Joe Public’s Square

joe public 1 Twice in one week I’ve attended meetings where the buzzword “connectivity” reigned supreme. Additionally, last Friday, my firm’s Principal and I interviewed for a master planning project where we insisted “people to places” was the ultimate goal. We were awarded the contract this week. I suppose we are on to something.

The recently unveiled re-do for Public Square – currently a concrete landscape at the nexus of Cleveland’s East and West sides, studded by patches of lawn, a Soliders and Sailors monument, and an artificial waterfall – is fantastic. Continuous, undulating ribbons of green at the northern edge of a more unified park replace four smaller pedestrian-friendly zones while a tree canopy protects lazing pedestrian from hurried motorists directed counter-clockwise around the new urban park. The north-south automobile cut-through has been eliminated in this scheme (hurray!), yet the east-west corridor (Superior Ave) remains. Statements from Landscape Architect James Corner’s NYC-based office reveal that the 70’+ wide roadway will be narrowed to 44’ (for context, 44’ is wide enough for two lanes of traffic plus two parking lanes, or 4 lanes of moving traffic. See the vast roadway in the render with tents, below). Reports from the planners and designers involved maintain that this corridor will be use strictly for buses with options to shut it down as needed (such as on the 4th of July, New Years Eve, etc). Makes me wonder how a bus lane has grown four times its width?

joe public 3 In the gleaming renders from Corner’s office, I see HUGE faults in the concept: a bus lane will run through the park and there will be a singular kiosk for food (thankfully, the project is considered in its developmental stage and public opinion could impact decisions just as “Joe Public’s” request for a roof-top bar is becoming reality for the county-funded hotel to be located a few blocks from Public Square at the nearby (new) convention center.).

In a recent poll on Facebook.com, a group of community do-gooders asked how to make Downtown better. Of course, there were those who chimed in with free parking. NOT going to happen regardless of if its a good idea of not.

The majority of suggestions prioritized the pedestrian, sometimes the cyclist, but never the motorist. Improved access to sidewalks, increased lighting, street furniture…  all of these proposed improvements encourage people to take to the streets and stay on the streets, where they are apt to stroll by an enticing window of a shop, cafe, gallery and stop inside – behavior that is near impossible to replicate in a car.

That much sought after ‘American Dream’ created the car culture we are trying to escape in cities across America while short-sided planning prevents us from building amazing light rails like our friends in Europe and Asia. While I am all for good (clean, accessible, reliable) public transportation, I am not a proponent of it running through $30 million dollars of newly cultivated green space. joe public 2

Nor do I want to eat from a kiosk when Cleveland is poised to become the food capital of America (a bold statement yes, but come on’, what else do except from a City cheerleader!?).

When I moved to Pittsburgh (yes, that other city) it grabbed at my heart instantly and with each return trip my impression of the city improves while I grow just a little green with envy. It’s no secret that much of my impetus for moving to Cleveland was its likeness to the PA town with its storied history and underdog struggles. AND I LOVE CLEVELAND (#THISISCLE). But we are really, terribly behind on public spaces… err.. public spaces that WORK.

CASE STUDY: Market Square, Downtown Pittsburgh, PA: It was renovated during my years at Carnegie Mellon and went from a collection of dingy bus lanes, half-vacant storefronts, and the city’s only Dunkin Donuts (circa 2006) to a vibrant hardscaped urban park where concerts pop-up on the permanent stage and people come from their skyscrapers to dine. All of the commercial spaces are now occupied and 20’ wide one-way streets circle the area – meaning pedestrians can take their food from the corner deli and travel 30’ or less to a picnic table (see photo below). And the buses were re-routed to avoid the new-pedestrian friendly zone. A single line of cars can ring the area at a snail’s pace; in Cleveland, traffic could flow 3-4 lanes deep in the current proposal.

pg-market-500x333

Cleveland just got a huge patch of grass in its Downtown. I’ve seen a few people use it for relaxing and more organizations take it over for races and the like. Creating another urban lawn is okay by me, although a naturally grassed area with wildflowers would be stellar, too. Why not a farm? (They’re doing it sandwiched in between parking lots and buildings across the river in Ohio City?) Why not be more progressive? OR why not blatantly copy our friends two hours south of CLE. If it works, don’t reinvent it, adopt it. And Market Square works. As does another Pittsburgh urban park, Schenley Plaza, bordering University of Pittsburgh’s campus. It is nearly 8 years old and replaced a parking lot. It houses a carousel, Conflict Kitchen, benches and enough grass for volleyball players and sunbathers to get along just fine.

03urbanschenley-plaza-1 If “Joe Public” is to use this public space it has to be accessible and amenable to people. It has to be connected to the urban fabric that already exists and support new ventures too, like a real restaurant (The Porch in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Plaza, pictured left before the eatery opened in 2011 on the far right patch of green) that serves a range of food and alcohol at a range of price points and offers sheltered views and access to the new park space. Realistically, food trucks that show up once a week (or for lunches only) and a kiosk of to-go foods won’t cut it. And neither will restaurants only on the periphery, across a few lanes of bus and car and bike traffic. 

My recommendations for Public Square: loose the bus cut-through; account for plentiful, diverse seating options; build a restaurant on Public Square and MAKE THIS A PLACE FOR PEOPLE. A lawn alone won’t draw crowds (look around this city and others for evidence of this), and if the pedestrian isn’t prioritized, their needs met, this pretty render could turn into Cleveland’s most expensive vacant space.

Watch The Plain Dealer’s art and architecture critic in a video describing the plan and ammenities, as well as the tight timeline for raising funds and breaking ground. http://www.cleveland.com/architecture/index.ssf/2014/04/video_a_closer_look_at_landsca.html#incart_river

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