Cleveland: RTA “Rapid” Photo Tour

Cleveland, once the fifth largest city in the United States before its suburbs took over, is one of those cities that inherited an old-school transit system. In a way, it’s Rapid Transit system is manifesting new-school trends as well, diversifying its modal split in recent years. The old school still prevails though. While best-known for its award-winning Healthline BRT (which was supposed to be light rail, but switched to BRT in order to get FTA funding), the older rail network still carries the bulk of ridership.

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Overview of TOD across the entire city

Its 19-mile, heavy rail (think MARTA or WMATA) Red Line dates back to the 1950s, and carries 19,500 daily riders in retro “silver bullet” trains, which is higher ridership than the Blue and Green lines combined. Utilizing a historic railroad trench, most stations are grade-separated – TOD designs are just now emerging that facilitate a seamless integration with that grade separation. Every single Red Line station has recently been rebuilt. Red Line station redevelopment has been a decades-long initiative, primarily moving from west to east. The Red Line connects the Airport to Tower City through westside neighborhoods such as Westpark, Lakewood, West Blvd, Detroit-Shoreway, and Ohio City. After Tower City, the eastbound Red Line connects to University Circle and East Cleveland through some of the east side’s hardest-hit communities, such as North Broadway, Fairfax, and Kinsman.

For the photo tour, I will start with the westside Red Line – but it is worth noting that all of these photos are from 2013-2014. Where possible I will contrast these outdated photos with renderings and newer photos from myself or the media. I need to take newer pics one of these days, but I’ve just gotten out of the habit of doing this in my adopted hometown:

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Large TOD planned for a current strip mall site that separates the Red Line from the iconic West Side Market

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The half-completed Eco Village surrounding the W. 65th Red Line Station

Tower City offers connections to the Blue and Green lines to Shaker Heights, the Waterfront Line to the Flats and lakefront, as well as the Euclid Avenue Healthline BRT. Tower City is one of the nation’s largest and oldest TOD’s, originally built by railroad moguls O.P. and M.J. Van Sweringen. The Van Swearingen brothers actually founded the Cleveland Interurban Railway to connect their master planned suburban development, Shaker Heights, to Downtown Cleveland. Tower City, then the Union Terminal Complex, was the western terminus for that transit network, which anchored downtown’s Public Square.

Public Square is a large, 4-block commons area in the dead center of the city, typical of communities founded in the Connecticut Western Reserve. Just as Cleveland’s open space legacy harkens back to its New England roots, so do its liberal politics and extensive transit legacy. Before Tower City was finished, there was Shaker Square – the entrance to Shaker Heights, and where Van Aken Blvd (Blue Line) and Shaker Blvd (Green Line) split. To this day Shaker Square is one of the city’s hottest and most-integrated neighborhoods, a testament to the enduring value of transit-oriented real estate. On the other end of the line, transit is being totally revolutionized in Downtown Cleveland – particularly with the new Public Square. Below are some photos inside the Terminal Tower complex and the adjacent Public Square. Renderings of the new Public Square follow.

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$32 million makeover of Public Square, designed by James Corner Field Operations (designer of NY’s High Line)

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It doesn’t get more real than this

Fare thee well old Public Square, hello new Public Square.

The new Public Square and corresponding improvements to Tower City, including the $400 million Horseshoe Casino, aren’t the only transit-oriented development change in downtown. In fact, it is downtown’s western periphery – the Flats East Bank, Warehouse District, and the lakefront – that show the most promise for TOD. While much has recently been finished, more is underway currently – the largest impact will be plans that the city will get to after the RNC Convention. The Waterfront Line is the $70 million extension of the Blue/Green lines past Tower City, to wrap around downtown. While it was “finished” in 1996, it has always been considered incomplete – original plans included a complete loop back into the Rapid system, around Cleveland State University.

Ridership was so low when the Browns left town until a new stadium was built that service was discontinued shortly after its completion. Service was resumed in 2013, but ridership remained low until the Flats East Bank development opened. This line will be further rejuvenated by a Cumberland Development and Trammel Crow project at North Coast Harbor, in between the Browns stadium and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This area will also be bridged to Voinovich Park by a $25 million modern drawbridge, that may also connect to a new intermodal transit hub that will replace an embarrassing Amtrak station.

