The Impossible Dream 

Fifteen years after its inception, a new park system tracing the Ohio and Erie Canal edges toward Cleveland's lakefront. But can the project survive the homestretch?

It won't take long for visitors to the new Ohio and Erie Canal Reservation to realize this is no ordinary Cleveland Metropark.

Like its Rocky River and North Chagrin relatives, this reservation—the Metroparks' first in 37 years, under construction just south of the city—features tree-covered groves, grassy hillsides, green meadows, a meandering river, and plenty of wildlife: turtles, deer, beavers, and birds. There are picnic tables, a paved trail that winds through 325 acres, and a large hilltop visitors' center.

But the bucolic landscape is only half the view.

Just as obvious as the goldenrod and cottonwood trees are giant high-voltage towers hiking north from the park's grounds, elevated pipelines as thick as tree trunks, a railroad trestle dating to 1907, and a skyline filled with fuel tanks and steel warehouses. Rather than hiding them with new landscaping, park planners have emphasized these gritty industrial landmarks and incorporated them into the park's design, making for dramatic vistas of the Cuyahoga Valley.

This portion of the valley, carved by a mountainous glacier 10,000 years ago, is Cleveland's industrial backyard. When the reservation officially opens in August, Clevelanders will for the first time be able to explore the valley's industrial landscape and history, as well as its ecological system.

The centerpiece of the reservation is the northernmost portion of the Ohio and Erie Canal, for which the reservation is named. This 172-year-old shipping channel, which once ran from Lake Erie all the way to the Ohio River, saved the state from near-bankruptcy with the commerce it generated immediately after the first segment opened in 1827. Replacing the Cuyahoga River as the principal transportation route, it spurred the development of small towns. Within twenty years it transformed Ohio into the third most prosperous state, handling more grain than any of its Great Lakes counterparts.

When the state's major railroad lines opened in the 1850s, offering a cheaper and faster mode of transportation, canal traffic slowed and eventually died. Today, little of the original canal remains beyond the new reservation, having been filled in by industries or collapsed into weeded ditches.

But a patchwork group of planners and visionaries sees something else when they look at the remains of the canal. For the past fifteen years, they have been trying to revive 87 miles of its northernmost section, creating a long, winding trail and park system that crosses four counties and 38 municipalities, from Lake Erie down to Zoar, a tiny village in Tuscarawas County.

Since the idea was first batted around, approximately forty miles of the proposed path have been completed, though not all of these miles are linked. The new reservation adds five and a half miles of paved trail to this canal dream, extending north from Rockside Road in Independence to just short of Grant Avenue in Cuyahoga Heights. It also lengthens the restored 22-mile canal Towpath Trail, already running through the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area from Independence to Akron.

To carve out the new trail, Metroparks planners had to assemble large chunks of land from more than a half-dozen corporations and public agencies, including BP America, American Steel & Wire (now Birmingham Steel), and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. In addition, funding from a long list of state and federal agencies was tapped to build the park's $8.4 million infrastructure.

These are challenges typical of such projects. But they are dwarfed by the difficulties planners face in trying to complete the final five miles, through Cleveland to Lake Erie. Among the obstacles looming in the way:

An enormous active steel mill, set squarely in the path of bikers and hikers trying to follow the canal route;

Dozens of smaller private-property owners, with twice as many lawyers ready to argue property and easement rights;

Thriving Flats industries that generate hundreds of thousands of truck trips annually across the proposed route;

Nebulous project costs, and even more nebulous sources of funding;

A group of dedicated but unrealistic activists without the political muscle to get things done;

A glaring lack of support from the most powerful politician in the city, Cleveland Mayor Michael White.

Ultimately, these modern realities may prove too difficult to overcome, making the dream of retracing the historic canal route through Cleveland's industrial valley impossible. In the words of Metroparks chief park planner Steve Coles, "Building a trail through Cleveland makes all we have done so far seem like a piece of cake."

