Lakefront Carnival

Mayoral hijinks and political sideshows stymie the debate over what to do with the shoreline.

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On a rainy July morning, Mayor Michael White publicly unveiled his plan to claim the downtown lakefront once and for all. Not for business. Nor for the Browns. But for families.

White's plan, rolled out at a press conference in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, evoked visions of countless families enjoying themselves on a full 85 acres surrounding the North Coast Harbor. Families riding a Ferris wheel. Families strolling along a public promenade. Families taking charter boat tours. Cleveland families. Tourist families. All manner of families seemed ready to jump -- picnic baskets in hand -- right out of the architectural renderings and into the realm of possibility.

But as White spoke, Cleveland City Council members and Cuyahoga County Commissioners heard only the bells and whistles of a one-man band. With White's voice still ringing in their ears, they screeched their objections, and the plan plunged headlong into a Great Lake of controversy.

The ensuing tumult over the lakefront's future has little to do with artful drawings of carousels and marinas, and everything to do with the fact that the mayor worked on the plan for more than a year in almost total secrecy. Council members and county commissioners want to know why they were not invited to the table, or at least kept in the loop, while the plan was being drafted.

But even they didn't know the full extent of White's secrecy. So closely did the mayor guard his plans that until he went public, not even the Chicago-based architecture firm, VOA Associates, knew that the mayor was planning to hand it one of the city's most important public projects.

"I knew he was paying us and that was nice," says Richard Fawell, VOA's design principal. "But I never heard 'You won.' The first time I heard it was at that presentation in July."

Ken Silliman, White's executive assistant for development, argues that there was a good reason to keep the architect in the dark: The mayor wanted VOA to think competition for the job was fierce. But there appears to be no similarly persuasive reason for not enlightening council members and commissioners about what was in the works.

If White hoped that dropping a neatly wrapped and beribboned plan on the public would spark momentum and spawn an effusive outpouring of support for his vision, he was dead wrong. Instead, the details of the plan itself have been subsumed in a raging debate over whom the mayor should have told what, and when.

White may have been the driving force behind the Cleveland Browns Stadium, but he's finding that the remaining stretch of downtown lakefront is not his to claim. Since the project will require public funds, the city wants the public to vote on it. But to get a tax issue on the ballot, White must first get the support of council members and commissioners -- the very people he excluded from the planning process.

White's strategy not only failed to win their support, it may have turned them permanently against a plan they've scarcely pondered. Unless White can figure out how to warm up council members and commissioners, his plan will remain frozen in political limbo.

"If it becomes a situation where one out of the three doesn't agree, then nothing goes forward," sighs Bill Valerian, a former chair of the Cleveland Convention and Visitors Bureau. In that case, the mayor won't have to worry about wooing public support for his plan, since it will never reach the ballot.

Once again, it's the style, not the substance, of a mayoral initiative that threatens to kill it.

And for Cleveland, that really is a shame. If there's one thing the city does need to do, it is to engage in a vigorous public discussion about VOA's ideas for remaking the lakefront. Now, much of the area around the North Coast Harbor is an expanse of underattended parkland and untapped potential. It remains part of a downtown waterfront as unfriendly as a third-world dictatorship, largely inaccessible and occupied by the military.

VOA is proposing to open up much of this space to the public, balancing retail outlets and restaurants with recreational spaces. The development, while very much a destination point all by itself, would also enhance the proposed new convention center. But a lakefront plan immobilized by politics will have consequences for the convention center as well. While the mayor talks about the lakefront and the convention center separately, both are expensive public projects unlikely to pay for themselves and, therefore, destined for the ballot. The lakefront plan would cost as much as $205 million, the convention center another $560 million.

Why should the public embrace what could amount to a $765 million-dollar plan designed behind closed doors? The mayor's answer came in a passionate plea at his press conference.

"If we don't continue, we shall fail," he warned.

But continue what? And why?

