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Great Outdoors

Cleveland Looks to an Unlikely Savior: a Long-Neglected River


(Bloomberg) —

The latest multimillion-dollar, multi-decade plan to reinvent Cleveland’s riverfront does not lack for ambition. 

Unveiled in December by the real estate firm Bedrock, the project promises to transform 35 acres of land behind Tower City Center, the city’s landmark former passenger rail hub, into apartments, offices and green space.

The master plan penned by architect Sir David Adjaye, famed for his Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, shows a mix of new and reused buildings, as well as green space and walking paths. The Bedrock project invokes urban planning’s hottest buzzword — the “15-minute city,” where all daily amenities and necessities are available within a short walk. The developers promise a mix of live-work-play features that “link shore to core,” providing what Bedrock CEO Kofi Bonner called a boulevard from Public Square — a downtown space laid out by namesake Moses Cleaveland himself — through Tower City and down to the east bank of the Cuyahoga River.

Despite its central location, this is a patch of real estate that’s rarely been considered a draw for visitors or residents: a mishmash of crooked streets, parking lots and industrial buildings, leading down to a river that’s practically a synonym for Nixon-era urban pollution. But Bedrock is confident that things are changing on the Cuyahoga. 

“We can bring people through Tower City down to the riverfront. You just have to make sure that riverfront is worth coming to,” Bonner said. “We are very clear what we want the outcome to be. We want to provide a significant boost to the livability of downtown. And we want the riverfront to be a civic amenity.”

With an estimated budget of $3.5 billion and a 20-year timeline, it’s a massive endeavor. And Bedrock, founded by Quicken Loans founder and Cleveland Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert, has the juice to do it: The company has been redeveloping  swaths of downtown Detroit, buying up buildings and adapting them for reuse. 

There’s also something familiar about the scheme: For the past half-century, Cleveland has tried to turn the industry-lined waterway that snakes through its heart as it flows into Lake Erie into a place where people might want to spend free time — and yes, even live. To make that happen, Clevelanders may have to forge a fresh relationship with the Cuyahoga, a river burdened with an infamous history. 

“When people talk about connecting to the waterfront, people think: the lake, the lake, the lake. But the riverfront is right here and it’s more accessible,” says Tom McNair, executive director of Ohio City Inc., which is working on a similar plan for public usage on the west bank of the long-neglected river. “I’ve always considered it a magical place.”

Jobs and Pollution

Almost from the beginning, the river was a magnet for industry. In 1827, the same year that the Ohio & Erie Canal was completed between Cleveland and Akron, the Cuyahoga Steam Furnace Co. was formed — the first “dirty” business that could be found on the riverbank, says John Grabowski, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University and the author of The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. But it would not be the last.

Soon, mills and factories started to fill up the banks on the east and west shore. When oil was discovered in Northern Pennsylvania, Cleveland became a hub for oil refining, thanks to enterprising local businessman John D. Rockefeller. Standard Oil was incorporated in Ohio in 1870, and at one point, Grabowski says, Cleveland was home to 26 different oil refining facilities. Freighters laden with coal and iron for the city’s mills and factories carefully made their way along what is still called the crooked river.

The meanders of the Cuyahoga, each with its own name for navigational purposes, shaped the city’s neighborhoods: Irishtown Bend, named for the Irish immigrants that packed its narrow streets; Wheeling Bend, so named for the railroad bridge that spanned the river there; and the ominously named Collision Bend.

Development and pollution took such a toll on the Cuyahoga that, in 1881, Mayor Rensselaer Herrick called it “an open sewer through the heart of the city.” By 1920, Cleveland was the fifth-largest city in the US, a booming center of manufacturing. Industrial contamination — runoff from oil refineries and waste from steel mills, auto plants and paint factories — was taken as the cost of doing business. “There were no amenities on the riverfront,” Grabowski says. “Just jobs and pollution.”

One fire official told the Cleveland Press in 1948 that its patrol boat could travel along the Cuyahoga year-round “because there is not enough water in the river to freeze.” 

But there was enough other stuff in the water to burn.

Fires were surprisingly common on industrial rivers in the early 20th century. Oily debris floating on the sluggish Cuyahoga ignited at least a dozen times, including one in 1952 whose damages topped $1 million. But it was a 1969 blaze — a relatively minor one by historical standards — that became a landmark in the environmental movement, one of the factors that led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Water Act.

The flaming Cuyahoga became an enduring stain on the city’s image. But by the time it was extinguished, the factories killing the river were already fading.