I find it incredible that this bridge costs almost as much as the entire Public Square redesign, which underscores two things: in the public works realm, $32 million for a high-quality project like Public Square is an incredible bargain; and secondly, the city is all in on this pedestrian bridge to the lakefront. I hope there is a good way to match its design up with the intermodal rail hub, but it may be too late. The drawbridge is already funded, but has been delayed by a promised “downtown construction freeze” for the RNC Convention. After that date, the city will also start discussing (ie., look for funding, hire designers, start planning, etc) the lakefront rail station. As a final note, redevelopment in this area will be complicated by a 70-foot grade separation (downtown sits on top of a bluff, above the lakefront), as well as parking lots that are known as Browns tailgating ground-zero (this is a big deal).

As I mentioned above, this line is heavily in flux with several projects currently in various stages. The Flats East Bank project is nearly finished, the new drawbridge is funded and about to break ground, the North Coast Harbor is similarly financed but still on the boards, and then the new Amtrak/intermodal hub is still in discussions.

Of course, this blog article would not be complete without mention of the Healthline. Not unlike other transit authorities that volunteer themselves to FTA to be BRT guinea pigs, the transit authority’s own focus has shifted to the surprising success of the Healthline project. It helps that Euclid Avenue is the historic “Millionaire’s Row,” built-out all the way to Wickliffe (suburban Lake County) by the Rockefellers and their ilk.

The Healthline has been described by proponents as light rail with tired, and by detractors as a “federally-funded streetscape,” yet from my point of view those are both good things. I have covered the Healthline TOD phenomena ad nauseum, including a lengthy expose at CEOs for Cities that showed both sides of the coin. Given that the Healthline’s center-lane alignment and platform stations were designed to allow for easy future conversion to light rail, I’m a fan.

The project also branded the Euclid Corridor, the city’s iconic main street, and got the east side of Cleveland moving. The distinctive corridor project has been an undeniable magnet for TOD, nearly $6 billion according to this heavily BRT-slanted ITDP study. While most of it has been market-rate development with minimal affordable development to date, making it feel perhaps more like Dallas than Minneapolis. Despite that, this is all the more incredible given the weak market conditions along the corridor, and the fact that most all development has just been infill with no displacement potential. As crazy as it sounds, this bus project really was the impetus for Downtown Cleveland’s remarkable resurgence.

It’s worth mentioning that a lot of the $5.6 billion in TOD was mostly institutional expansion that may have been negligibly spurred by the Healthline. While these institutional actors (such as Cleveland State University, the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals, etc) may have still needed a green light from the public sector before reinvesting in their physical presence along Euclid Avenue, you can’t seriously attribute the expansion of the Cleveland Clinic to a BRT system. There are Saudi sheikhs who maintain private wards at the Clinic just for when their family needs check-ups. The magnitude of the Clinic is not even in the same ether as Euclid Avenue and its bus rapid transit, and for better or mostly worse, the planning of the Clinic (and its cornucopia of parking garages going up every year) reflects this. In my opinion, TOD should have to be underparked in order to qualify.

The Healthline is also not perfect. Signal prioritization absolutely does not seem to be working. I say that because I was a frequent Healthline rider who sat at many a traffic light in my day, which is the whole point of signal prioritization, especially when the BRT has its own lane. In fact I’m pretty sure the only purpose of the traffic signals along Euclid is to first infuriate everyone, then put cars second, and transit last. The route is also longer than BRT can be expected to remain on schedule. Also, due to congestion in University Circle, the ideal center-lane alignment gives way to curbside-alignment and mixed traffic operation.

It is that eastern end of the Healthline corridor that is perhaps the strongest. That is also where the Healthline is least Healthline-like (just described above), which also casts aspersions onto the catalytic extent of the BRT itself.

While the long-term civic vision of Downtown, Midtown, and University Circle being continuously bridged is slowly coming to fruition, the pace of infill is rampant in the last two miles of that 5-mile trek. University Circle is the hottest square mile of real estate in Ohio, and to get there, you have to first traverse the mile-long Cleveland Clinic campus. You don’t necessarily have to go through Midtown, though. Motorists often prefer the scenic route on MLK Blvd and Rockefeller Park’s cultural gardens, while transit riders may prefer the tried-and-true Red Line which has 1/4th the number of stops along the way. The eastern Red Line is just now getting its new stations, except for some that may realistically just be closed. Below are two year-old photos, with photos of the new stations at Cedar and Mayfield roads. Major TOD is transpiring at these gateways.

