the underbrush of the bluffs.
Taking advantage of the terraces, the shipping containers
can be placed in two-story pairs, the lower opening to the terrace
below and the upper to the next one up. The gentle arc of the terraces,
the beacon of the church and the line of the greenhouse (illuminated
at night), would form an arresting image for commuters on the rapid
both by day and night.
||click on the thumbnail to view
the larger image
The concept also includes some re-working of the Hope
VI project for Riverview. The site plan is simplified and rows of
subsidiary “carriage house” units are introduced, along
with a multi-story block at the “gateway” coming from
the market. The idea here is to introduce as wide a variety of housing
options as possible within an integrated fabric. Ideally none of
these would have to be subsidized. Rent on the affordable carriage
houses might help make the townhouses more affordable for middle-class
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Finally, we’ve introduced a bicycle and pedestrian
path extending along the edge of the bluff from the Detroit-Superior
bridge, below Riverview, and swinging around St. Emmeric and up
into Market Square. Not only would it make a nice connection with
the lakefront bike path system, but it would bring people through
the transitional housing/farm development. The point is not just
to house the people who need it, but make the resulting setting
as inviting as possible for everyone.
click on the
thumbnails to view the larger image
Is this going to happen? Probably not. We’ve
ignored tons of practical impediments, starting with the stability
of the slopes on this site. But we think this design does make some
points worth thinking about as we contemplate the future of America’s
poorest city. Chances are mid-size cities like Cleveland will have
to go it alone in the next few years, maybe longer. The kind of
micro-economy based, cooperative housing we’ve proposed here
might be one way to keep a lot more people from becoming homeless
And it might actually work a lot better on less constrained
sites with less challenging terrain, of which Cleveland has plenty.
It’s not going to produce the big return on investment of
luxury townhouses or urban McMansions, or do much for the tax base.
So Cleveland certainly will need its share of those, too. But with
families changing radically, with economic “restructuring”
leaving more and more people behind, and with the federal and state
governments offering no help for the foreseeable future, this proposition
might offer some hope and might even be able to pay for itself.
It’s not the solution, but it’s an intriguing step.