12-15-08

An Interview with Terry Schwarz, Senior Planner at the UDC

What’s with the temporary exhibits? Why can’t we get some of these awesome Pop-Up City events to stay put?

  • “We can, it just takes a long time. Development in Cleveland is a slow process, especially with the economy being the way that it is. So temporary uses aren’t intended to replace permanent development, but to complement it. We’ve got this giant amount of vacant property—about 3,300 acres of vacant sites and probably 15,000 vacant buildings, maybe more than that. So if there are ways that we can activate these dead zones in the city for a little while and move things around, that’s what we’re about.”
  • “As a model for a city, to be this kind of place where something happens in one place and then it disappears and turns up somewhere else, it could really make Cleveland a pretty interesting place to live and visit because it’s a city that’s always changing. You never know what you’ll find.”

Why do you like Cleveland so much?

  • “I grew up in Chicago and I moved here from upstate New York, where I was in school, and I didn’t think I would stay in Cleveland, but I’ve been here since 1990, so I’m staying and I like it because it’s home. It’s an accessible city, a beautiful city, and there are lots of opportunities here.”

What can Clevelanders do to get more cool things to stay in Cleveland (especially in the current economic state of things)?

  • “Yeah, well the economy is sort of the bottom line. There is a lot of good stuff in Cleveland; it’s just kind of spread apart. It’s just the nature of population decline and it’s the nature of changing development patterns. What Clevelanders can do to get more good things happening in the city is to patronize the things that are happening. When an event happens in the city, or an art gallery, or a restaurant, or a cultural event, go there and experience it.”
  • “If we all just made a point of actually turning up and participating, that would make a big difference. That means experiencing cultural events, finding opportunities to shop and eat in the city, and spending as much time in the city as you can. When the city’s energies are being spread outward, it’s harder to keep things going. The money goes where the people go. We can change the course of the city, each of us just has to do it.”

What are you most excited about for the upcoming year in Cleveland?

  • “The Land Lab process we’re working on is going to have some pilot projects that will reuse vacant land in productive ways. The point is to extract some value out of this growing resource that we have. That’s what vacant land is – it’s a resource.”
  • “I hope that a lot of the work we’re doing with vacancy and population decline seeds some implementation, at the same time I hope that conventional development takes flight as well.”
  • “In terms of development in the next year, the Flats East Bank project is imminent, I hope. So that’s going to be great when that project goes forward.”

What’s the biggest project that the CUDC is wrapped up in right now?

  • “Right now it’s probably the Re-imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland Initiative – the Land Lab Initiative that we’re doing with Neighborhood Progress Inc. It’s a citywide conceptual master plan dealing with vacancy and re-using vacant land. It’s a really big initiative that’s underway.”
  • “We have a couple of other substantial projects that have been with us for a while. One of which is the Steps to a Healthier Cleveland Initiative in which we’re mapping health issues in city neighborhoods. This is the fifth year of the initiative and each year we produce a couple of maps. This year we’re doing a downtown map, which is a change for us because downtown includes so much stuff and graphically the map can be pretty interesting and fun. So the Steps project is big.”
  • “We’re also doing a lot of neighborhood planning around Northeast Ohio. We’re currently working in Larchmere, on the stockyards neighborhood, and on West 117th Street in the west side of Cleveland.”

What were some of the best and the worst reactions to what the CUDC is doing?

  • “We’ve gotten tremendously positive feedback from the Pop-Up City events. As a planner, most of the work that we do is kind of removed from day-to-day life. Implementation is what happens after we finish our project. Pop-Up City, of course, is much more immediate, so we can see the results as we’re in the thick of it. People—community folks and public officials who come to the events—get it. We’ve had fantastic support from the City Planning Commission staff and members of Council, so that’s fun.”
  • “On the negative side, some of our older projects gave us this reputation about being an organization that draws pretty pictures that don’t get implemented. A lot of our plans that we did early on were very ambitious, and in a stronger market and with more developer collaboration maybe would have been implemented, but our clients aren’t developers, our clients are community-developed corporations. So implementation is harder. We still work with communities and neighborhoods all the time, but what we try to do now in response to that criticism is develop plans that are ambitious—because if you’re not ambitious, you don’t get anywhere; people don’t come to us for a few modest improvements—but now we show a range of alternatives for every plan. These alternatives range from very modest, small-scale changes that a community development corporation can get off the ground quickly, but also more ambitious kinds of things that the community can then adapt to market conditions. We work with market consultants for some of our planning projects, but even a market consultant can’t predict the future. So when the demand doesn’t materialize, then certain plans can’t be implemented. What we try to show is the shape of development that would really enhance the sense of community if a demand surges in a specific place. If development demand is farther off, then we propose some other things that the community can do. We try to respond to the market so that our work is realistic, without losing the creative side we think is so critical for the future of the city. If you can’t imagine a better future, then you’re never going to get one.”
  • “Some of the most fun, positive responses have been from communities where they have been able to pull things off and implement them.”

