After a spate of news about Detroit, this edition of the news round-up focuses on three other cities: Cleveland, Rochester and Buffalo:

Cleveland Tops Census’ Shrinking List; Local Columnist Says City is Stabilizing
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released population estimates for 2009, showing Cleveland with the largest numerical decline of residents last year – followed by two Michigan cities, Detroit and Flint. According to the Census’ estimate, Cleveland lost 2,658 residents, or nearly 1 percent. But a local columnist at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer points out that the decline is actually about 0.6 percent, indicating that the city’s population may finally be stabilizing.

In New York, Rochester Embraces Downsizing, Buffalo Still Reluctant
Rochester has joined the ranks of fellow shrinking city Detroit, and embraced downsizing. The city has acknowledged its dramatic loss of population, and is now to committed to “consciously and intelligently shrink.” Over the next 20 years, the city will relocate residents to eliminate at least 40 residential blocks, and convert the land into parks, greenways, gardens, and farms. Buffalo – another shrinking city about 70 miles away – is still reluctant to embrace the notion of downsizing.


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.

Cleveland boosts a large amount of interesting and underutilized infrastructure. In its current state these roads and buildings look like any other part of Cleveland. They have character, they have an interesting past, and they can too serve a purpose in a new Cleveland. On a recent trip to New York City, I visited Highline Park, which is a 1.45 mile park built on a section of the former elevated freight railroad of the West Side Line. The park recently opened in 2009 and is not complete, but this type of adaptive reuse would be a great way to redevelop Cleveland’s neighborhood of Ohio City/Near West Side and bring life to the Detroit-Superior Bridge.

First, their are obvious differences between a park being built on historic elevated tracks in NYC’s trendy neighborhoods, such as the Meat Packing District, West Village, and Chelsea. Obviously these neighborhoods are very lively and are lined with multi-million dollar luxury apartments, boutiques, and cafes. However, these neighborhoods were once in decline in NYC and the visionary actions taken turned this area into a highly sought after part of the City.

Cleveland has a unique opportunity to connect downtown and Ohio City to create trendy corridor, lively with art establishments, restaurants, retail, residential, jobs, and a high quality of life. I would propose that Cleveland use the Detroit Avenue/Superior Ave corridor as a pilot for creating a vibrant, pedestrian oriented street, which connects neighborhoods, employment centers, civic and educational institutions with the people.

First, the Detroit-Superior Bridge has a history of temporary uses on the abandoned lower level. In September 2009, the lower levels of the bridge were used as a temporary art installation. “The curious will stroll along the mile-long span, sampling video installations, roots music, drumming, juggling and more. It will feel as if you’re exploring catacombs under a lost city, but actually you are high enough to gaze over the Flats, downtown and the industrial valley.” (

The City should actively evaluate the opportunity to redevelop this corridor by making permanent pedestrian and biking improvements to the Detroit-Superior Bridge’s abandoned lower level. Further, it should look at traffic flow along Detroit Avenue and possibly reconfigure the road to exclude one travel lane. The excluded travel lane could be used as pedestrian and bike path, additional sidewalk space, areas for tables and other measures.

This will make the area more pedestrian friendly and calm traffic. Further, the entire corridor is approximately 4-miles. This allows a large amount of people to be able to actively bike and/or walk to work or school in Downtown.Creating a “trendy” corridor in Cleveland is step in the right direction. It may be challenging to attract families back to Cleveland, because of schools, crime, etc. But, attracting Cleveland’s “Creative Class” may be a good start. This corridor would connect some of Cleveland’s best assets, such as the Detroit-Suprior Bridge, Ohio City, Downtown, The Public Square, Cleveland State University, and so on. Just maybe such a corridor would lead to redevelopment of the existing buildings that have so much character. Personally, if I had the opportunity to live in a trendy neighborhood, with an active night-life, eateries, etc and be able to have an interesting walk/bike to downtown at an affordable price, Cleveland would be very attractive to me.

The use of ‘blots’, or ‘side lot expansions’, is a technique that gives homeowners with vacant land adjacent to their home the opportunity to purchase that property as an expansion to their own for a nominal cost. Essentially, this concept is an incentive to de-densify neighborhoods. This immediately strikes me as contrary to many smart growth principals, notably that in reducing density it makes transit less feasible and reduces the community attributes of neighborhoods.

Blot in Detroit

Blot in Detroit

The article, “IMPROVE YOUR LOT!” from Cities Growing Smaller, analyzes the growing use of blots in Detroit and shows several photo examples of blots with high, unfriendly fences (like the example above). This privatization of urban space might be contrary to the community-oriented fundamentals of New Urbanism, but not to what they call “New Suburbanism” – a term for “the process through which entrepreneurial homeowners take, borrow, or buy adjacent land.” Their analysis points out the many suburban amenities these blots enable homeowners to develop, including: additions to their homes, garages, pools, playgrounds and gardens.

Diagram of various uses of blots

During a class visit to Cleveland in October, my thoughts on blots quickly began to evolve into something more positive. The density of many neighborhoods in the city, built for mid 20th century industrial workers, no longer suits the city’s needs or many citizens’ ideology.  Cleveland’s metropolitan population statistics tell the tale; the city is shrinking but the region is sprawling (see map below). There are many reasons for this, but one is certainly the quest for more space and privacy…attributes that blots can help supply.

