This past week, a steering committee comprised of members from Downtown Cleveland Alliance (DCA) and ParkWorks reviewed initial concepts for a redesign of Cleveland’s Public Square. Our CUDC office was on the design team, which was lead by James Corner’s Field Operations (FO). Our joint team was selected by the steering committee through an RFQ process back in October. The short time frame between team selection in October and initial concepts due on December 16th meant that we all had to work quickly to gather information on existing conditions, review studies already undertaken on future uses of Public Square and prepare images of alternative schemes for the steering committee to weigh in on.
The CUDC supported FO’s lead design work by assembling data and mapping of current conditions and providing “on-the-ground” information to FO regarding cultural and social context. In the process, we also created a time-lapse video of Public Square, which provides a clear visual of the constant shade condition on the southwest quadrant, closest to the Tower City entrance. Collaborating on a project with an office located in another city was a valuable experience and we’re very excited about the concepts developed.
The team presented three concepts, each one a different tactic for creating a unified square out of what currently feels like four disconnected squares. A thorough overview of the three alternatives, named Frame, Forest and Thread, can be found in Steve Litt’s recent Plain Dealer article (note: the article states that the Thread scheme’s hills would rise 76′ above the street, it should read 20′). A pdf of the presentation given to the steering committee including background analysis, diagrams and illustrations of the schemes can be downloaded here.
Within a half-mile radius of Public Square one can enjoy theater performances at Playhouse Square, great restaurants in the Warehouse District and a variety of entertainment choices on E. 4th St. The new Casino soon to be located behind Tower City and the proposed Medical Mart enhance the potential for Public Square to emerge as the connective hub for many new visitors. But it is already a major hub for thousands of Clevelanders. No less than 30 bus routes currently have stops at Public Square. (This density of bus stops is a legacy of the streetcar system and old photos suggest that meshing transit with public space was done with a bit more civility at one time.) A robust transit hub creates a space not only for transportation, but also social exchange. Students transferring buses from their cross-town high schools, office workers catching their coach bus back to Brunswick, recent immigrants visiting government offices, white and black residents alike all pass through this space in the center of the city as they continue to their next destination.
Various age groups are also well represented on the square. To many of Cleveland’s youth the square isn’t a “dead space”, but it’s one of the few public spaces remaining where they can see friends, pick up on the latest trends and practice the skills of socialization. For a growing number of residents, Public Square also provides an opportunity to reconnect with the diversity the City offers, often shielded by one’s default social circles and residential location. (It’s also a great place for weird people in bear costumes to promote their events.) The flow and alternating rhythms of divergent social groups which pass through this ten acre site are what make this an interesting place. The question is how all these people can be made to feel welcome. It is called “Public” Square after all.
Advances could also be incorporated into all the schemes which could be a distinguishing mark for Cleveland. In 1879, Public Square boasted the first street in the United States to use electric street lights (second in the world). Could this redevelopment plan provide an opportunity for Cleveland to be on the technological vanguard again with features that embody sustainable performance in regards to lighting, renewable energy or storm water management? Or could above ground ammenities enable the public to take advantage of the exceptional communications infrastructure running just below the surface?
The public meetings and workshops to follow will certainly be full of differing views and vigorous debate – as it should be. The three schemes provide a good start for a dialogue on public space’s future in Cleveland and in our country. The upcoming public debate will be critical for fully realizing the potential for a truly inspiring, well-used and diverse Public Space.
by david jurca