The Metropolis of the Western Reserve Reclaims its Urbanity

Cleveland, Ohio
Photo © Roger Mastroianni


Cleveland has long been ridiculed as a dysfunctional city bisected by the once-infamous Cuyahoga River, where oil-soaked debris caught fire in 1969. Yet today more than 40 species of fish live in the far cleaner Cuyahoga, crew teams ply its curves, and the $250 million Flats East Bank development, with an 18-story office tower, hotel, nightclubs, and apartments, is rising amid the numerous bridges that link the city's halves. Burning River, meanwhile, is the name of a pale ale made by the local Great Lakes Brewing Company'a signal of counterintuitive pride in the city's big moment of shame, and a measure of how far it's come since then.

View Larger imageDetail of downtown, Cleveland

View Larger imageCleveland Map

Maps by Norman Hathawaye

Though its population has shrunk to just below 400,000 from nearly 1 million in the 1950s, Cleveland is experiencing a $6 billion burst of development that includes everything from big downtown projects to the fine-grained revival of a half-dozen neighborhoods. An influx of young professionals, drawn by jobs in tech, digital media, marketing, and biomedical companies, has led to a tight downtown rental market with a residential population of about 10,000 and growing, and an occupancy rate of nearly 96 percent.

Michael Christoff, a 30-year-old architectural designer who grew up in rural Canfield, Ohio, says he decided to stick around Cleveland after graduating from Kent State University in 2004 with a bachelor's degree in architecture because he saw new opportunities in a city young people once fled. 'If you've got ideas and you're passionate enough to put the work into doing them, people in Cleveland will support you,' he says. 'You can engage and get traction.'

The change in Cleveland is readily visible four miles east of downtown in the University Circle neighborhood, the fast-growing cultural and educational hub, which is also home to University Hospitals and the world-famous Cleveland Clinic, the city's largest employers, with a combined staff of nearly 30,000. To stand there on Euclid Avenue, once notable for its Millionaires' Row mansions, is to catch a glimpse of a city capitalizing on one square mile of legacy institutions set among greenways designed a century ago by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. Fresh investments in the district include a $350 million expansion of the Cleveland Museum of Art, designed by Rafael Vi'oly, and the new home of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (MOCA), a shiny gemstone in black, reflective stainless steel by Farshid Moussavi. MOCA anchors the eight-acre Uptown development, on the flank of Case Western Reserve University, which includes apartments, a bookstore, a supermarket, nightclubs, and restaurants wrapped in crisply geometric, aluminum-clad buildings designed by Stanley Saitowitz/Natoma Architects of San Francisco.

Such projects raise the possibility that other shrinking cities across the industrial Great Lakes could build a brighter future on similarly rich assets such as medical and cultural institutions, universities, specialized manufacturing, and handsome early-20th-century neighborhoods. Also key is a relatively low cost of living and a vast supply of Great Lakes water, now much improved in quality after decades of environmental regulation originally inspired by a certain burning river.

State and federal historic-preservation tax credits and other forms of public-sector leverage, including large-scale mass-transit improvements, have triggered many of the new projects. The Regional Transit Authority's new $200 million rapid bus line on Euclid Avenue, modeled on an award-winning fast-boarding system in Curitiba, Brazil, has boosted ridership with faster headways and shiny silver buses. It also provided the impetus to rebuild crumbling Euclid Avenue. That investment'80 percent of it in federal funds'has reinforced or leveraged more than $1 billion in development in University Circle alone, says Chris Ronayne, director of University Circle Inc., the area's nonprofit community-development corporation. 'This was an intentional effort to bring back our historic Main Street,' he says.

To be sure, Cleveland still struggles with poverty, racial tension, and poor public schools. Its shrinking population means the city is losing political clout in Congress and in the politically fragmented northeast Ohio region, where most of the 3.8 million residents live in sprawl suburbs and rarely go downtown. Yet several decades of patient stewardship by its cultural institutions, universities, foundations, and developers is paying off in selected parts of the city.