And now for the transformative new stations, and resultant TOD:

Lastly, the oldest transit asset in all of Cleveland – the Shaker Heights Blue and Green Lines. These two combine for around 15,000-17,000 daily riders, not bad – but certainly brought down by lower density in affluent Shaker Heights. This is another case where what is old is being made new again. The Shaker area, beginning at the St. Luke’s redevelopment area at MLK, connecting into historic Shaker Square, and then splitting up through Shaker Heights – is seeing renewed development interest along the Rapid. Some of this is legacy real estate, including Shaker Square and Van Aken Blvd’s linear mid-rises. Some of this is recently completed, particularly at Lee Road, between Van Aken and Chagrin.

As with many things in Cleveland, the best is yet to come, with the Van Aken District now under development. Van Aken is the redevelopment of a huge strip mall that used to sit on a complicated 6-way interchange. Roads are being reconfigured, the Blue Line is being extended across the interchange (where it used to terminate), and new urbanist infill is taking over on all corners.

First, the Cleveland-proper parts of the Shaker area (St. Luke’s Hospital area and Shaker Square):

Lastly, the Shaker Heights-proper part of the Shaker area, where higher-end TOD is beginning to transpire.

All of the above (for the Shaker part of this post) is about to soon by overshadowed by Northeast Ohio’s largest TOD in nearly a century: The Van Aken District.

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Rendering looking NW to SE through proposed Van Aken District

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Site plan diagram

That, from these ashes:

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Existing conditions at Warrensville Center Road / Van Aken Blvd / Chagrin Blvd intersection

While all of these rails may have lost some of their luster, they still work well. They are traversed by around 40,000 passengers daily. They are the formative first experience of many newcomers, when they first land at the airport. They may not always comprise the scenic route, but there is a good chance they can get you where you need to go. They are Cleveland’s most underutilized practical development asset, which it is just now beginning to realize.

The future of transit in Cleveland is in flux. The city is currently debating a contentious fare hike that will undoubtedly hit the poor the hardest. Transit in Cleveland, and the breadth of access it provides compared to other Tier 2 metros, is still a bargain. Even the Healthline’s naysayers will admit that the Cleveland RTA is very well-ran, which goes a long ways. RTA has identified 10 “transit-propensity” corridors, which is a way of saying that they have a priority list of Cleveland’s primary corridors.

The agency just completed a $20 million BRT-lite project on Clifton Avenue, which serves high-density pockets like West Blvd, Edgewater, and all of Lakewood. The agency is currently beginning a project to extend either the Red Line or Healthline eastward, all the way to Euclid (population 55,000). It will hopefully be Red Line extension that is chosen in the end, but that will be dictated by the planning process that is currently underway. Lorain Avenue and West 25th are likely next-up, and activists are already duking it out in the media. Me thinks West 25th would be a phenomenal streetcar corridor, and so do many others, including Ohio City Inc. RTA may go path of least resistance with just another BRT-lite.

P.S. For some extra reading, here is the text of the CEOs for Cities article. While they cleared their website, it made it up onto some blog or forum. The article is one of my better pieces, offering a fair and balanced look at the Rail v. BRT debate in Cleveland.

P.P.S. Please ask for permission before reusing pics. Almost all are mine, but some are from Cleveland.com. Renderings are obviously the intellectual property of the architect and/or developer.

Mixing Architecture

While my design soft spot has always and will always be architectural contrast, my professional work has led me to realize there is a strong consensus against that in most cases. To make matters worse (or better), anytime you can simplify design through a public process (where design literacy may vary), the better the outcome.

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Looking straight north up 3rd Street in Columbus, where the German Village’s iconic slate roofs and brick cottages comprise the theme listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The listing notes three styles: Queen Anne, Italianate, and Gothic Revival (Photo credit: German Village Society)

Historic districts promote uniformity, whether we admit this or not (through the theme of contributing properties, which may be one style or several that go together). Urban design guidelines and design districts do this as well through strict standards. That said, we also must admit uniform standards do work wonders toward preserving the quality of a district.

Design is subjective, and design standards and historic districts have been proven successful in objectively raising the bar toward an enactable minimum with which we can all accept. Toward that end, this post is not meant to be an attack on standards, but rather merely pointing out what lies outside the box.

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Outdated aerial (just showing the older Georgian section) of the Chesapeake Energy HQ Campus in OKC (Photo credit: The Lost Ogle)

Most esteemed university campuses with which I am familiar also have a distinct style, often part of their brand. Oklahoma State University is Georgian. So Georgian that the Chesapeake Energy campus in OKC, with its older core of OK State knock-off buildings, is often called OSU-style and not Georgian. #SoGeorgian. University of Oklahoma is prairie gothic, which I always found to be weird. University of Texas is mission-style. University of Kansas is romanesque. KU really is stunning, as a non-Jayhawk.