Cuyahoga Dreamin'

The dream of hiking the north Cuyahoga Valley sprang from the boots of hiker Jeff Lennartz in 1984. Then president of the Cleveland Hiking Club, Lennartz was already leading clandestine walking tours of the hidden canal and its industrial environs south of downtown. He was fascinated by both its industrial and natural beauty.

Lennartz found an ally in environmental planner Tom Yablonsky, who shared his enthusiasm for the northern canal area as an untapped recreational and educational resource. From their discussions grew a formal nonprofit organization called the North Cuyahoga Valley Corridor Inc., created in 1985 and known today as the Ohio Canal Corridor, one of the point groups managing the trail and park system development along the canal.

During the organization's early years, the all-volunteer staff was led by Yablonsky, whose full-time job was heading the Historic Warehouse District Development Corporation. He talked up the dream to anyone who would listen, lobbying city and county planners to include the trail concept in their master development plans.

The idea found an enthusiastic audience, according to Yablonsky, who now heads the Historic Gateway Neighborhood development organization. "The idea of hiking from Rockside [Road] to downtown was powerful," he says.

But in 1989, there was little financial support for the project—and only about $11 in the organization's checking account. Yablonsky notes simply, "We didn't progress financially."

To pad its bottom line, the Ohio Canal Corridor turned to Tim Donovan, a volunteer with the canal project and local fund-raiser, who had worked with Yablonsky organizing a benefit for the Warehouse District. A video producer, and speech writer for then-Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich, Donovan was good at telling stories and selling a vision. His first benefit for the corridor project, an ode to Moses Cleaveland held on Father's Day, raised $10,000.

But the project was still far short of the formal structure that attracts political and corporate support. The group was able to enlist the help of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, which agreed to examine the idea of restoring and developing the canal after the BP America, Gund, and Cleveland foundations put up money for a feasibility study.

Released in 1992, the study fleshed out Lennartz and Yablonsky's idea into a series of land management analyses, outlining ways to link to existing parks and exploit economic development opportunities along the canal, even beyond the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreational Area.

Fortunately for Yablonsky and Lennartz, they were not the only ones dreaming about a canal trail and park system. In the late '80s and early '90s, the National Park Service, which manages the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, began building a 22-mile Towpath Trail along the portion of the Ohio and Erie Canal running through its property, which extends from the southern tip of the new Metropark to Akron. The new park superintendent, John Debo, also had dreams of extending the trail, in particular linking downtown Cleveland to his park and other parks throughout the city. "It became clear that continuing the trail to Cleveland was manifest destiny," says Debo, who now serves on an advisory committee to the Ohio Canal Corridor.

Meanwhile, preservationists were working to preserve canal locks and other historical features along the canal, from Akron to Zoar. Federal funding became available through the efforts of Navarre Congressman Ralph Regula, now considered the godfather of Ohio canal preservation. He secured legislation to fund a federal study of the economic impact of developing the entire Ohio and Erie Canal. That study became the first step in winning for the Ohio and Erie Canal the rare federal designation known as a "National Heritage Corridor," which meant groups working on preserving portions of the canal could tap millions in federal aid.

In November of 1996, Congress officially designated the Ohio and Erie Canal the country's fourteenth National Heritage Corridor. Today, Cleveland-based Ohio Canal Corridor and its Akron-based counterpart, the Ohio and Erie Canal Corridor Coalition, share responsibility for creating and eventually carrying out a management plan for the corridor. Expected to be completed next summer, that plan will lock in the final blueprint for creating the 87-mile canal park system and linking it to surrounding neighborhoods.

Canal Wonderland

For the better part of the last decade, the public face of the Ohio Canal Corridor project has been Donovan, who became the organization's first paid executive director in 1991. He got the job by literally talking his way into it. Having cut his ties to City Hall shortly after the White Administration took over, he contemplated a career change and continued to volunteer for the organization until he could raise enough money to fund a full-time position—for himself.

"We wouldn't have had the money for the position in the first place if Donovan didn't raise the money from foundations," says Yablonsky, who was happy to see a staff person take over the project.

"The canal path through Cleveland wasn't going anywhere," Donovan says. "It would have been just a great idea if someone didn't make it happen. I love ideas, and this seemed like a great opportunity to develop one."

