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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At 3:44 PM, Blogger Bill Barrow said...

I was once in the group travel business and noticed how insulated the off-shore resorts could be (which in some countries might have been necessary) and when I lived in Tucson I didn't like to see big resorts attempt to replicate the Old Pueblo (historic Tucson) entirely on-property, with fake Western experiences, to keep from losing business to the real city. I just don't feel we can demand that developers tailor all their planning to unarticulated historical priorities and preserve anything old. It's up to us to imagine a future with the "best" landmarks incorporated into sound new development so we'll always be able to find Cleveland's core identity and legacy at any point in time. Imagine what would have happened if there were champions for the thousand or so buildings cleared from the southern quadrant of Public Square for the C.U.T. in the 1920s.... what would that have resulted in? And do we really miss any of them today?

At 2:21 PM, Blogger Gregory said...

I think this is about more than a building. It is about the feel and fabric of a neighborhood. The Columbia building is nice, but by no means is it some shining example of its style. However, lower Prospect Avenue still has enough density left to feel like the historic neighborhood that it is. Demolishing the Columbia building will not only create a hole in that history, but do so at a critical point along the street where it meets the Tower City District. Too much of our city has been demolished for parking lots already. Once it is gone it can never be rebuilt.
The other concern here is that Rock Gaming and Mr. Gilbert are breaking their word to us. We are a great people from a great city and its time we start acting like it. Rock Gaming knows the city is in a financial bind and they are using this as an opportunity to take more than their share. They are opening a casino which basically already gives them the right to make a fortune with or without the garage. The odds are in their favor, they are the house in a gambling establishment! The least they could do is keep their word and build something respectful.

At 2:56 PM, Blogger Richard said...

Hey Bill, your comment "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" seems to argue against the point you're trying to make, or did I read it wrong?
Seems like some malls have recently shut down and have been reborn as outdoor shopping without the weather protection you suggest they demand. I'm thinking of Westgate as an example. And the example of Legacy or Crocker Park seems to send a similar message -- people aren't concerned with "being out of the weather". So clearly suburbanites have not voted for warm and dry as you suggest.
Maybe we need to try to determine why we need to protect the public from interacting at street level, if that's what's going on here. Surely it's in the casino's best interest to keep people inside and funneled into their venue. Perhaps we should ask whether it's in the City's best interests to install this proposed skyway with the additional loss of a historic building.
Thanks for the discussion.

At 3:20 PM, Blogger Bill Barrow said...

@Gregory: I'm mindful of the effect of destroying districts as well as individual buildings, but probably need to go visit this intersection on the ground again sometime and see what I think the effect of this garage will be here and how that affects the trade-offs involved.

@Richard: I'm not seeing a reading of what I said that's contradictory, but maybe I hear it differently in my head. I'm only saying that staying warm and dry is nice and providing that was a goal of malls and probably is still a virtue downtown. The LV/CP sort of retro experience says to me that people don't want big sprawling malls with acres of walking, no matter how warm and dry. It also says that there are urban amenities that have an audience, even in the farther burbs, properly presented. As for their being outdoors, well a certain about of cyclical variety may drive it and we'll see w&d make a comeback, while retaining the anti-mall features. And yes, limiting the interactions with the street -- panhandlers, mythical muggers, etc. -- will still be a factor, whatever it does to our ability to mix together in a true "downtown" urban fashion. It's constantly evolving.

At 3:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're totally right. We should demolish historic buildings for more parking decks. After all, the rich getting richer is way more important than preserving the city for the little people. And I, for one, won't be satisfied truly until a dome is built over public square. I mean, what's all this "I have to step outside into the sun" business? Eek.

And also, wow, I didn't realize suburbanites and urbanite share the same values. Clearly if the suburbanites want indoor shopping that's the only viable way to do business.

At 3:56 PM, Blogger Bill Barrow said...

@Anonymous: There are different perspectives here, none are 100% right, and some blending and trade-offs are going to be necessary to accommodate all the populations we'd like to use the city. I'm not favor of parking decks, per se, but it is a factor that needs to be addressed.

Shifting locations for the moment, I'd love to see that big, block-long surface parking lot across from Mallorca in the Warehouse District replaced with something more mixed use.

At 11:42 AM, Anonymous Mandy said...

You said: "we as a preservation community need a lot, LOT better advance planning and tougher ordinances to identify the buildings, districts, skylines and vistas that we really cannot live without and set up means of protecting them long before developers get this far into their planning".
So... we should create landmarks districts and individual landmarked buildings?

At 2:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Im not sure I understand your point of view Bill. Whenever someone counters what you are saying, you respond with no real defense, yet continue on with the same opinion. If there is a certain amount of give and take, shouldnt it involve the fact that when something is downtown or in an urban setting it is plannned accordingly, and not for suburnites or necessarily the automobile? Sometimes city folks have to deal with this give and take when heaven forbit they have to go to the suburbs, with there lack of walkability and seas of parking lots (which has largly fallen out of favor due to the "walkability" mentality, and realization of past mistakes in planning. So why would in the world would an urban center/real city want to behave in any way other than what it means to be a city? By continuing to ruin the continuity of the downtown streetscapes to further discourage interaction with the actually sidewalks? Irronically whenever Clevelanders (suburbanites included) visit other large cities like Chicago, DC, New York, they are almost the most impressed by its vitality, and walkability and the presense of people on the sidewalks. So why does Cleveland want to continue to behave in such a way that would promote the opposite, and further discourage connecting the islands of activity that do exist by the continued destruction of the urban fabric? I dont think people would really be complaining half as much had the proposal proposed something tasteful, truely mixed use, and dense for the space currently in question, and had the area hadnt already been peppered with quite a lot of parking, so the analogy about the terminal is a dumb one. I also think there would be a bit less of an outcry officials did a real and hard look at alternatives, but we know now that this hasnt happended. They were only looking at the easiest and cheapest way.... It is supposed to be up to the city, and planners to say that frankly it isnt good enough for our city. Because better alternatives do exist.

At 4:11 PM, Blogger Bill Barrow said...

@Mandy: Yes, of course I'm aware that there are already means of designating individual landmark buildings and landmark districts. I'm talking more about the overarching plan for the city as a whole and a strategy to implement it. We're good with seeing trees, bad with forest management.

At 4:59 PM, Blogger Bill Barrow said...

@Anonymous the Second: I agree that I'm not diving into this discussion with answers for everyone. My original goal was merely to advance the idea that historically developers have attempted to control and harvest all the dollars they could from visitors and so I'm not surprised the casino's acting the same way. I also was noting my personal preference for staying comfortable when moving around on wet,cold, windy, or humid days and suggesting that would be a plus for suburbanites coming downtown to the casinos, too. I'm not advancing either as an overall philosophy for urbanism, however. I love visiting Chicago and Manhattan and walking their streets and have done the same here in downtown Cleveland, tourist-like, but day to day commuting to work is less romantic and I like being comfortable.


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