In the early 1920s Clevelanders Otis and Mantis Van Sweringen decided to build a model city. They named it Shaker Heights. It was a planned residential neighborhood with lots of restrictions — no apartments, blacks, Jews or porches. To connect their new city to Cleveland’s downtown, the Vans bought a railroad and created the Shaker Rapid. As a part of that development they designed and built Shaker Square — on the edge of their utopian village but in the City of Cleveland. It is now the second oldest planned shopping area in the nation and the oldest in Ohio. But changing demographics and shopping trends have not always been kind to this aging icon of Cleveland’s past.
When it opened back in the 1920s, society had recently transitioned from the horse-and-buggy era to automobiles. Most people walked or took public transportation. Shaker Square shoppers were the well-to-do, and many lived in the luxury Moreland Courts Apartments that adjoin the Square or in Shaker Heights, which in the early 1960s had the highest per capita income in the nation.
In the early 1970s, when I first moved to the Shaker Square area, there were still vestiges of the Square’s past. Today, Goodwill operates a thrift shop where the wealthy once shopped at Milgram’s and Bonwit Teller.
In some ways the Square has adapted to the change with more restaurants, a multiplex theater replacing the one-screen Colony, which opened in 1937, and the Dave’s Supermarket that caters to urban shoppers. But as much as I love the Square, it’s not exactly Mayberry, with some elements of street crime creeping in over the years.
Everyone can agree that the Square needs updating to keep up with 21st century shoppers — many of whom have given up traditional retail outlets and shop exclusively online. In addition, the Square must compete with the new Van Aken shopping district and the not-so-distant and ultramodern Pinecrest and Legacy Village shopping districts, in addition to big-box stores like Walmart and Costco. But the plans proposed by Landscape Design hardly deal with those issues. At the crux of their plans is the decision to close Shaker Boulevard to automobile traffic.
Their idea is to create a green space and pedestrian walkways on the Square. They anticipate that folks from the community will commune on the Square and sing Kumbaya while checking their cell phones and sipping $3.00 cups of coffee as their kids play in the planned waterpark. They want to provide a permanent home for the Saturday morning farmer’s market which runs outdoors on the Square from April to December. The market is a great place and an asset to the Square but services mostly upscale millennials, generation Xers and baby boomers buying organic fruits and vegetables and Amish pastry on their way to their yoga classes. People who shop at Aldi’s are seldom seen.
The planners also want the Square to be a walk-through for east-side hikers who want to connect with Doan Creek on their way to Lake Erie. I agree that green space and areas for people to meet and hike are good things in a sort of San Francisco ethereal type way, but you have to remember this is Cleveland.
In an urban design class in a university next to la-la land, somebody sat down at a computer and drew up a plan for renovating an aging urban shopping area. Then they sold the cookie cutter design to a group who decided to plop it onto Shaker Square.
What these design geniuses don’t take into consideration is that closing a major east-west thoroughfare and re-routing traffic around the outer quadrants, like they do on Saturdays for the farmers market, will make it more difficult for would-be shoppers to stop at existing businesses located on the Square and create a traffic quagmire, especially when fire and emergency vehicles need to get through. Somehow, they didn’t count the thousands of cars that come through the Square every day as commuters go from eastern suburbs to the central city. And adding to the malaise, current parking will be reduced. Nor did they consider that the Shaker Blue/Green Rapid Line will continue to invade their precious green space.
While sitting in their climate-controlled computer labs, these folks didn’t consider the most important factor when it comes to city planning in Cleveland. From mid-September to the end of May it’s cold. Which means that no one is going to come out of their warm house and sit by a fire pit on Shaker Square when it’s 25 degrees. Nor did they take into consideration the residents of the adjoining neighborhoods like mine, who don’t want the traffic deflected on to our side streets.
This past Saturday there was a meeting of concerned residents, led by former Councilman John Lawson, community activist James Callihan and Brandon Chrostowski, owner of Edwin’s Restaurant on the Square. The sole purpose of the meeting was to organize the loyal opposition to the closing of Shaker Boulevard. Everyone in the room agreed that the Square has problems and needs renovation. But they also realize that closing Shaker Boulevard will not solve the problem and only makes things worse.
The elephant in the room is the black-white divide between the predominately black Buckeye Road section of the Shaker Square District and the more racially diverse Larchmere/Shaker and adjoining Cleveland/Shaker School District area. Seldom have the two areas come together but this time it’s vitally important that they do.
Ward 4 Councilman Ken Johnson, whose ward includes Shaker Square, has been conspicuously silent as to the proposed changes. Rumor has it that he is opposed to closing Shaker Boulevard, but no one knows for sure. Johnson has essentially defaulted to Ward 6 councilman and future mayoral candidate Blaine Griffin, who came to the meeting but danced around the real issues. County Councilperson Shontel Brown and Mayor Frank Jackson are missing in action on this issue even though this is a vital issue that will severely alter the traffic patterns and retail future of a major part of Cleveland’s east side.
As a resident of the Shaker Square District and the former district 9 member of county council in which the Square is locate, I feel that the planned changes are being forced down the throats of the residents and merchants of Shaker Square by a bunch of tree-hugging computer nerds who have no stock in my neighborhood or the businesses located on the Square. They want to create a plan that will win a prize in a urban design competition, then can move on to screw up someone else’s city.
Shaker Square may be suffering but don’t kill it by closing Shaker Boulevard. It needs a plan that will rejuvenate one of Cleveland’s treasures, but that plan must include the keeping of Shaker Boulevard as a main east/west thoroughfare. Shaker Boulevard ain’t broke. Don’t fix it.
C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she serves on the Board of the Ohio History Connection, is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission and president of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.