How do you balance the wants, needs, and eccentricities of Kent students, the CUDC staff, designers, architects, construction workers, community leaders, community members, concerned moms, and everyone else?

  • “We have three main missions here: there’s research, there’s advocacy, and then there’s practice. They all have to co-exist.”
  • “So far, the design practice in which we work with community groups and officials has been the primary focus. It’s not intended to be that way – they really should be in balance. But when you have clients that are paying for a design service, then they tend to rise in priority.”
  • “The research is the academic side, which includes teaching students and producing new knowledge about community design and urban conditions.”
  • “What we find now is that the balance of research and practice is where the most interesting stuff lies. The practice can be our laboratory for testing new ideas that we derive from the research.”
  • “Students come up with interesting ideas and new ways of thinking. If you go into the studio and look at what the students are do
    ing, some of the stuff is kind of crazy. When we work for a client, we don’t have that creative freedom that the students have in the studio. So what we’re trying to do is nurture the relationship between the practice and the academic side so that they become mutually beneficial. Because the students also benefit when they see how these things play out in the community. Sometimes when you’re a student you think you’ll spend your life as a designer or architect sitting in your own place, imagining all this stuff, but in reality, it’s an applied art. You’ve got to work with your audience and we give them that little taste of reality, and in exchange, they give us their unbridled creativity!”
  • “The advocacy side is how we touch communities, trying to change public perceptions and raise awareness about the value of design in the city and in this region.”
  • “Practice, research, and advocacy are mutually beneficial. The energy comes from where they intersect.”

Do you ever wonder why you took this job?

  • “Before I got the funding from the Civic Innovation Lab to do the Pop-Up City events, we had an international exhibit and a series of events, one of which was a concert in a park in Slavic Village. It was terrific. There were four bands, and we showed movies from the Shrinking Cities Project. It was a beautiful night. The week after that, a twelve-year-old girl got shot to death just a few blocks from the very site. It made me think that I was so in the wrong business because the park was nice to make a happy memory—it was really fun—but it’s meaningless in the end if the neighborhood has reached the point where you can’t let your little girl out in the middle of the day. She was literally walking home from the store and got caught in the crossfire between two drug dealers. So it made all the work feel a little meaningless. All the concerts in the park aren’t going to bring that little girl back or help with crime. I mean, it helps with crime for that night; there was no drug dealing or prostitution in the park while we were there.”
  • “At the event we had this jump rope troupe dressed completely in spandex! I mean, it was this magical night, and all these kids came out, and they started jumping rope, and then the moms started jumping! We were feeling really good about it, but then you’ve got to kind of wonder. And it’s not just the crime; when you look at the level of foreclosures, when you look at the amount of vacancy, and we’re doing these tiny little interventions with all the things we do. It’s just these little things that are trying to change the course of what’s happening in the city. Sometimes you look at it and wonder, ‘Does it add up to anything?’ I don’t know if in our lifetime we’re going to see whether it changes the city for the better or whether it’s past the point of no return.”
  • “It’s a real heartbreaker because when we started in 2000, 2001, we thought Slavic Village was going to be the next Tremont. Now it’s hard to imagine what recovery’s going to look like in that particular area, and there’s no area that’s experienced foreclosure more than Slavic Village.”
  • “You do what you can do and you contribute what you can. If I was any good at law enforcement, I would be doing that instead, but I’d be the most useless cop ever!”

What do you like most about your job?

  • “What I like most about my job is that it’s always changing. It’s a great city to work for. It’s a city with a lot of planning traditions. And it feels really great to see different things from different perspectives. We do everything from high-demand areas, like Oberlin, to inner city issues where you’re dealing with vacancy. It’s that mix of issues that makes it exciting. Plus I can do whatever I want, more or less, as long as I can find someone to pay for it! Which is a big caveat, but whatever.”

interview by marianne eppig.

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