Shaker Boulevard Ain’t Broke – Don’t Fix It

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.

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13 Responses to “Shaker Boulevard Ain’t Broke – Don’t Fix It”

  1. Maria Weber

    I totally agree with you! Let’s start a petition and knock out these ridiculous plans! I am a long time resident that would like to see a revitalization, but not by closing access to Shaker Blvd.

  2. Walt Bruckner

    I agree, but not for the reasons you mentioned. The reason traffic needs to be maintained is because Northeast Ohio generally builds half-measures that end up worse than the original. Item One: The Health Line. It was obvious that we needed a below ground subway at least from Public Square to CSU. What we got instead was an empty bus and broken concrete. Item Two: Public Square. It was obvious that there should be no through traffic on Superior Avenue. What we have now are Jersey walls and another failed urban park.

    Routing traffic around the Square makes sense if you bury the Rapid. Similarly, the new Van Aken district is fatally hamstrung by a lack of a train past Warrensville.

    The only project where excellence was truly, uncompromisingly achieve was at the stunning Art museum renovation because they didn’t go cheap.

  3. Sharon Milligan

    I totally agree Judge Connally!

  4. giuliana

    fwiw, I like Public Square the way it is, tho the temporary structures limiting traffic need to be made permanent and attractive. another fwiw, I have a long connection the Shaker Square, going back to playing a New Year’s Eve gig at the Stouffer’s (now CVS) when I was 16 years old. I had shopped at the smaller Hale’s there, too. As to your lamentation: Milgrom’s is a fading memory, Bonwit Teller long gone, and fast forward, Barney’s is closing all it’s stores including the flagship in Manhattan. The problems or retail are endemic.

  5. Steve Bossin

    I’ve been going to Shaker Square for over a half Century. It’s gone through change … just like I have. I can remember the stores from my youth fondly; that doesn’t mean a 21st Century collection of residential, retail and dining doesn’t have strong appeal.

    If Shaker Blvd is to close, the Rapid must go below ground … from just below Coventry and Drexmore to west of the Square. And serious attention must be paid regarding design of neighborhood-appropriate traffic patterns along S & N Moreland, E 130 (both sides of the Square), Shaker, Van Aken, Drexmore, Ludlow, others. But why?

    None of that needs to happen. Shaker Square already provides safe options for pedestrians. It doesn’t need to close major thoroughfare or bury trains. It just needs to re-imagine the entire area. What the “Vans” built in the 1930s still has lots of life left in it. Original buildings throughout the area stand as reminders of what might once again be. The stately residential areas on all sides can still be economic drivers.

    City planners would be far wiser to address more-recent construction; ugly 1950s-era offices, (former) retail. These are tear-down opportunities, to be redeveloped with proper attention to architectural detail … and the need for ample parking; parking that might even service rail commuters (like Van Aken).

    And, planners would do well to incorporate both Buckeye and Larchmere into a truly grande neighborhood. The two existing quadrants of Shaker Square could, far less expensively, be upgraded to be more inviting.

    How about restoring the grand tree-lighting ceremony, the Friday evening after Thanksgiving, with shops open late throughout the area? How about finding ways to tie-in North and South Moreland with impressive landscaping and other types of art and sculpture installations?

    I’ll bet there are visionary developers out there, willing to take on the challenge … maybe a collection of some.

  6. Lisa Payne Jones

    I agree with you, Judge Connally and John Lawson. Renovate and update the square, but leave Shaker Boulevard alone. Blocking/closing it will only make it harder for residents in the surrounding and nearby neighborhoods to shop there, and will only drive them farther away. Keep up the fight!

  7. Kevin Dreyfuss-Wells

    As a neighbor of Shaker Square living in the Ludlow neighborhood, I share many of the judge’s goals. We all want the Square and its businesses to succeed, and to be a terrific space to serve the needs of surrounding all residents whatever their interests, incomes, or race.