Nearly six weeks after White introduced his plan, Clevelanders still really only know two things about it -- it's White's plan, and they might have to pay for it. Despite some sketchy news coverage about the details, the public has yet to be told how it will benefit. Is the development targeting tourists or locals? Will Clevelanders be able to peacefully enjoy their lakefront, or will it be overrun with concessions and cafés? Who will benefit the most? Families? Boaters? T-shirt salesmen?

For now, White's plan is just a series of architectural drawings. But it already has a long and storied history.

Despite the apparent surprise of almost everyone -- including VOA -- when White announced his plan, the mayor decided more than a year ago that he wanted VOA to set the pace for the project. According to public documents obtained by Cleveland Scene, White and his staff devoted countless hours and at least $48,900 over the past year, carefully refining the proposal before offering it to the public.

But what the public gets out of the plan remains vague.

For now, the best model of the mayor's vision is Chicago's Navy Pier. There's a reason it looks so similar to the pretty plans Fawell has produced for Cleveland: The Navy Pier inspired them. Just as it inspired the mayor.

"The world is filled with beautiful, architecturally designed spaces that no one uses," explains James Reilly, one of the men most responsible for remaking the Navy Pier, which opened in 1995. "We decided the Pier needed to be a great people place."

Jutting more than a half mile into Lake Michigan, the Pier was designed to look from the air like the silhouette of a skyscraper laid on its side. But towers meant to "envelop" the structure in light were never constructed, leaving the pier at the base of the Chicago skyline looking like a hodgepodge of buildings distinguished by a single Ferris wheel, 150 feet tall.

Much to the scorn of the Chicago Tribune's architecture critic, the pier does not masquerade as the architectural masterpiece it was never meant to be.

But it is exactly what Reilly intended. The pier has attracted an average of 8 million visitors annually since 1998 -- about as many as will visit the entire city of Cleveland this year. Busy and commercially dense, Navy Pier is the lakefront anomaly of the Windy City, whose 26 miles of accessible shoreline have been the envy of Clevelanders for decades.

At some point, Mike White visited the pier. It made an impression on him that would later turn into a mission to create something similar on Cleveland's lakefront.

The Navy Pier is the one place on Chicago's lakefront, Fawell explains, where there are things to do besides bike, walk, or swim. As an architect on the project, he seems to have an interesting anecdote for many of the Pier's buildings, from the seven-story Chicago Shakespeare Theatre to the brightly tiled columns in the food court -- inspired by the doodlings of his 13-year-old daughter.

Where Fawell sits in the indoor Crystal Gardens, birds fly and fountains leap over pathways between palm trees. Fawell speaks about the Cleveland plan with the enthusiasm of a long-sequestered artist finally taking his work into the world. He gets so immersed in the discussion that he has to be told his cell phone is ringing on two separate occasions.

The interview stretches to nearly two hours, but he doesn't mind being late to his next appointment. Fawell hasn't often been asked to talk about his Cleveland design, and he's happy to do it. He uses the Navy Pier as the living model to explain his basic vision for the Cleveland lakefront.

The Navy Pier is the embodiment of Fawell's belief that architecture should be the enabler of human experience, the backdrop. It's a philosophy espoused by his former boss, Benjamin Thompson, whose firm designed Faneuil Hall in Boston and Baltimore's Harborplace.

"If there's too much order and architectural beauty, in a sense, people tend to find that boring," he says. "Ben used to come along and look at our models and say, 'You need to add more color. You need to think about what people like. You need to think about variety. Don't get caught up too much in the monotony of modern architecture.' Ben was very good at focusing in on people, grouping people together, the activities, then thinking about the architecture that backs it up. Architecture that supports the activities people want to do."

While a great deal of money can be spent at the pier on rides, food, parking, and entertainment, entry is free. Visitors are free to play on the Brobdingnagian sculptures at the entrance to the children's museum. Free to sit on the benches and watch the breathtaking skyline. Free to listen to the roving bands or the Beer Garden's wedding-reception-circuit deejay, who cheerfully instructs the children on the dance floor to do-the-hokey-pokey-and-turn-themselves-around.