Cleveland Sprawl

Blots, or the New Suburbs, may not be part of smart growth, but they can serve as a valuable tool for “smart decline” as well as a way to combat urban sprawl. Setting aside certain neighborhoods with the best potential for successful density, mixed use and transit as “urban catchment hubs”, other areas can then be set aside for reducing density with the use of blots and other incentives, such as conservation easements, that set aside open space. Additionally, by attracting people seeking suburban values to stay in the city or move closer to urban hubs, this could also work to bring metropolitan growth back in to the city. This could be combined with many existing growth management tools that could be tweaked for shrinking cities, such as growth boundaries, impact fees and TDRs.

Creating a systematic way to use blots in this way is something that land trusts and land banks are already toying with, but perhaps government could take a stronger role. If nothing else, blots remove the burden of maintaining vacant lots and put that land back on the tax roll. Even modest shifts of population back towards the core would lead to many other positive outcomes that shrinking cities would definitely benefit from.

Upon visiting a new city, I love to put on my running shoes and experience the city on foot. When given this opportunity on a recent trip to Cleveland, my instincts led me straight to the city’s Lake Erie waterfront. During my trek through the monumental downtown and past the impressive Brown’s stadium and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I was surprisingly impressed by the city’s design and aesthetics…that is, until I reached the water.

The small nub of accessible waterfront stretches only a short distance and offers little more than a dead end with a sidewalk and barrier. Why is the Cleveland’s waterfront, an asset that most cities seize upon as their defining feature, such an underutilized amenity?

Much of the answer to this is that most of the waterfront is tied up as a port. This necessary outlet for Cleveland’s industrial-based economy is in obvious need of redevelopment, a project that a shrinking city is hesitant to even think about. In October 2009, the Kahr Real Estate group released a report entitled “Cleveland Waterfront Market Demand and Development Options” that reaches many conclusions that the city should be excited to hear.

The outlook of the report was much more optimistic than I expected, proclaiming that: “Cleveland can take on a successful, large-scale waterfront development based on three compelling reasons”:

  1. Cities around the world have successfully undertaken large-scale waterfront redevelopments while facing similar depressed local real estate and economic markets.
  2. Even under conservative assumptions about the future growth potential in the local economy, there is sufficient demand on the Port’s current waterfront site over the coming twenty-years to support development.
  3. A detailed financial analysis of potential development of the site based on results of a demand model reveals positive yields for the Port and other related stakeholders.

I had to ask myself, are they talking about the same Cleveland? Indeed they were. The report details a list of ten successful waterfront redevelopment projects in cities dealt a similar set of cards to Cleveland, including the US cities of Baltimore, NYC, Chicago and Pittsburgh. These projects all reconnected downtowns to waterfronts and catalyzed positive economic change – with repercussions across the city.

Suggested reorganization of Cleveland's port

I was actually able to meet Josh Kahr, of Kahr Real Estate, at the Urban Land Institute’s Fall Meeting in early November where he was a speaker on a discussion panel entitled “Post-industrial can mean regeneration…Especially on the Waterfront.” While the panel acknowledged the significant challenges of similar redevelopment efforts, overall it was a very upbeat presentation. This was especially striking considering the generally somber tone of the conference given the downturn’s stagnant effects on real estate. So, if the ULI thinks post-industrial waterfronts have potential in today’s economic climate – then perhaps Kahr’s report is something Cleveland should seriously consider.

While in Cleveland last weekend, with fellow classmates from the Shrinking Cities Studio, I relied on the Erie Island Coffee Co. for my morning cup of coffee. And printed on the cup sleeve at Erie is this quote, “Don’t Give Up the Ship. – Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (1813).” In my opinion, this rallying cry sums up the visit to Cleveland quite nicely.

The purpose of the trip was to see a ‘Shrinking City’ first-hand, and learn about the efforts underway to proactively address Cleveland’s problems with home foreclosures and blighted and vacant properties.

On Friday, we met with people in the planning, community development, and legal fields – all of whom are well versed in the dynamics and needs of a Shrinking City, and are committed to improving the plight of Cleveland.

But I wondered if this understanding and commitment exists beyond this circle of practitioners? I found an answer, the very next morning, in the local newspaper.

There was an article in Saturday’s (10/17) edition of The Plain Dealer about the installation of Ronald Berkman, the sixth president of Cleveland State University (CSU is located in a central Cleveland neighborhood, close to downtown). According to the article, in his address Berkman vowed to not only transform the university but also the surrounding neighborhood. Specifically he said:

“Cleveland State is in and of this city, and the connection and bonds between the two of them must be strengthened…I envision a day soon when faculty and staff will come to live in this neighborhood, send their children to school here and together build a new, vibrant, neighborhood in the city of Cleveland.”

Though I can’t presume that Berkman’s remarks are representative of all local leaders, it’s a promising declaration from one of the city’s anchor institutions. I hope he sticks to it, and that others follow suit. Each statement like this bolsters the work of the folks we met with last weekend, and it says to larger community, “Clevelanders, Don’t Give Up the Ship!”