The Trashing of Cleveland’s Public Square

Public Square in Cleveland, Ohio, sits just below Terminal Tower, home of the old Cleveland Union Terminal that served the New York Central, Baltimore & Ohio, and other railroads during the city’s heyday. It occupies 10 acres, and until recently it was divided into 4 quadrants separated by Superior Avenue and Ontario Street — both major 6-lane thoroughfares carrying cars and buses. In small towns a “public square” would have a gazebo and be a welcome gathering place for concerts, picnics and games of Frisbee. In Cleveland, until recently, Public Square was noisy, dirty and anything but inviting. Few gathered there except to catch their bus and get out.

Public Square wasn’t living up to its promise. J. Mark Souther tells the history and early vision of Public Square online at Cleveland Historical:

“Laid out by Moses Cleaveland’s surveying party in 1796 in the tradition of the New England village green, Public Square marked the center of the Connecticut Land Company’s plan for Cleveland and, soon, a ceremonial space for the growing city… In 1865, Clevelanders watched returning Civil War regiments as they mustered on Public Square, and later generations would greet returning veterans from subsequent wars. Public Square also provided a space for viewing the caskets of fallen U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and James A. Garfield in 1865 and 1881, respectively… [I]n 1879, Public Square garnered international attention when inventor Charles F. Brush showcased one of the world’s first successful demonstrations of electric streetlights there.” [Link added]

Public Square circa 1897.

Public Square panorama in 1912, split below.
The two northern quadrants.
The two southern quadrants.
Public Square in 2008 as seen from the Observation Deck of Terminal Tower.
The NW quadrant in 2008. Towards the left is the seated statue of Tom L. Johnson, Cleveland’s mayor from 1901-1909. The Old Stone Church is across the street behind Johnson’s statue.
The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on the NE quadrant in 2008.
The six-lane intersection of Superior Avenue and Ontario Street dissecting Public Square at its center in 2012.

Public Square Transformed

Public Square was renovated in 2016 with a brilliant transformation envisioned by James Corner, the landscape architect responsible for the High Line that winds through Manhattan above street level. By itself it’s worth a trip to New York City if you haven’t seen it!

The renovation of Public Square took 15 months to complete and cost $50 million. The project was coordinated by the Plan Group.

Central to the plan was elimination of car traffic. The north-south Ontario Street cut-through was eliminated. The east-west Superior Avenue cut-through was retained but reduced to buses only, a design compromise mandated by the Federal Transit Administration. Due to a previous federal grant agreement on another project, the City of Cleveland had to allow buses to run through Public Square or pay $12 million back to the feds.

Despite the bus situation, the new Public Square is an enormous improvement. It’s opened up beautiful new green space for gatherings and added amenities such as a fountain that people play in, landscaped gardens with seating, a cafe, and ice skating in winter. There’s also a permanent platform/stage for performances and rallies.

The renovated Public Square as seen from Terminal Tower. The lower right shows the south side the square with the cafe, fountain/skating rink, and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. Towards the upper left is the north side with green space and stage. To the right of the stage is a sloped hill with rows of permanent seating.
Note: The stripe-painted crosswalk at the center was not planned. Instead the walkway around the square was to include two crosswalks flush with the street and delineated with decorative paving. You can see them in this photograph. Very nice! I discuss this change — the trashing! — below.

I shot some video after work finished and Public Square reopened.

I also took the pictures below, along with one by Erik Drost.

The design includes pleasant walks, lots of seating and beautiful landscaping. Credit: Erik Drost

There’s simply no comparison between the Public Square before and after the renovation. With the exception an annual July 4th concert by the Cleveland Orchestra, people simply didn’t gather there. Now they do!

Stage being set up for a Cleveland Orchestra concert.
A youth group gathers to start the day.

I filmed this video at Pride in the CLE, Cleveland’s annual LGBT Pride Festival. The festival was taking place on the north side. On the south side at the fountain, some Pride participants and the general public were playing together in the fountain. There were lots of children and their parents having a grand time. Other weekends I’ve been there have been the same. Before the renovation, Public Square was a ghost town.

Even just walking through the Public Square is a treat now! I filmed this video one morning on my walk from the train to my office. (Workers were finishing final touches of the renovation which is why there are cars parked in the “bus only” road.)


All Good… But Then They Trashed It

For a period of time after Public Square opened the City of Cleveland resisted the fed’s demand to restore bus traffic through the center on Superior Avenue. Eventually there was no choice and buses started rolling. Not my preference, but in my mind, no problem. For better or worse, it was in the plan.

But then, suddenly, James Corner’s plan that had accommodated the buses was no longer adequate. Upon walking to work one morning — exactly four years ago this week — I found that hideously-ugly Jersey barriers had been placed to block two beautifully sculpted and handicap-friendly crosswalks. You can see what was intended in this aerial photo.

All pedestrian traffic was forced to the center that was not designed as a crosswalk, and so “temporary” metal crosswalk ramps were needed along with common white striping. All quite clunky and ugly!

As reported on Cleveland.com, this past week marked the 4th year these barriers and the “temporary” ramps have been in place. It’s disgusting on several levels. It’s a design aesthetics travesty, and from a public funds perspective it’s an outrage after $50 million was spent on a design that anticipated and accommodated the buses!

Cleveland.com reports the barriers were erected at the insistence of Homeland Security to block “weaponized vehicles” that might attempt to cross through Public Square. Well, if a bus can get through I suspect a “weaponized vehicle” could too. It makes no sense.

But regardless, there’s still no solution yet after four years?

I worked at the City of Cleveland at the time and was told by City Planning there would be a fix. I’m retired now, and still waiting. According to Cleveland.com, James Corner has come up with a design modification that would cost an additional $2 million, but the report also seems to suggest an even more expensive solution is being considered instead.

Well… If you want my opinion, go with Corner’s $2 million solution — and do it now before another four years. It shouldn’t even be necessary, but I shudder to think what horrible appearance some other more expensive option might have.


Title image is a postcard depicting Public Square, now in the Public Domain.
The image of Public Square, circa 1897, is embedded from Getty Images, by the Print Collector/Getty Images.
The 1912 Public Square panorama is a Public Domain image available from the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division.
Pictures by Robert E. Pence are used with permission.
The image of the Superior & Ontario intersection is by Chris Gent. [License]
The aerial view of the renovated Public Square is Public Domain. [License]
The image of a walkway in Public Square is by Erik Drost. [License]


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