Monday, August 9, 2010

I Went Back to Ohio, and My City Was More or Less Present

One perk of our recent visit to Ohio was the opportunity to spend some time talking with a person who had been intimately involved in the siting and planning of Jacobs (now Progressive) Field in Cleveland in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Jacobs wasn’t the first of the “new breed” parks, as it opened two years after Camden Yards in Baltimore, but it was an early success. Beyond its amenities as a ballpark—which are not trivial—Jacobs is significant as one of the anchors of what is called the Gateway Complex. As our friend told us, the development of the district was contentious and detail-oriented, as the precise siting of all the elements would make or break the project.

Downtown Cleveland had been in standard Rust Belt decay mode. Much like Buffalo, Cleveland had a core filled with significant architecture and history but little else. People did not stay downtown any longer than they had to for work, and there was a general sense of menace there after dark. Yet a baseball stadium or any other investment would not ensure a turnaround purely on its own merits.

The negotiations over the site had to meet the needs of the ballclub and other interested parties, but they also had to lead to a result that would have collateral benefits for the downtown over the long term. This seems sort of obvious, but too many cities have built stadiums without paying sufficient attention to this. There are obvious failures—like U.S. Cellular Field, which is next door to nothing except the former site of Comiskey Park—and there more subtle ones. If the unlamented Metrodome was only a quarter mile closer to either downtown Minneapolis or the University of Minnesota, there might be genuine secondary development (read: nightlife) around it on its account.

In the case of Cleveland, our friend told it came down to a matter of proximity to downtown and specific orientation of the field. As it stands today, there is a lively corridor of restaurants and the like that leads from the traditional center of downtown direct to the doorsteps of both the arena that hosts LeBron James’s old team and Progressive Field. It’s not all a consumer’s paradise—and I'm stipulating only for the moment that this brand of economic development is a desideratum in the first place, as there are strong arguments against it—in part because there are also some humongous parking decks attached to the field. Those may help in luring excessively timid suburbanites back in for a game, but of course they don’t keep them in the area afterward.

It’s true, certainly, that Cleveland’s heyday is past, and that it is too large for its present population. We drove numerous decayed blocks that featured large boarded-up or burned-out apartment buildings, and we saw any number of carved-up and crumbling mansions that still house people but before too long probably won’t. Incidentally, here’s a look at a mural celebrating African-American contributions to the pursuit of powered flight:

However, that’s actually a reproduction of it that’s installed at the John H. Glenn Research Center out by the airport. The actual mural, at 105th and Superior, is in a condition that unfortunately reflects the state of much of the east side of Cleveland. We attracted local curiosity when we popped out of the car in the pouring rain to take pictures of it.

What Cleveland and other cities like it are wrestling with is the problem of reconcentration. Finding ways to promote viable and vibrant parts of town can be difficult in good times; it’s all the harder when the city is filled with cheap, unattractive real estate and a declining population. Some cities (like Flint, Detroit, and Philadelphia, to name only a few) are actively tearing down decayed housing. We used to call this urban renewal, but that was when there was a plan to build new housing on those same locations. Now, the main thing that cities are trying to do is reduce the blight and, perhaps, reduce the fear that accompanied it—though in the long run this might lead to more sustainable use of resources and more equitable distribution of land value. To the extent that the lingering residents of such areas can be brought into nearby neighborhoods that actually provide amenities and a sense of community, this solution is better than doing nothing—and it could even be transformative, though history has taught us to be wary of projects that promise too much. It is undeniably psychologically difficult to triage a city in this way and hope that the healthy parts can thrive again as a result. (Two of the leading figures in this movement are Flint's Dan Kildee and Terry Schwarz and friends at the Shrinking Cities Institute in Ohio.)

Rob and I saw evidence of a similar urban transformation in Akron, where a surprising amount of the downtown seems to have been turned over to the University of Akron and its New Landscape for Learning program. The result is a downtown that feels strangely new and focused, even if it’s sort of dissociative to see little direct evidence of the massive tire industry that built Akron in the first place. There’s been some reuse of older buildings in Akron, but it sure doesn’t seem like any sort of crucible of industry today.

Below: The Canal Park site before and after.

As Rob noted, the stadium in Akron is located along the Ohio and Erie Canal. We also guessed that it is atop a former railroad right-of-way—both an efficient use of urban land and an acknowledgment that heavy industry is not a part of the downtown’s future. The park was designed by the same firm that did Jacobs Field (as well as many other of the new-era parks), and it opened a mere three years after it.

Both Akron and Youngstown are lucky enough to have relatively strong institutions of higher learning downtown, and those may prove to be the engines of future development and growth. Growth’s not an unlimited good thing in all contexts, but these underused downtowns that took shape in another era can use all they can get.

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