The aforementioned examples revolve around classical styles, which are most commonly found in authentic samples. Developing anew in a historic motif, like Chesapeake, is rare and should be discouraged as far as architectural authenticity is concerned. That said, the future will not have homogenous 21st Century districts simply because we are almost always working with a pre-developed context. 100 years from now, the 21st Century styles that we will be preserving will be more mixed amongst older styles, so far as urban context is concerned. If we don’t reconcile our perspectives toward mixing architecture, we risk the chance of enacting the wrong standards and following the wrong approach altogether. Preservation must eventually become more sophisticated, just as development has.

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Corner of NE 2nd and Walnut in OKC’s Deep Deuce area, with the new Aloft Hotel, LEVEL apartments, replete w/ Native Roots grocery store and a bikeshare station in front (Photo self-attributed, taken in 2013)

Modern design districts come in two forms. On one hand you have something like Deep Deuce in OKC, which is almost entirely new infill, developed over parking lots for which OKC’s historic black main street was demolished in the 50s and 60s. With very few original pieces still extant, those have been mostly restored, and some of the infill features nods to the red brick warehouses that once were. However, most of the infill, for lack of an authentic surrounding context, has been pretty outrageous – with free reign for architects to create a 21st Century neighborhood. Steve Lackmeyer, downtown beat writer for The Daily Oklahoman, wrote about Deep Deuce as the “complete” mixed-use neighborhood other cities dream about.

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Mixed design built within landmark historic district in Cleveland’s University Circle. Modern landmarks such as Frank Gehry’s Weatherhood School and Uptown CLE wedged between CWRU’s historic quads and Little Italy. (Photo credit: Bill Cobb)

The last and most common case is where modern design truly coexists in a mixed environment, which usually includes a more nondescript historic building stock (else the modern would be toned down). In the case of University Circle in Cleveland, perhaps Ohio’s most magnificent square mile, few neighborhoods have so masterfully blended old and new, landmarks alike. That said, sometimes the new does endanger the old. CWRU has famously targeted entire historic districts for demolition, such as Hessler Street – giving rise to the famous Hessler Street Fair where the historic street stands tall against outside threats. Little Italy, (the smattering of cottages between the tracks and Murray Hill in the above photo), is better-protected – but its corners have been reinforced with high-end modern condos.

That mixed context, in my opinion, is the most impressive. I hate seeing historic landmarks in University Circle threatened, but as long as the neighborhood can evolve and retain ALL of them – University Circle remains the unquestioned most spectacular square mile of Ohio. It’s a rich and varied architectural cultural that befits Ohio’s cultural district. It’s as simple as that. Tearing down a building is not unlike the Cleveland Museum of Art moving out the Monet to make room for the Chihuly (which they would never do!), however refusing to make room for the Rothko also diminishes the overall value and authenticity.

That said, you don’t put the Rothko, Chihuly, and Monet in the same frame, let alone gallery. In Columbus, a locally-significant developer Jerry Solove (his family name is on the new OSU Medical Center), has proposed to demolish one of Old North Columbus’ most historic High Street blocks. While within two blocks there exists entire blocks of strip malls that could easily be demo’d for their concept, they of course must demolish the best block to make way for 11 stories of modern student housing. Worse yet, the entire project is designed to cleverly slip through zoning and design review in a city with shockingly weak development controls. The only two homes whose zoning would need to change have been swallowed into the development as a façadism nightmare. The setbacks going up every two floors also circumvent the height limits inherent within the zoning classification. With the city zoning administrator’s signature in hand already, the development could practically begin tomorrow and irrevocably demolish what little historic integrity remains on High Street, north of the OSU campus.

Just because there isn’t much integrity left doesn’t make that low-hanging fruit for redevelopment. Sophisticated cities, which Columbus just isn’t quite yet, find ways to retain the good and focus redevelopment opportunities where those opportunities actually exist. The flip side is the argument that “this argument is irrelevant because said development has this site, not that site.” That is the developer’s problem, not the city’s, or community’s. Otherwise there is natural development pressure to keep building up on the good sites, continuing to ignore the bad sites. What gives in the end? When that happens, you get the below nightmare (which really should also render the empty block of strip mall parking two blocks away).

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Google Earth Aerial of Old North Columbus, with the Pavey block outlined in red on the right, and a strip mall screaming for redevelopment outlined in red on the left

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Pavey Square at High and Northwood in Old North Columbus, notice the two otherwise beautiful Second Empire homes swallowed up (Photo from Columbus Underground)