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November 2006

Highways and Waterfronts

By Steven Litt

On a sultry July night this year, Clevelanders crowded into the hot gymnasium at Sagrada Familia Catholic Church on the city's West Side to see the latest plans for the Lake Erie waterfront. Engineers from the Ohio Department of Transportation showed slides of how the three-mile West Shoreway could be transformed from a 50 mph limited access highway to a 35 mph boulevard. New streets from neighborhoods to the south would leap over or tunnel under a railroad line to intersect with the revised Shoreway. This would, for the first time, provide a direct link to the beaches and picnic grounds of Edgewater Park.

The West ShorewayThe design concept received mixed reviews on aesthetic and functional grounds, but it was a hopeful sign. The $50 million redo of the West Shoreway, already fully funded by ODOT, demonstrates the resolve of city and state officials to do something about a lakefront almost everyone agrees is a wasted resource.

Cleveland has nearly nine miles of shoreline on Lake Erie. But the Shoreway, railroads, the Port of Cleveland, Burke Lakefront Airport, and private yacht clubs limit public access to most of it. I.M. Pei's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and other attractions built in the 1990s had turned part of the downtown lakefront into a tourist zone active during the warm months. But most of the shoreline is still fenced off or hard to reach.

A lakefront plan initiated in 2002 under former mayor Jane Campbell called for massive revisions to the waterfront highways to beautify the city, open up land for development, and reconnect neighborhoods to the water. The revision of the West Shoreway — the westernmost third of the city's waterfront highway — will test whether access to the lakefront will lure people back to Cleveland at a time when the city's population threatens to dip below 400,000 for the first time since the early 1900s.

"We've seen that the cities that are gaining population are the ones that have these amenities," says city planning director Robert Brown, AICP. "Everyone knows about the value of having land near a body of water and we have that in Cleveland, but it's been shut off by the Shoreway."

Despite the urgent need for lakefront improvements, the Shoreway project won't be finished until at least 2011, a decade after business leaders first floated the idea. Other improvements along the downtown lakefront and the city's eastern shoreline will have to wait, perhaps for decades.

Cleveland's experience underscores the fact that transforming a waterfront can be a slow, costly process — one that often involves radical surgery on traffic arteries built in the 1950s and '60s, when many cities viewed shorelines as industrial zones, not vital attractions. Now that those highways are aging and falling into disrepair, cities are redesigning them to help the process of waterfront reclamation.

"There's more determination to make waterfronts a major asset to urban areas," says Boston architect and waterfront planner Alex Krieger.

Pioneers

In 1972, Portland, Oregon, became the first major city in the U.S. to remove an existing freeway when it demolished Harbor Drive on the west bank of the Willamette River and replaced it with Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

Around the same time, protests by San Franciscans halted construction of the Embarcadero Freeway. But a large section of the view-blocking highway — 70 feet high and four lanes wide — remained in place until the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged it severely in 1989. Two years later, the city tore it down and replaced it with a new, at-grade boulevard.

Elsewhere, overhauls have been dramatic. In the 1980s and '90s, Providence, Rhode Island, unearthed and moved sections of three rivers, ripped away the parking lots and highways that covered them, and built Waterplace Park, whose promenades now fill with crowds on summer nights when the city holds its popular WaterFire festivals. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cincinnati revised Fort Washington Way along the Ohio River by squeezing a 700-foot-wide right-of-way down to 350 feet, consolidating ramps on the east and west ends of downtown, and opening up more than 40 acres for development.

A redesigned road system created the framework for Baltimore's Inner Harbor and provided addresses for the National Aquarium, a Rouse festival marketplace, and other attractions. And over the past decade, Chicago has completed major changes both to its lakefront and to Wacker Drive, which borders the Chicago River.

Some experts say traffic planners still wield too much influence on waterfront planning. Fred Kent, director of New York-based Project for Public Spaces, says Chicago and Baltimore have made their waterfront roads too wide; he wants lower speed limits, fewer lanes, and more emphasis on mass transit.

"The roads are still way overdesigned [in favor of automobiles]," Kent says. "They're like a Chinese wall between the downtown and the waterfront."

It's costly

Tearing down such walls isn't cheap. In Seattle, Mayor Greg Nickels announced in August that the city wanted to tear down Alaskan Way, an ugly, double-decker freeway along Puget Sound in the city's downtown, and replace it with a thoroughfare lined with parks. But state officials, balking at the projected $3 billion cost, suggested other options, including raising the roadway as high as 100 feet to open better views of the waterfront and to create better pedestrian access.

Toronto is still embroiled in an age-old battle over whether to tear down the Gardiner Expressway, the elevated highway that slices across the Ontario lakefront from east to west, carrying suburban commuters downtown and creating a barrier between the business district and the water's edge. Unlike Boston, though, where the federal government shelled out $15 billion for the Big Dig that buried the central artery, Toronto faces provincial and federal governments unwilling to spend the $750 million it would take to tear down the Gardiner and replace it with an at-grade boulevard.

Still, waterfront development continues apace in Toronto as apartments, schools, offices, supermarkets, and cultural attractions take root around the highway. Over the past decade, the population living south of the Gardiner along the Ontario shoreline has nearly doubled from 5,000 to 9,000. This supports one theory of architectural historian Robert Bruegmann of the University of Illinois at Chicago, author of the recent book Sprawl: A Compact History. Bruegmann believes one valid approach is not to tear down or remove highways along the water's edge, but to let cities grow up, around and over them, a process now occurring in Toronto.

"You could have thought of [Boston's central artery] as a historic monument and just let the city grow up around it," he says.

Brown, in Cleveland, says a sensitive design for the revised West Shoreway — one that's responsive to criticisms voiced at the ODOT meeting in July — is critical to the success of the project.

"We're talking about transforming the image of Cleveland and its lakefront neighborhoods," he says. "You don't do that through bad design."

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

Images: Cleveland's Lakefront Plan calls for major overhaul of the city's waterfront highway. Above the West Shoreway today. Below a rendering of a revamped West Shoreway. Photos by City Architecture.