Today the 49-year-old Donovan is so closely identified with the organization that, when the Ohio Canal Corridor is mentioned in political and civic circles, the typical response is "Oh, isn't that Tim Donovan's group?" Pressed, people have a hard time describing the full scope of the project. Usually they know two things: something about a "bikeway," and the Ohio Canal Corridor's annual (and wildly popular) fund-raiser, the all-you-can-drink Scrooge's Night Out.

"If people want to get involved, they know who to come to," Donovan says, attributing his high profile to hard work and long hours. "I work double workweeks, so you shouldn't be surprised. I'm the spokesman."

The organization has come a long way from eleven bucks in the checking account. It now has an annual operating budget of $250,000 and two staffers: Donovan and an assistant. They work out of a spacious but modest office in the Hanna Building downtown.

While the scope of the project has increased substantially since the National Heritage Corridor designation, Donovan's job has remained largely the same—selling the dream. Like a Hollywood producer, the well-tanned Donovan, who favors khakis, polo shirts, and sport coats, spends much of his time on a cell phone painting the big picture, one in which families can bike along the river, drive scenic roads, or ride a vintage train from Lake Erie to Zoar. Along the way, he envisions them spending money in small and large towns, visiting museums, and venturing into local and national parks.

Donovan is adamant that the proposed canal project is much more than him and a bikeway. It's a thread, or link, to a larger park system and to historical sites across the state. And in that respect, he's right.

The project, for instance, also calls for extending to Tower City the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, a vintage railroad which currently operates from Akron to Independence, stopping at commercial and historical sites along the way. The National Park Service is currently negotiating with CSX for railway rights that would extend the route north of Rockside, along tracks that traverse LTV Steel, cross to the east bank of the Cuyahoga River using the jackknife bridge near I-490, and proceed to the south property line of Sherwin-Williams Co. A new station below Tower City would be built to receive travelers.

Ohio Canal Corridor is also assisting the Ohio Department of Transportation with the creation of the state's first scenic byway, "CanalWay Ohio." The byway is essentially an automobile route—marked by new "CanalWay Ohio" signs—of existing roadways that parallel the canal from Cleveland to Dover, Ohio. Donovan paints it as more than just new signage, noting that it also includes road improvements and small-business development along the route.

As proof of the benefits of canal-related economic development, Donovan points to the $35 million of improvements currently under way in the city of Valley View, at the northeast end of the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. Projects there include the $15 million Thornburg Station, a mixed-use center, and a stop for the scenic railroad. Donovan says the station project hinged on two things: the extension of the canal trail and Ohio Canal Corridor's earning of the National Heritage Corridor designation.

While Donovan is good at weaving such improvements into a grand picture of a canal wonderland, critics say he's weak when it comes to more practical matters, like financing. "He never talks about the costs or who will pay for it," says a local official familiar with the project, who asked not to be identified.

Donovan admits he is a "dreamer," but defends his role as necessary to ultimately sell a project. Yablonsky agrees, characterizing the idealism as the spark that generates support. "The idea carries it," he says.

The precise cost of the overall project is hard to determine, because the canal trail, railroad, byway, and associated development are being assembled in pieces, with funding responsibilities falling to a variety of cities, municipalities, and local groups within the project's boundaries. Ohio Canal Corridor helps raise the money through federal and state sources, as well as specialized sources of funding, such as road improvements for canal-related infrastructure projects.

And the cost has changed over time. When the county released its analysis of developing the northern portion of the trail in 1992, the estimated cost was roughly $28 million. Today, plans for the northern endpoint of the canal alone are expected to top $30 million. The estimated cost of the entire project being submitted to the government as part of the Ohio Canal Corridor's management plan is between $150 and $200 million, according to Donovan.

And an important source of funding has been noticeably lacking. While the project is being pitched as an economic driver for the city, it has not attracted corporate support, à la stadiums, hotels, or convention centers. Ohio Canal Corridor has met with some corporate bigwigs over the years, but groups like Cleveland Tomorrow—an exclusive development group made up of fifty CEOs who can make or break civic projects—have remained cool to the project.

