An early 1900s architectural drawing of a grand linear park.
View of the Mall from the Group Plan, 1903. Cleveland Memory Project/Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University

Cleveland’s monumental-scaled Mall could be an inviting link between downtown and the lakefront, with some fresh thinking—and political will.

When Cleveland’s first-ever InCuya Music Festival was announced back in April, the lineup included a host of well-known artists including British rock band New Order, folk-rock band the Avett Brothers, singer-songwriter SZA, and Booker T. Jones—the last a nod to Cleveland being the home of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

But the biggest star of the festival, held in late August, might have been the venue. “The location is what’s really going to make this special,” said Joe Litvag, a senior vice president for AEG Entertainment, the promotion company behind the festival, before its debut. Multiple locations were considered, including Edgewater Beach just west of downtown and Burke Lakefront Airport (unsurprisingly, the Federal Aviation Administration said no).

In the end, more than 15,000 music fans gathered on the Mall downtown. Stages were set up at opposite ends of the green, one offering the Cleveland skyline as a backdrop, the other overlooking the lakefront. The response would appear to prove Litvag right. The two grassy knolls in downtown Cleveland were designed for something like this—and honestly, should and probably will be used for other events, based on the reception,” wrote The Plain Dealer.

The Mall in relation to Cleveland’s lakefront and Public Square. (Madison McVeigh/CityLab)

The Mall (think the monumental park in Washington, D.C., not an indoor shopping center) was designed in 1902-3 by the influential architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham with two colleagues,  John Carrère and Arnold Brunner. Fresh off his role in designing a monumental core of Washington in 1901-2, and before that, the White City of Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, Burnham imagined a civic center spanning 26 acres, with seven Beaux-Arts structures, including City Hall, surrounding a long, three-section public park (or mall).

The Group Plan, as it’s known, was intended to provide a beautiful and imposing entry to Cleveland. It was a vision befitting a city that had seen exponential growth—the population had quadrupled just between 1870 and 1900, spurred on by the city’s oil refining and iron and steel industries.

“When the scheme is developed, it will recall in part many of the fine avenues we point to with pleasure, such as the Champs Élysées in Paris or the Esplanade in Nancy [in France],” wrote Burnham, Carrère, and Brunner in their report to Cleveland’s Mayor Tom Johnson.

But the Mall’s history has been star-crossed. “The Mall has probably never experienced the kind of populations they’ve envisioned,” said Terry Schwarz, director of Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. “It’s always been a grand ceremonial space, but it’s never worked for people downtown. If you’re one of 20,000, it works well, but if you’re one of 20, it’s pretty lonely.”

Now, as the city and region attempt to reorient themselves toward the lakefront, with a focus more toward tourism and recreation and less toward industry, the Mall will play a big role. Because of its location, it has to.

***

The Group Plan called for a railroad station at the north end of the Mall. The city’s railroad tracks had been laid out years earlier along the banks of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River for ease of transportation. Central Depot, built in 1866 and billed as the largest building under one roof in the United States, was getting long in the tooth. (A local business owner had even taken out a nearby billboard saying, “Don’t judge this town by this depot.”)

In 1995, Cleveland Indians fans showed support for the baseball team before the World Series during a midday rally at Public Square. Terminal Tower is to the left. (Anthony Onchak/AP)

But plans for a new station were sidetracked by World War I. After the war, momentum then shifted from the Group Plan site to the southwest corner of Public Square, not far away, but more accessible to what was and is the city’s commercial district. This shift was thanks to two brothers, Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen. The Van Sweringens were land developers and built Shaker Heights, one of the first planned communities in the country. They wanted to link eastern suburbs like Shaker to downtown Cleveland, and opened a central railroad station topped by a skyscraper—Terminal Tower—in 1930. It was once the second-tallest building in the world, and the station remains a hub for Regional Transit Authority commuter trains.

