Cut the Cord by Sam Friesema

Our Post Graduate Fellow, Sam Friesema, will be leaving the CUDC after his year of service. The CUDC created the one-year position for graduates of KSU’s Master of Architecture, Master of Urban Design, or dual MArch/MUD program. Before he left, Sam shared with us some of  the work he has been interested in at his time here at the CUDC. We wish him well in his next adventure!

Cut the Cord
by Sam Friesema


In the early 1900s two enormous projects were undertaken simultaneously in Cleveland Ohio by the Van Sweringen brothers. Firstly, the garden city suburb community of Shaker Heights became one of the premier residential neighborhoods in the country. Secondly, the Cleveland Union Terminal (now Tower City) was an immense mixed-use facility. The complex’s 52 story Terminal Tower became a monumental symbol of the city’s successes. Standing at 771 feet tall, it was for a time the second tallest building in the world.

TC bp1 (1)Building Section through the Tower City Complex. The multiple linked buildings span several city blocks with multiple level changes and confusing wayfinding.

TC bp2 (1)Building Section through Tower City Complex with callouts.

Light Rail. Fueling and enabling these two projects was a third project critical to ensure the birth of the others. Shaker Heights was conceived first but as residential building lots initially sold slowly the developers needed a means to quickly transport their potential suburbanites, along with their wealth, to and from the heart of the city. The Van Sweringen brothers hastily assembled properties and easements which allowed the developers to install a light-rail rapid transit line from their new suburb to the city’s center at Public Square. Less iconic yet equally important, the transit project supplied the capital and populations necessary to fully construct the tower and the garden city. Interestingly, to secure a small one mile section of rail easement, the brothers bought an entire rail company with 523 miles of track spanning from Buffalo and Chicago which led to their eventual rail business holdings of over 30,000 miles of track and assets of an estimated $3 Billion.


1902 Map of Greater Cleveland with highlighted Downtown, Shaker Heights, and the rail connections.

The rail line within Shaker Heights is a beautifully designed centerpiece along tree lined medians and half million dollar homes. However, once the rail line leaves Shaker Heights and cuts through poor sections of Cleveland en route to downtown, the line is sunken and hidden from view. The views to and from the transit line are obscured by grade changes and dense vegetation. Shaker residents are shielded from any views of the vacancy and poverty they are passing through. The transit line awkwardly slices through communities and pedestrian access is dangerously out of sight, unlike the well-planned stations within Shaker.

What if we removed the passenger light rail line connecting downtown Cleveland to Shaker Heights in order to re-evaluate regional public transportation options and to let the two communities build their own unique and separate self-identities moving forward?


Codependency. The connection between Tower City and Shaker Heights, while mutually beneficial at their foundations, has over time removed the healthy self-sufficiency and autonomy that all great places have. Neither has stood alone and neither can survive a prolonged umbilical link. Tower City has struggled for years to exist as a mixed-use mall typology. This is not surprising, as it was designed as a pass-through, a conduit, to get people and their money out of the city and therefore cannot succeed as a destination.

History of Demolition. The construction of the Terminal Tower Complex and the Rapid transit line to Shaker Heights required the demolition of an estimated 2,200 buildings and structures. To place that number in context, presently, due to high levels of vacancy, the county land bank is demolishing up to 1,500 homes and structures each year. The removal of the rail line will allow increased land use activity and mending of divided property and neighborhoods. This is surgical, high impact, removal.

Removing and Replacing Public Transit. The existing fleet of rail cars and tracks are in constant need of expensive repair and replacement. Instead of pouring more money into a decaying transit route it is the goal of this proposal that new routes would be carefully planned to serve the communities around the route. The original line was conceived to link two specific points and was not planned to serve the greater city between.

Cleveland has a very successful Bus-Rapid Transit (BRT) line (The Healthline) with high levels of Transportation Oriented Development (TOD) investment. New BRT routes could easily replace the Shaker line and infuse forgotten and neglected parts of the city with TOD corridor investments. In a city struggling to generate revenues, doubling up on existing road infrastructure seems like a better way to spend transit dollars. TOD investment could enliven more inner ring suburbs instead of merely passing through them. Removing the rail line will offer an opportunity to merge neighborhoods that have been separated for one hundred years.

Resultant Condition. It is the intent of this proposal to allow both Tower City and Shaker Heights to come into their own. Tower city has long enabled the daily migration of residents and their wealth to leave the city and is currently struggling to operate as a mixed-use property. Shaker Heights is presently trying to establish itself as a leading place for business regionally but continues to enable business to flow into downtown Cleveland. By severing their connection, each area can adapt to what it needs locally. Residential development would start to fill in and around Tower City to help fill voids in the current real estate market. Business could start to grow in and around the wonderful residential neighborhoods of Shaker Heights creating a truly sustainable (both ecologically and economically) and walkable community. New TOD / BRT Corridors could connect and fuel the city’s growth in ways which are much more relevant to the current needs of the region, more so than the fixed infrastructure of light rail.

*all images by author


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