"We have not gone after [those] top-fifty-tier people," admits Donovan. "We've gone after smaller but successful companies, the young lions and entrepreneurs. In our evolution from a grassroots organization, we think it was the right thing to do."

Donovan promises that will change. "The best way to engage the top fifty companies is not to engage them in a massive project, but to engage them in an individual component of the project. We will do that."

A Cold Trail Through Hot Steel

Of the many challenges involved in completing the canal trail from the new Metropark to the lake, perhaps none is more daunting than crossing the 1,200-acre grounds of LTV Steel.

Dozens of rail tracks crisscross the property, on which open cars filled with iron ore pellets move slowly. Heat vapors shimmer above bottle-shaped cars carrying 1,800-degree molten steel. Steam billows just below the dark towers and twisted piping of the mill, which is surrounded by mountains of iron ore and slag.

Park planners want to take the bikepath right down the middle of this industrial hothouse. "We want to allow opportunities from a visual standpoint to see how LTV operates," says Donovan.

As ever, Donovan is the dreamer. This time LTV is the reality.

"We are cooperating with planners and willing to do what we can do. But it is a practical issue—this is an active steel plant," says LTV spokesman Mark Tomasch. "LTV is discussing giving access to other parts of the property skirting the area that would still give hikers and bikers a view of the mill."

LTV has given planners frequent access to its grounds to study possible routes in and around the property, but the company is averse to the idea of putting cyclists at the center of its mills, for obvious safety reasons. People tend to explore, even outside the demarcated path and fence. Truck and train traffic will be constant, and getting within yards of the cars carrying hot steel can cause a mild burn, like a sunburn.

Cuyahoga County planners are working on two detours around the mill, one going east and the other west. Preliminary documents show them leaning toward the west-side route, which would follow Jennings Road to Tremont, then down into the Flats via the bluffs below the neighborhood.

The compromise solution could include an interesting historical site. Ohio Canal Corridor planners hope to run a leg of the trail through LTV property to the navigational head of the Cuyahoga River at the Campbell Street Bridge, which is near the LTV mill. This is the farthest point ships can go upriver and the spot where the Cuyahoga River caught fire thirty years ago this week, fueling endless jokes about the city and spurring a long-overdue environmental cleanup.

Despite the intricacies of the LTV site, Donovan says a solution is close. "We will be making an announcement with LTV within a month," he promises.

Regardless of how park planners decide to get around LTV Steel, their problems are hardly over as they continue north of the mill. The next challenge is to figure out a safe route for the trail through the industrial heart of the Flats, home to concrete, sand, and salt companies, and others that rely on heavy trucks to move their goods.

According to a recent traffic survey conducted by the city and county, approximately 700,000 trucks move in and out of the Flats every year. The Port Authority says its customers will eventually add another 100,000 truck trips a year. Presently, truckers are limited to a number of narrow and crumbling roads out of the Flats to I-490, the nearest entrance to the massive freeway network. With the spirit of cowboys, many truck drivers just cut a path of least resistance, driving through neighborhoods and city streets to avoid the congested roads in the Flats. The city wants to change this and has made doing so a priority over most other Flats projects.

To improve traffic flow and keep trucks out of the surrounding neighborhoods, the city and county are proposing a $145 million truck route. The new route would rebuild much of Riverbed Road, the major artery in the Flats; cut a new roadway across the southern edge of the Scranton Peninsula and along old railbeds toward West Third Street; and upgrade intersection and highway on-ramps.

In some spots, the new truck route would closely parallel the proposed canal trail, particularly along existing railbeds. At other spots it intersects with the trail, posing a serious hazard for canal travelers.

"Everybody is planning for the same routes," notes Jim Pressler, executive director of the Flats Oxbow Association, the organization that represents businesses on and around the Cuyahoga River.

In the tight quarters of the Flats, there doesn't seem to be much choice. Mahmoud Al-Lozi, a highway planner at the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), says, "This is the best option for the city. This route will have the minimum impact on the residential neighborhoods."