    As an architect, I’m disappointed with the judge’s unprofessional tone. Reasonable people can disagree about the design approach, but her name-calling of the design professionals involved in the project doesn’t strengthen her argument. She’s also off-base in many of her assumptions. I don’t know the designers involved, but know Hargreaves Associates by reputation and they’ve designed stunning and successful public spaces all over the US and the world, in warm climates and cold. Take a look at the projects their website. We’re lucky to have them involved. The traffic engineers are equally experienced. The judge doesn’t need to guess about whether traffic, parking, trains and emergency vehicles will be accommodated. These are questions that are answerable by study and a project of this ambition won’t move forward without resolving those issues, though the future may prioritize people rather than cars.

    I happen to believe the proposed project will strengthen the neighborhood, but welcome my neighbors’ alternate viewpoints and participation in the discussion. Just leave the insults at home, please.

  8. Jennie

    Nope. No yoga, no Amish pastries here, but I’m a fan of the market and your characterization of it is ridiculous and condescending. Be clear. They are not going to shut down Shaker Blvd, rather make that part of it into a traffic circle. Speaking of traffic circles, we need one at the giant intersection at Larchmere and North Moreland. That should be included in the plan.

    Call me a tree hugger if you like but we simply need more green space in our community. Green space is not just for rich white people as you imply. The biggest problem to me is you’d still have to cross traffic to get to it and the rapid would still run through it. The plan is not as radical as you’re portraying it to be. I live right there too and like their ideas. If we’re getting into generation battles- I’m Gen X.

  9. Barbara

    Thank you for this well stated position which I support totally.

  10. Patrick

    My wife and I are new to Cleveland and live within a 1 minute walk to the square and we really enjoy the area.

    With that said, we would be sad to see major changes we’ve grown accustomed to. Improvements aren’t a bad thing but the talk of completely overhauling everything seems over the top. 😕

  11. Marce E.

    I think they should cut off Shaker Blvd. The traffic is horrible and the traffic lights do not help. I think the Square should be pedestrian friendly. This will tend to get ppl walking the area and the Square to shop w/out all the traffic. More green space is needed and I don’t think every eatery should have outdoor space-perhaps fix up behind the buildings to make space for them. Fixing the parking lots; remodel all businesses, up and down; the whole Square needs it. The plans they have now do not make sense, imo. If Buckeye could get a new face lift that would help tremendously. Edwin’s Meat Mkt hardly gets any business because there’s nothing else on Buckeye outside of Popeye’s. Not many even know it’s there, which is sad. The Mkt also needs parking for those who do visit. Buckeye/Shaker needs major renovation. The Square needs a better plan that INCLUDES all residents!! And let’s get a few new stores up there and over on the side by Goodwill (which also needs renovation). Let’s include other ideas and let the residents pick the best option since we’ll be the ones participating and living there.

  12. Laura McShane

    Judge Connally – I am in 100% agreement. This is all real estate politics. Speak the truth about the Cuyahoga Land Bank. You need to put those crooks out of business.

  13. Alex Z

    If the judge had attended any of the numerous public comment events she would know the project team is aware of all of the issues she brings up.
    They did in fact do a traffic study. The current roads have a huge excess of capacity, barely reaching 25% during rush hour and less than 10% most of the day. The study shows the change would actually improve traffic flow on Moreland. They say it would increase rush hour travel time by about 15 seconds on Shaker, but that’s compared to “optimized” traffic lights, not the pattern that exists now. Most residents probably would not want the lights “optimized” as it would likely result in traffic speeding through the square at 40+ mph. The proposed changes could also reduce travel time for the rapid trains and would improve walking and biking access through the area.
    The planners are also well aware of the historic racial/income divides and were clearly interested in ensuring improved connectivity with all surrounding neighborhoods and that no nearby area would be worse off.
    They are also well aware that winter exists. There’s plenty of evidence around town that if you have sufficient programming (and space to host it), Clevelanders will come outside during fall and winter. And in any case, the fact that winter exists is kind of a lousy reason to deny residents access to outdoor spaces.

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