Meanwhile, the Mall, comparatively speaking, languished. The Public Auditorium on its eastern edge hosted Republican National Conventions in 1924 and 1936. But two decades later, Cleveland had lost its luster as “the convention city.” In hopes of a turnaround, the city built a convention center beneath the Mall in the early ’60s. In his book Believing in Cleveland, Cleveland State University professor Mark Souther detailed plans in the late 1950s for a Hilton hotel on the southwest corner of the Mall to combat the site’s reputation as a “windswept wasteland” fit only for derelicts.

View from Terminal Tower of the Mall and lakefront, circa 1950s. (Cleveland Memory Project/Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University)

Those plans fell apart, but a new convention center replaced the old one in 2013, plus an ancillary “medical mart” (the Global Center for Health Innovation) capitalizing on Cleveland’s healthcare expertise. Eventually, the Hilton was built on the opposite side of the mall—in 2016, in time for the Republican National Convention. A Drury Hotel joined it, in the Group Plan-era building that once housed the board of education.

But the north end of the Mall still abuts railroad tracks. These cut off downtown from the lakefront and, by extension, separate activity on the lakefront from that downtown (and vice versa).

“The railroad tracks have always been a physical and costly impediment to the lakefront,” said Carol Poh, a local historian and preservationist. “How it gets bridged today, I have no idea.”

***

In the 1980s, Progressive Insurance commissioned architect Frank Gehry to design a new company headquarters that would span the railroad tracks. The plan withered for lack of support, and Progressive ended up expanding its headquarters in Mayfield Village, an eastern suburb.

Currently, East Ninth and West Third Streets bridge the tracks with narrow sidewalks. There are also two ramps built in the 1940s, now closed due to age.

“We spent big money on the Science Center, bigger money on the Rock Hall [of Fame], and really big money on the Browns stadium, and we never figured out a connection between the city and the lake,” said Dick Clough, the chairman of the board of the Green Ribbon Coalition, an organization formed to foster greater connectivity throughout Cleveland.

The entrance to the new convention center under the Mall, which opened in 2013. (Mark Duncan/AP)

Several years ago, Boston architect Miguel Rosales designed a pedestrian bridge from the Mall to North Coast Harbor on the lakefront. The bridge was supposed to be completed in time for the Republican National Convention. But this $33 million, publicly funded plan is now on the back burner. (Rosales also designed an as-yet-unbuilt pedestrian bridge between Voinovich Park and the western end of North Coast Harbor.)

The Green Ribbon Coalition has made a more ambitious proposal—for a land bridge from the Mall to the lakefront, including a tunnel from the convention center to a station between the Great Lakes Science Center and the Rock Hall, which would allow people to get from downtown to the lakefront without venturing outside.

“It matches the idealism of the group plan,” Clough said. “We’ve been slow to recognize the importance of the lakefront as a recreational economic driver and making the area more inhabitable. There are those who think we’re crazy and it’ll never get built, but we’re doubling down on it. It’s a signature project.” He estimates the cost at $50 to $70 million.

Schwarz notes that the project—really any project—won’t come down to capital as much as political capital. “I think it’s a priority to link the Mall north to the lake, but it’s a priority that’s competing with a lot of other priorities,” she said.

The Mall was designed as an imposing gateway into a growing city, and that’s holding it back, Schwarz believes: “I think the best use for the Mall would maintain the grand sweep of the space for large public events, but also include smaller, more intimate spaces that feel comfortable and inviting for daily use.”

Festivals like InCuya are a good fit, but these only happen a handful of days each year. Smaller spaces for everyday use are needed more now than in the past, thanks to an influx of residents downtown. Although the city’s population has been declining for the past half-century, the downtown population has tripled since 1990 (albeit to a little over 15,000).

“I don’t think anyone even considered we’d have 15,000 downtown residents” in 1990, Schwarz said. “That brings with it a wealth of opportunities.”

CORRECTION: A photo caption in this story originally stated that the 2016 Republican National Convention was held in the convention center under the Mall. It was held in the Quicken Loans Arena.

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