Austin Watkins wrote a great post on the reuse of the Detroit-Superior Bridge.  In his post, he highlights the bridge’s unique site and ways it could become the anchor for redevelopment of trendy corridor.  It’s a proposal that’s well-considered and has an obvious model in the High Line Project in New York.  I think that there are larger factors that merit taking a different approach.

First, NYC is not Cleveland.  New York has not just numerical density but, one could argue, “a culture of density.”  Part of the mystique of New York is the combination of anonymity and close quarters.  One sign of the differences between the two cities — recent articles in on Gothamist, MSNBC and the New York Post about the Standard Hotel a high-end hotel near the High Line.  Apparently, both guests and staff like to engage in a bit of exhibitionism in the windows of the hotel.  A bellhop interviewed said:

“We don’t discourage it. In actual fact, we encourage it. One of the managers even got naked in a room, and filmed it—they were considering a live feed for the Web site.”

Call me a prude, but I don’t see any parts of that story happening in Cleveland — which is a good thing.  There are other more PG activities taking place close to the High Line, including a woman who gives cabaret performances with her friends on her fire escape overlooking the High Line.  My contention is that these are mostly “only in New York” activities.

The main reasons the comparison of the two spaces needs further investigation are physical, temporal and social.  Although the High Line and the Detroit-Superior Bridge are superficially similar, they are actually very different.  The High Line is an elevated track through a canyon of multi-story buildings.  It’s only about 20 feet above the sidewalk and open to the sky.  You can easily see and be seen (see above paragraphs) on the High Line.  It doesn’t have any commercial uses on the structure to interfere with recreational use, but the surrounding buildings can be/are packed with all kinds of service and retail. 

The Detroit-Superior Bridge is … a bridge.  It’s nearly a mile long and views in are obscured by the upper deck and the steel structure on each side; the Bridge is 96 feet above the river; if you could get out on a boat, you would need to be at least 96 feet away to get a useful site line on activities in the lower deck.  This all means the views out of the structure are great, but not so good into it.  The site isn’t surrounded by real estate, so any commercial uses would be on the streets at either end of the span, or take away from potential passive recreation space on the span.

The High Line Project represents over ten years of community activism and local pressure.  A visit to The High Line’s official web site notes that a the Friends of the High Line formed in 1999, and the city didn’t formally adopt the project until 2002.  Certainly efforts to activate the lower deck of Detroit-Superior have a similar long history.  But can Cleveland afford to make the kind of investment in the lower deck that New York made in the High Line?

The Re-Building Blocks  report developed by PolicyBridge paints a disturbing picture of demographics in Cleveland.  Downtown and Ohio City are the center of a small cluster of communities that were estimated to gain population in 2009.  Between 1950 and 2000, the two neighborhoods lost 50.6% and 64.7% of their population, respectively.  Ohio City has the highest level of residential vacancies of 36 months or more of all Cleveland neighborhoods, at 66.4%.  Looking at educational attainment, Downtown and Ohio City residents with less than a high school diploma are 15.8% and 37.7%, respectively; the average for Cuyahoga County is 18.4%.  The case can be made that, with the number of universities and medical facilities in Cleveland, the Creative Class is already there — they simply are not choosing to live these two communities.  Additionally, a strategy aimed at the Creative Class overlooks the needs of the current residents.

In the case of Cleveland, it is important to develop projects hat can generate positive outcomes quickly.  They should have a low investment threshold, be easy to carry out and easy to remove if they aren’t working.  They should also take advantage of the unique nature of the bridge — it’s a covered space with great views out and controlled access.  Why not:

  1. Continue the schedule of temporary events begun with the Bridge Project in fall 2009, but analyse these to decide what uses or combination of uses are likely to work as permanent occupants of the span.   One success of the Bridge Project is in 2010, Ingenuity Fest, billed as “Cleveland’s cutting edge festival of arts, music, and technology,” is holding its yearly week-long event the lower level of Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.  It is important to remember that the Bridge Project and other Pop-Up City efforts generate “buzz” precisely because they are temporary, so it is vital to understand what will work on a long-term basis.
  2. Offer uses that can promote positive outcomes for the neighborhood that’s already there, such as a workshop on GED and continuing education or an auction of city or CDC-owned homes.  These temporary uses take advantage of the bridge’s unique situation as a space “facing” two neighborhoods.
  3. Offer options that are not available in other spaces.  As an example, many coffee chains and fast-food restaurants are no longer offering free WiFi.  What if the lower deck became a huge free WiFi hotspot?  Educational and arts organizations could take advantage of the views for painting and drawing classes.  The large open spans and heavy-duty structure lend themselves to using the lower deck as a community wood shop or to classes in making large-scale sculptures.

It is important to remember that the liability issues for temporary uses might be very different from long-term occupations.  However, a series of well-considered temporary uses can help the city identify specific uses that serve the unique needs of Cleveland.  Cleveland has a wealth of heart and talent — given time, there’s no doubt citizens will find an “only in Cleveland” use that is as specific and successful as the High Line in NYC.