The pier is also a smorgasbord for the senses. Surf music. Funnel cakes. Boat motors. Gargantuan sculptures stealing your gaze. Lovers canoodling on park benches. Children whining for more rides. The pier's Ferris wheel, modeled after the one built for the city's 1893 World Columbian Exposition, towers above it all.

The pier jibed with White's own vision of what should be done with Cleveland's downtown lakefront. It seemed like one way to turn it into a people's playland. And he's joined the procession of leaders who have tried to make it so.

As far back as 1891, the Parks and Boulevard Association proposed to make Cleveland's lakefront a "connected park and lake shore drive system to benefit people who have no recreation." In 1936 and 1937, civic leaders established the Great Lakes Exposition on the lakefront. For two consecutive summers of the Great Depression, Clevelanders flocked to the exposition's numerous attractions, including a "Streets of the World" district featuring 200 cafés and bazaars, a midway of rides and shows, a theater, an art gallery, even a water ballet.

Unlike Chicago, there was no monumental effort on the part of civic groups and politicians to preserve the shore for people. Clevelanders devoted the use of their shore, first and foremost, to industry. In the decades following the exposition, more and more of the public lakefront was lost, to industry as well as to government facilities and to plain neglect. Proposals to make the waterfront more accessible and appealing surfaced periodically, as did public pressure. One Plain Dealer article from 1980 pointed out that City Hall "symbolically faces away from the lake, and the politicians have turned their backs on the shore."

The ideas White is proposing for the lakefront now are actually rooted in the city's 12-year-old master plan, Civic Vision 2000. The downtown shore was pegged for its great potential back then. When White took office in 1990, he spearheaded a master plan for the North Coast Harbor. Adopted by the City Planning Commission in 1992, the plan called for a lakefront that would create both jobs and fun. On cue, the Rock Hall and the Great Lakes Science Center took their places on the harbor in 1995 and 1996, followed by the Cleveland Browns Stadium. (City council members riled about being left out of the mayor's current design might feel a tinge of déjà vu from 1994, when the mayor hatched yet another lakefront plan -- also with an aquarium --without getting their input first.)

In 1996, Cleveland Tomorrow, a group of business leaders, built on the Civic Vision at White's behest. Two years later, Civic Vision 2000 and Beyond produced an easy-to-read promotional booklet, complete with architectural drawings. It stressed the redevelopment of the downtown lakefront.

Not surprisingly, advocates for public access decried the plan -- which was designed behind closed doors by an out-of-town architecture firm, the Thompson Design Group -- and the business leaders who paid for it.

"At the public meetings people said 'Where's the beach?'" says Genevieve Ray, president of the Cleveland Waterfront Coalition. "They were worried that the plan was too much commercial space."

White revised the Cleveland Tomorrow plan, taking into account the public's concerns. A few months later, the city planning commission released an update, calling for a bigger convention center, more museums, and a host of public spaces, including parks and bike paths. In April 1999, the mayor invited about 30 developers to make suggestions for redeveloping six acres to the north of East Ninth Street on the Lake Erie shore. He told his staff specifically to include the designer of the Navy Pier.

Shortly after receiving Cleveland's invitation, inspiration came to Richard Fawell in an unexpected flash. The architect -- whose work has encompassed the IBM Headquarters in Connecticut, the Helsinki City Library in Finland, and other large projects throughout the United States --was taking in the view from Hornblower's Barge and Grill when he felt certain he knew what to do with Cleveland's lakefront.

"It was real clear," he recalls. "I think I drew it up in half an hour."

Fawell envisioned a "people place," much like the Navy Pier -- something to draw people and keep them there for much longer than it takes to visit the Rock Hall or the Science Museum. In the year since VOA began working with the mayor's office, the original 6 acres have multiplied to 85. But the basic look is still the same. An aquarium and ferry terminal would be built on Dock 32, north of the science center. East Ninth Street would become a "promenade," complete with a large Ferris wheel. To the east, a children's museum would sit in front of a hotel and conference center and next to an entertainment complex. On the west side of East Ninth Street, north of the Rock Hall, two carousels would spin. Voinovich Park would be flanked by a children's park, while both sides of the Ninth Street Pier would hold public marinas, complete with tall ships and paddle boats on the east. Two restaurants would be built at the farthest points of the Ninth Street Pier.

