Sunday, May 22, 2011

Balancing Developers' Plans and Downtown Preservation

There is a bit of contention about plans to install a skywalk diagonally across the intersection of Prospect and Ontario, linking a new parking facility with the casino being built in Higbee's (1) and destroying historic landmarks in the process (2). There are a multitude of architectural renderings of what this would look like and it upsets a lot of people who feel that it will trash the appearance of venerable Higbee's and remove gamblers from the city street, into some sort of hamster habitat designed to cocoon them from the real Cleveland. Cruise ships and mega-resort hotels do this too, as a way of harvesting all the spare change they can from the pockets they have in their facility at the time.

This is all a bit ironic, as that's exactly the strategy the Van Sweringen brothers employed in building the Cleveland Union Terminal on Public Square, including Higbee's. While passengers were interchanging between railroad trains, the Shaker Rapid, streetcars, automobiles or simply walking, the intermodal point was so valuable that the brothers surrounded it with every convenience they could, to maximize the dollars they could harvest from the passengers. A department store, a hotel, a series of restaurants, shoeshine stands, and the complex of office buildings behind the Square (Landmark Office Buildings), capped off by the iconic Terminal Tower. So we begrudge the twenty-first century's developers the right to control the environment to grab every nickel? How must many of the merchants have felt, viewing the Vans' plans for the C.U.T. around 1920?

But on the issue of the skywalk and its affect on Higbee's and downtown ambiance, here's part of a message I posted in reply to a friend's Facebook message....

Some of us -- myself included -- remember Cleveland as a walking city, with hundreds of pedestrians churning up and down the streets, crowding the intersections waiting for the light to change and catching streetcars and buses. Lots of urban interaction. And the buildings were right there off and towering over the sidewalks. But we ran through the drizzle, suffered our umbrellas blown inside out in the wind howling down Euclid and sloshed through the slop and snow banks to get around in the winter. Now at CSU, I'm traveling from East 24th Street to East 17th Street indoors, in shirtsleeves, in any kind of bad weather and enjoying it. I pay extra to park in the central core and never go outside if I don't have to and do so when I worked in the Hanna Bldg, too. And I interact plenty and comfortably with others I encounter.

If you thinking about it, historically what's the treasured Old Arcade except an early hamster habitat for Clevelanders trying to escape our weather and why do we speak so fondly of cities with underground dimensions we lack, be they shopping centers or merely subways? Our great old architecture was designed for a time when people apparently had fewer choices for getting around downtown (again, the arcades being early exceptions), so the skyline and streetscapes reflect that.

I'm all for preserving the historical ambiance of Cleveland -- you must suspect that of me -- but I'm not happy with the preservation community's habit of waiting until something is far advanced and then deciding the plans suck and some building few have ever heard of is endangered. There aren't, IMHO, that many buildings out of the multitude downtown that are so important that the future needs to be unduly hung up about them and I don't think that any of them are in peril here.

No one loves the Cleveland Union Terminal more than me, but plugging a skywalk into the face of Higbee's back side doesn't automatically make me shudder (the Public Square face, yes of course), but we do need discussion on how reversible it would be (the first principle of preservation, after all). Suburbanites have voted for indoor shopping with malls in past decades and whatever Legacy Village sorts of retro downtowns tell us, I suspect staying dry and warm is still a virtue for attracting them downtown (or even keeping some from moving to Florida). Sure, ya gotta be tough to live in Cleveland and all that, but let's realize that the notion of a city is evolving and skywalks might be something to incorporate, as sci fi illustrators have drawn for decades.

But more than anything, we as a preservation community need a lot, LOT better advance planning and tougher ordinances to identify the buildings, districts, skylines and vistas (a topic I'd like to pursue someday) that we really cannot live without and set up means of protecting them long before developers get this far into their planning.

Forgive me if all you were criticizing was the fanciful, ethereal nature of "renderings," which drive me mad sometimes too, but I think that's a separate issue and the very idea of a skyway is the most disturbing factor here, no?

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