Connect 'Em All: The Native Clevelander Charged with Making Longstanding Downtown Dreams Come to Life

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Jeremy Paris moved back to Cleveland in 2012 after eight years working in the Senate in Washington D.C. to take part in that ethereal revitalization of Cleveland we all seem to feel. He eventually landed the role of executive director of the Group Plan Commission — the body that intersects work between the county, city and private organizations — to make that revitalization, you know, concrete. To wit: the Group Plan Commission hopes to, finally, renovate Public Square, better the downtown malls and build a pedestrian bridge from downtown to the lakefront by the Rock Hall and Great Lakes Science Center. All by 2016. How probable is any of that development? Why are those things important? Paris took a few minutes to answer those questions and more.

So you had a loose idea of what you wanted to do when you moved back to Cleveland but no actual job?

JP: I spent a lot of time meeting with folks and I knew I wanted to come home to be civically involved. I worked in the Senate for eight years and I was very involved in public policy. One of the reasons to come back to Cleveland, besides my family and the quality of life and the cost of living, was I wanted to feel change. In D.C., there can be a level of abstraction. But I was a lawyer and people were asking me what law firm I was going to work at, and I knew those places would just want me to be a litigator and that's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to bridge the policy world and the business world and work to make downtown and our neighborhoods better. I lucked out. After a job with Ed FitzGerald working on some of the same issues I work on now, this opportunity with the Group Plan came about. But it's not like I get to come in 10-people deep. I'm still working with the city and the county and a bunch of other organizations and stakeholders on these projects.

And project No. 1 is Public Square? Getting at least one of the streets shut down and turning it into a better public space? Seems like we've seen that headline over and over through the years, but the assumption now is that it really is going to happen.

JP: It's three things: Public Square, the malls and the bridge to the lakefront. The malls are going to change with the hotel going up. That dynamic will shift. They're important, but the dimensions of that space are going to change with the convention center and the hotels. The bridge to the lakefront is on the same trajectory as Public Square. We have to look to fund both, obviously. We just got $5 million for the bridge from the state, which is big.

For those that don't know, what is the lakefront bridge project?

JP: We are trying to construct a pedestrian and bike connector bridge from the lower part of the mall downtown to the lakefront, landing somewhere between the Rock Hall and the science center. If you're downtown, you can see the lake, and you say, 'I want to go there.' But, especially if you don't know the city, you don't know how to get there or it's simply hard to get there. The bridge would drive traffic between the two. I call it, well, there's the Moat of Cleveland: the 50-foot bluff, the light and heavy rails, and the Shoreway. This is something that can connect the two and get people down there.

The Moat of Cleveland has a ring to it. Not a good one.

JP: Right. And we're trying to bring people down there. These sorts of projects, I call them connective tissues for cities.

Why a bridge there?

JP: The city recently did award funds for a developer for a lakefront parcel, down there by the Rock Hall and Science Center, that will include retail and restaurants. The idea is to activate the lakefront. The Rock Hall does a ton of out-of-town business; the Science Center does a ton of in-town business. And there are the Browns games. But there's nowhere to buy a beer.

And then there's Public Square. The plan, at least the current version, has one street closing and breaking the square up into two halves that would be much more developed and landscaped and better suited to public use. As of now, it's just a bus depot and not really welcoming.

Public Square really is the heart of downtown Cleveland, and we've never had it be the world-class space that can serve the locus of activity around it. It's a connection point between neighborhoods — the Warehouse District, East Fourth, Tower City — but it hasn't lived up to its billing. If you look down on it, it's all concrete and cut into quadrants. The design is to weave it together and give people something they actually want to use. The design firm that's working on it, James Corner Field Operations, did the High Line in New York, which is now the No. 2 most visited space there. And Land Studio is the project manager here working with them. We're still working out dates on when the new round of designs will be shown. I hope it's within the next month or so. One other thing about Public Square: It's proven that investments in public spaces pay off for cities in a million ways, from money to perception. It's worked other places and we're studying those, but we want this to be something that other cities will emulate.

The RTA is a huge part of that conversation, obviously. How do you manage that many buses and riders and transfers and stops while making Public Square more public-friendly and still serving the needs of those riders?

JP: We actually presented to RTA again today and they've been a terrific partner. We're in the middle of figuring out where you might move stops and what kind and what happens if you move them. The goal is not to say nothing will be impacted or changed, but does it work in a way that advances the transit riders' concerns. We're drilling down on the data and trying to balance those interests.

And the goal, for any number of reasons — Frank Jackson's legacy, the possible 2016 expo, the bid for national conventions — is to have this done by 2016?

JP: The goal, and the mayor and Ed FitzGerald said as much when they announced the convention center and hotel, remains 2016. We're all excited about our national convention bids and having that goal in mind has really helped animate the sense of urgency to get this done and to take advantage of the momentum of investment in downtown and leverage those investments to grow the city.

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