Grow A Pair, Cleveland

By Joe Baur

Cleveland needs to grow a pair.

Truth is, we have an amazing city. Our cultural assets are one-of-a-kind; we have top-notch educational institutions, and an aesthetic appeal most cities outside of the Rust Belt can’t offer.

But many Clevelanders and city leaders still suffer from an inferiority complex that has plagued our region ever since suburban flight began in the 1950s.

Usually naysayers come from suburban Cleveland, although that’s not to say there aren’t exceptions to that rule. Some understand that the downtown experience is supposed to be different from the suburban experience.

But listen to radio hosts on WTAM or check out the comments section on any article that so much as indicates anything remotely positive for our fair city, and you’d think we live in a ghost town, unworthy of any praise. Some of our city’s leaders validate that perception with their planning decisions, even though it’s not their intention.

Although there’s a myriad of development nightmares we could highlight – surface lots in the Warehouse District, Playhouse Square’s near demolition – the city’s placating to the Horseshoe Casino’s development demands is the most egregious offense in recent memory.

When Ohio voters legalized gambling in the state of Ohio in 2009, they only did just that. They legalized gambling under Dan Gilbert and Rock Gaming’s deceptive guise that they would mesh their project into the existing fabric of downtown Cleveland.

Nearly 18 months after the vote, Rock Gaming drastically changed course, advocating to demolish the historic Columbia Building for yet another parking garage and construct a skywalk connecting said garage to the Higbee Building – a national landmark, but not a local landmark, mind you.

Architectural critic of The Plain Dealer, Steven Litt, reported, “Demolishing the Columbia Building will mean losing a handsome, century-old structure…” noting a skywalk into Higbee would be like “poking a straw in Mona Lisa’s nose.” He continued, saying “The negative impacts of the changes proposed by Rock Gaming are hard to quantify, but they’re the kind of actions that can erode a city’s visual integrity and sense of place, even its identity,” adding a dose of reality that has eroded Cleveland’s authenticity for decades.

“Unfortunately, there’s little chance that the city will stand in Rock Gaming’s way or push for better alternatives.”

Ohio voters, especially Cleveland voters, did not vote for these visual and economic atrocities. Sadly, Rock Gaming has the ear of downtown councilman, Joe Cimperman, and Mayor Jackson. The parking garage moved forward despite grassroots efforts and strong constituents’ objections.

Cimperman specifically calls these projects “economic development.” He’s a nice guy and a tremendous advocate for Cleveland, but he is neither an economist nor an urban planner. Yet he refuses to listen to the experts or engage his constituents who disagree with him.

Economic development consists of adding something of benefit to the neighborhood and creates a new tax base. A parking garage and skywalk that cater to auto-oriented visitors does nothing to add to the value of the downtown neighborhood. It’s suburban development in an urban environment.

Experts, like Case Western Reserve University researcher Richey Piiparinen agree, and don’t like the path downtown Cleveland is heading toward, calling the city’s plans, “troubling, and decidedly anti-Rust Belt Chic, for the simple reason that we are defiling the realness of Cleveland and its constituents for the falseness that is constructing our city for someone else, in this case casino tourists.”

Cimperman recently admitted to a constituent discussing the skywalk via Twitter, “I don’t pretend to have all the answers…” So why are we so quick to ignore the experts? If a doctor tells you that you’re suffering from a hernia, you don’t brush it off, saying “Nah, just a pulled muscle.” You get into surgery, STAT!

When asked to defend his stance, Cimperman repeatedly tells his own constituents that we have to “agree to disagree,” smugly noting “sorry I love jobs and construction and the vote of the people,” as if to say anyone who doesn’t support bowing down to big-money developers are anti-jobs, anti-construction, and anti-Democracy. It’s the same divisive rhetoric that plagues national politics, yet he refuses to engage opponents in a public discussion.

We can’t agree to disagree. Doing so ends with a gaudy skywalk in the side of our city’s greatest architectural achievement, right in the middle of our downtown neighborhood where some of us would one day like to consider raising a family. Currently, the idea of raising a family downtown is laughable to many who ask where the grocery store is, or say the streets are plagued with “bums.”

How in the name of all that is holy does a skywalk change that perception rather than confirm it?

The city’s support for the casino’s development plans is yet another example of Cleveland needing a pair.

Our leaders tell us Cleveland is a fantastic city. But their actions don’t support their words.

A Cincinnati report on skywalks said they allow pedestrians to bypass the street, contributing to the perception that downtown is abandoned. “The way you help to build a vital center is to put people on the streets and to enable them to have connectivity on these streets,” city spokesperson Meg Olberding told UrbanCincy. The Queen City has since begun demolishing their skywalks, citing the same reasons Cleveland activists are to prevent the casino skywalk.

Supporters of the skywalk cite Minneapolis as a city where skywalks are great. To the contrary, the city’s Principal Planner told me on the phone that their skywalks are very different than what the Rock Gaming has in store. Their skywalks do not simply go from Point A to Point B, nor would they ever consider putting one into the side of a historic building.

Considering the amount of research and testimony that supports the notion that skywalks are pedestrian traffic killers, it seems laughable this is even up for debate. Not to mention the casino already has a 24-hour shuttle running every 10 minutes to accommodate those who can’t handle the grueling 270-foot walk to the Prospect Avenue entrance.

Although our city has made tremendous progress over the past decade, there’s little doubt we continue to struggle with the perception that downtown is unsafe and a ghost town. The fact that our leaders would support a plan that contributes to that unflattering perception tenfold is perplexing to say the least and questionable at best.

It’s not unlike an emotionally abusive relationship where one of the partners continually and willingly changes themselves in hopes of being loved. That relationship always ends in heartbreak, it has throughout Cleveland history and will once again if we allow Rock Gaming to have their way with us.

We need to draw a line in sand, Cleveland. We need to step up to our naysayers and tell them, “Cleveland is a kickass place to be” instead of getting giddy anytime a developer pays us attention. Cleveland needs to grow a pair.

[Photo of Canton’s skywalk]


Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt, and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at and on Twitter @MildlyRelevant.


OurCLE organization formed

After learning about Forest City Enterprises’ appeal hearing with the National Register of Historic Places to build the skywalk and keep their historic tax credits, Joe Baur and fellow Clevelanders began a grassroots organization called OurCLE, dedicated to preventing the skywalk from being built, and encouraging City Hall to work toward declaring Tower City – Cleveland’s own Empire State Building – a local landmark. The group collected 100-plus online signatures in five days on a Civic Commons petition, urging the National Register of Historic Places to reject Forest City’s appeal. Now, they’re taking a letter addressed to the Councilman and Mayor door-to-door.

View the petition here.

Get more info on OurCLE’s blog, Twitter & Facebook pages.




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