But it raises a difficult question: Is there room for both heavy truck traffic and recreational bikers and hikers in the Flats? The answer depends on whom you ask. Planners on both sides defend their routes as absolutely necessary. And Donovan insists there are safe routes that can be created through the snarl of roaring semis.

Pressler has a different feeling: "When you think about strollers and bicycles being introduced onto a truck route, it kind of gives you the heebie-jeebies."

Big Bang, No Bucks

Assuming a safe pedestrian route can be created through the Flats, the Ohio Canal Corridor wants to end its journey with a huge historical bang—a massive $30 million park at the site of the original canal basin, which is buried below the Detroit-Superior Bridge, near the Lorenzo Carter log cabin. The plan for the park, created by ICON Architecture of Boston, calls for excavating and refilling the original canal, converting the nearby vacant B&O Station into a historic information center, and relocating two of Cleveland's historic Hulett ore unloaders to the site.

Throwing the Huletts into the mix has made the project decidedly more political.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Huletts are scheduled to be demolished later this year unless preservationists and the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Port Authority can come to a compromise. The Port Authority owns the massive steel structures and wants them removed from its docks on Whiskey Island to increase shipping capacity.

Ohio Canal Corridor has long wanted the Huletts to cap off the trail and to help illustrate what Donovan describes as the "complete story of the Cuyahoga River and canal. The canal project will tell the stories of how towns formed, and [the] chief story is steel, and the Huletts are a part of that." The design plans for the park were created in less than three weeks to meet increasing pressure from the Port Authority, which was pushing for a demolition permit.

When the plan was unveiled, the National Park Service, Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, and the Metroparks, among others, endorsed the concept. But it's hamstrung by the usual caveats. For one thing, the Ohio Canal Corridor has not yet devised a plan to fund the project.

And the park lacks the support of the single most important politician in the city, Mayor White. In fact, White has said virtually nothing about the entire Ohio and Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor project, a position that has lots of people privately concerned. White can make or break a project, as evinced by the new Browns stadium. It's no exaggeration to say his support for the Hulett park project is critical to its success. But his silence borders on arrogance.

Asked to explain the mayor's position on the Ohio and Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor and its significance to Cleveland, Kenneth Silliman, White's executive assistant for economic development, responds, "If we reviewed every concept someone has, we would never get anything done."

Donovan spins the mayor's lack of endorsement this way: "We haven't had the mayor against us on anything." But he's quick to add, "It would help if he were an active proponent of the project."

Silliman explained the mayor's lack of enthusiasm for the Hulett park proposal this way: "I can't speak on behalf of the city planning commission. What I've seen of the Canal Basin project—[it] is not ripe for formal discussion, because it proposes using private property without the consent of those private-property owners. We don't think it is unreasonable to ask sponsors of proposals to get [consent] before we take a look at them. We want to see what property owners' independent response is."

Silliman is referring to a valuable piece of land included in the Canal Basin proposal that is owned by Sherwin-Williams. Donovan says his organization has presented its plan to company representatives, who are reviewing it.

"The toughest part of understanding [the canal project] is that public uses can coexist along with private ones," says Yablonsky. He points to the new Metropark reservation as proof that they can coexist.

As for the City of Cleveland's tepid response, theories abound. The most common is that Mayor White is not interested in getting involved in any project he cannot control.

Yablonsky won't go that far, saying the nature of such regional projects does not lend itself to just one leader. "Here, White is just getting a seat at the table," he says.

But it's a critical seat, one that could make all the other problems in the Flats solvable.

"If [the mayor] says it is his vision, it can be done," says Twelfth Ward Councilman Ed Rybka, whose Broadway neighborhood is along the proposed canal route, and who hopes to link to it. "He wanted a stadium in two years, and it's there. He could do the same here."

From Zoar to the Ohio and Erie Canal Reservation, new projects are under way along the canal route. But the completion of these and of the entire project remains at least ten to fifteen years off. In the end, Clevelanders will be left with one of two things: a trail celebrating the history of our state's industry that is anchored by a heritage park near the lakefront or a new negative legacy—that a good idea died at the city's border.


More by Mark Naymik


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