The 1970s were not kind to Cleveland. Amid deindustrialization and white flight, corporate headquarters moved out and companies shuttered; the once-booming riverfront filled with empty warehouses and vacant lots. Along the way, the Cuyahoga got cleaner, thanks to concerted local conservation efforts as well as the disappearance of the industry around it. And by the 1980s developers started to see the real estate along its banks as the seeds to the city’s revival.

“We lost that which made the city great but polluted it,” Grabowski says. “But in losing it, we gained back something great.”

A Riverfront Rediscovered

The Adjaye master plan promises to capitalize on the city’s heritage, reusing several industrial and commercial buildings that are important icons of the city’s former might. Bedrock has bought the former research and development headquarters and corporate offices for Sherwin-Williams — the company is building a new headquarters on Public Square, and moving its R&D facility to the suburb of Brecksville. Among the parcels in the paint-maker’s riverfront campus is the handsome Breen Technology Center, built in 1948, and an ornate Baltimore and Ohio railroad depot, both inviting buildings for reuse.

It’s another step in the ongoing narrative of Cleveland as a comeback city. In the 1980s, the city’s theater row was saved from demolition and became Playhouse Square, home to any variety of performing arts space; the 1990s brought the Gateway Project, with new facilities for the Indians and Cavaliers, and the opening of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

Along the bends of the Cuyahoga, however, progress has been more fitful. Downstream from the Bedrock site, the riverbank area known as the Flats became a popular nightspot: In the 1980s and 1990s, it was the place to be seen on summer nights in Cleveland. But the Flats’ heyday was relatively brief — many of its bars and clubs shuttered by the turn of the millennium, and the Warehouse District, on a bluff overlooking the Flats, enjoyed a more sustained boom, thanks to a more diverse mix of residential and retail spaces. 

“The housing in the Warehouse District made it a development year-round,” says Tom Yablonsky, who’s been involved in historic development downtown for nearly 40 years. “The Flats at that point were more seasonal — spring and summer. I used to compare it to the tortoise and the hare. The Flats believed they were way ahead of the Warehouse District, but the Warehouse District was more long-term successful and triggered more investment. The Flats had the flash, but that was not sustainable.”

Yablonsky is vice-chairman of Canalway Partners, a group formed in 1985 to get the former Ohio & Erie Canal paths recognized as a National Heritage Area. With that accomplished, the group continued to build a trail on the former canal towpath, and in summer 2022, completed the last link. It’s now possible to take the trail from Tuscarawas County up to Canal Basin Park in Cleveland — a distance of nearly 90 miles. 

Embracing the resurgent Cuyahoga is also part of the plan in Ohio City, a trendy neighborhood on the river’s west bank. Right now, the area is “waterfront without being able to see or touch the water,” says Ohio City Inc.’s McNair. His group has been working to turn nearby Irishtown Bend — once a densely settled enclave of Irish immigrants, now a lonely zone of rutted roads and parking lots beneath overpasses — into a walkable recreational space. The first phase of that project is a $53 million effort to stabilize a slumping hillside, with all the money either in hand or allocated, McNair said. Then there’s a $45 million park planned, with $17 million already committed.

Bedrock’s involvement in their own project just up the river will help generate further interest — and hopefully resources. 

“I’ve been involved in a lot of master plans, and the pace of a master plan — especially an urban master plan — depends on the strength of the public-private partnership,” Bonner said. “It depends on the rules and permitting process, but also on engaging and attracting public financing. Those two things depend on timing.”

The timing could finally be right for a new stage in Cleveland’s unfinished comeback. The Cuyahoga project’s walkability emphasis lines up neatly with the priorities of Cleveland’s new mayor, Justin Bibb, who has been eager to upgrade the city’s pedestrian and bike infrastructureCleveland topped a recent Smart Growth America ranking of US metros that best balanced walkability and equity, based on housing costs and access to transit — testament not only to its sturdy 19th century bones, but to how far its economic fortunes had fallen compared to costlier cities like New York and Boston. Despite the city’s chronic struggles with poverty and population loss, new census data shows downtown bucking the trend, as people see the area’s post-industrial heart not just as a place to work, but to live.

On the banks of the Cuyahoga, locals are hoping that Bedrock’s billions can attract many more. 

“Downtown Cleveland’s regeneration is really tied to making it a residential neighborhood,” Yablonsky says. “It’s nascent now, but what Bedrock is proposing will take it from small scale to big scale.”

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