Despite Fawell's confidence in his design, he didn't expect to win the city's support.

"We sent this in very much on a lark," he says. The city indicated it was looking for a developer, not an architect, to lead the project. And Fawell had trouble getting any Cleveland developers to take his calls.

"So I had to call Ken [Silliman] and say 'Gee, I don't think we're going to do this,'" Fawell recalls. "And then at the last minute we changed our minds. I was so sure I knew what to do. It sounds presumptuous, but to me it was so clear that there was something you could do with the waterfront that would make a lot of sense, with the museums and the direction it was already going."

So Fawell sent his plan to White's staff.

About a month later, the mayor's office contacted Fawell, and on June 16, 1999, he was flying to Cleveland for his first meeting with the city. Fawell knew he had a significant obstacle to overcome: The city wanted a developer, and VOA didn't have one.

In his interview with the mayor's "development cluster" -- Silliman, Director of Community Development Linda Hudecek, Director of City Planning Hunter Morrison, and Director of Economic Development Chris Warren -- Fawell argued that a private developer wasn't necessary. The North Coast Harbor could be developed by a public entity, he suggested, the same as the Navy Pier had been. His pitch worked. Shortly after that first meeting, the cluster recommended VOA to the mayor.

Fawell had no idea that by late June not only was his plan the front runner, it was the only proposal being seriously considered by White and his staff. "It was all very secretive," Fawell explains.

City records show that Fawell met with the city four times before the grand "roll-out" of the plan in July. On his trips to Cleveland, he met with the development team as well as with the mayor one-on-one. For months, VOA wooed the city, showering the mayor with positive press, including an upbeat postcard of the Navy Pier assuring him, "We're thinking of Cleveland!"

On July 27, 1999, VOA arranged a trip to the Navy Pier for three representatives from the mayor's office -- Warren, Silliman, and Hudecek -- and two from the Port Authority -- executive director Gary Failor and chairman Sterling Glover. They traveled at the city's expense, and they were driven to meetings at the VOA office by a limousine service.

As it turned out, no one except the mayor and his development cluster knew VOA had been chosen. Out of 30 invitations sent out, the city received proposals from VOA and only 3 other firms in May 1999. Harbour Place Partners proposed a slightly surreal, floating hotel complemented by restaurants, shops, and stages. Significantly less extravagant, a Forest City Enterprises proposal featured an aquarium, a marina clubhouse, and over 35,000 feet of retail and restaurants. Phoenix Properties and GSI Architects suggested a plan dense with retail and residential development, including parking for 1,350 cars.

After the four plans were released, Silliman explained that the City Planning Commission would consider them before a "winner" would be determined. But the plans weren't taken to the commission. In fact, records show that the team gathered very little reaction from other officials. The Port Authority's Failor, whose operations will be significantly affected by the development, didn't provide Silliman a written critique of the proposals until nearly two months after VOA had been chosen.

The General Services Administration, however, was one organization the mayor did bother to keep informed. He had to. Before the area can be developed, the federal government will have to do Cleveland a huge favor -- move facilities presently occupied by the Coast Guard, the U.S. Naval Reserve, and the Corps of Engineers presently located at East Ninth Street and the lakefront. All three need waterfront locations, and each has specific requirements that must be met. The Coast Guard, for instance, told the city it needed a 23,000 square-foot building, a conference center, and parking for 90 vehicles.

Dennis Spearman, chief of the Chicago Operations Branch of the GSA's Property Disposal Division, says the three agencies have agreed to move, provided the city can find adequate relocation sites as well as figure out a way to pay for the relocation.

Early in the planning process, White had a brief spat with GSA. Not surprisingly, it was over the federal government's concern that White was shutting them out of the process. When the city mailed out its requests for proposals -- or RFPs -- for the lakefront to developers in April 1999, the Coast Guard complained that White had not honored his pledge to "sit around the kitchen table" with it and other affected federal agencies before issuing the RFP.