Efforts to improve social equity are part of the package. The Cleveland Foundation, the nation's oldest community foundation, with assets of over $1 billion, persuaded University Hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic to spread their wealth into the surrounding poor, predominantly African-American neighborhoods by patronizing local employee-owned cooperatives such as laundries and urban greenhouses.

The Cleveland Foundation also cajoled the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District to work with Kent State University's Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and others on a $3 billion project to cut pollution from the aging combined storm and sewer systems. The collaboration is part of KSU's 'Reimagining Cleveland,' an influential study of how the city could reuse neighborhoods hollowed out by population loss and foreclosures for parks, agriculture, constructed wetlands, and trails. 'It's about nothing less than creating a sustainable framework for reviving the city,' says Terry Schwarz, who heads the KSU program. 'Rather than let the voids dilute the city, we have to think about putting vacant land back into productive but nontraditional uses.'

The new projects across Cleveland are adding a fresh layer of architecture and landscape to the handsome civic armature established during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by industrial barons who built immense fortunes in oil, steel, mining, and banking, including John D. Rockefeller, industrial magnate John Long Severance, and Jeptha H. Wade, a founder of the Western Union Telegraph Company. 'We inherited incredible bones, then we figured out how to take these wonderful old buildings and give them new uses,' says the developer Ari Maron of MRN Ltd. Outside the historic core, prior attempts at revitalization include the less-than-successful Erieview urban-renewal district, conceived in 1961 by a young I.M. Pei. The project erased 200 acres of downtown density and filled the ensuing voids with bland Modernist towers now struggling to keep tenants.

Though considered the Midwest, Cleveland clings to its New England roots as part of a territory once termed the Western Reserve of Connecticut, first surveyed by Moses Cleaveland in 1796. He laid the plans for a 10-acre public square and downtown grid atop a 70-foot-high bluff that rises above Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. Downtown is still dominated by landmarks, such as the Neoclassical 1931 Terminal Tower, and by one of the largest intact City Beautiful districts in the country, designed in 1903 by Daniel Burnham. Part of the district will be relandscaped by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol of Seattle atop a new, below-grade convention center, designed by LMN Architects, also of Seattle. The $465 million project includes the nation's first Medical Mart, a showroom for advanced medical devices, set to open next year. Almost 20 years ago, Cleveland pegged its hopes for rebirth on such big, taxpayer-bankrolled projects as the Browns stadium and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a mediocre building designed by an older I.M. Pei, plopped on the drab lakefront. The projects ensured that the city retained its major-league teams and attracted tourists, but did nothing to improve streetscapes or the poorly planned Lake Erie shoreline, cut off from downtown by a railroad and an interstate highway.

That once-elegant downtown, its broad streets nearly empty of shops, is still quiet these days, but there are pockets of vibrancy. Along East Fourth Street, in the shadow of the Gateway ballpark and basketball arena, also built in the 1990s, MRN Ltd. gentrified a dingy block of wig shops and greasy spoons, turning it into a regional hotspot for nightlife. Anchors on the street include Lola Bistro, one piece of a growing restaurant empire conceived by Iron Chef Michael Symon'part of the city's booming locavore gourmet movement'and the House of Blues, where you might catch one of the regular Pecha Kucha nights. In those alcohol-fueled networking events, young creatives strut their ideas in successive six-minute-and-40-second presentations on everything from art and fashion design to comedy, ceramics, and community redevelopment. 'The energy is pretty awesome,' says designer Christoff, an organizer of the events. If at least some of those twenty- or thirtysomethings stick around to grow new companies and raise families, Cleveland just might achieve its dream: a self-sustaining wave of reinvestment that leads the way to an even bigger rejuvenation.

Steven Litt is the architecture critic of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

Editor's Note: In the October print edition we inadvertently published an outdated aerial photograph of Cleveland. We have posted a current photo above.