The director of the GSA's Property Disposal Division fired off a letter to the city, complaining that when the mayor "hurriedly prepared" the RFP, he left out the condition that the developer would have to move the three federal agencies.

In a recent interview, Silliman would not discuss who will actually pay to move the agencies or how much it will cost. Spearman deferred those questions to the city. He did, however, provide an update on the locations. While the Coast Guard has agreed to a new site proposed by the city on the west side of Burke, the Naval Reserve and the Corps of Engineers have yet to tell him whether they will accept a single site proposed for both on the river.

At the moment, it's hard to tell which is the biggest obstacle facing the mayor's lakefront development proposal: relocating the federal agencies or getting support from the public. Regular lambastings from City Council certainly haven't helped the mayor win public support.

Silliman dismisses council's criticism. The plan isn't finished, he reiterates. It will still go to the planning commission. It will still be critiqued by the public. It can still be changed. "The mayor can express support for a designated plan before it goes to a design committee or a city council," he maintains. "The mayor felt that you can't have an informed discussion unless you present a fully articulated plan."

Council members are mostly outraged that the mayor paid VOA $48,900 for the plan without seeking its approval first. In a public grilling of Silliman last month, Council President Mike Polensek accused the administration of violating the city charter, which specifies that the mayor cannot enter into a contract for more than $10,000 without council's approval.

"I know what you did," scolded Polensek, adding that the VOA contracts were just the latest revelation in a "set pattern of deception."

Silliman insists the charter wasn't violated, that the council and the media have misjudged the situation entirely. While Silliman did provide an in-depth explanation not heard before, he did not produce documents that he claimed could back it up.

At different points between June and September, Silliman says, VOA made four changes to the plan as requested by the city -- factoring in an aquarium on the Ninth Street Pier, then on Dock 32; conceiving a lakefront transportation plan that wouldn't conflict with the convention center; and accounting for Burke Airport redevelopment. The Port Authority also paid the firm $10,000. The city's development team, who considered VOA's original proposal "head and shoulders above the rest," would end up paying the firm a total $48,900 for revisions.

Of course, the city didn't set out to pay them anything. The idea of paying VOA to make changes to its plan didn't surface until September, after the firm had done a great deal of work for free.

"I was never comfortable with them doing this without being paid, because when you let a consultant do that, they assume a favored position," Silliman says. "We need to get the federal agencies' agreement to relocate before we can get anybody for sure."

When Silliman offered to pay the firm, Fawell submitted a bill to the Port Authority on September 22 for a master plan for the "North Coast waterfront from the Cuyahoga River to Aviation High School, including planning diagrams for the new convention center." The bill was for $83,950.

Although it's not expressed in the bill, VOA was charging the city for all the work the firm had done up to that point, Silliman says. When it was explained to VOA that the city didn't have the authority to pay anything more than $10,000 per contract, the firm opted to re-bill, Silliman says.

"We were clear with VOA," Silliman says. "We have a $10,000 limit. We're not going to tell you what your work is worth. But if it is more than that, it will take a longer time."

Fawell considers the whole topic of payment unfortunate. He says the amount of work done on the project so far has been worth much more than $48,900. Doing work that may go uncompensated is a risk architecture firms routinely take on huge public proposals. If VOA gets to design the $205 million project, it will be well worth it, he says.

While winning the mayor's support was a pleasant surprise for Fawell, his experience with Cleveland politics has been the exact opposite. As the son of a congressman, Fawell usually understands how public projects can get mired in political muck. But not in this particular instance.

"I feel so strongly that the mayor is just trying to do what a mayor should do, and be a visionary," he says.

Fawell knows the project's chances depend on his ability to sway the public. And he's eager for the day he'll get to finally ask Clevelanders what they think of his work.

The Waterfront Coalition's Ray is eager for that day, too. She has pored over Fawell's plans, which were handed out at the press conference in neat blue folders. One map boasts "10,700 linear feet of public waterfront," 3,700 feet more than the Navy Pier. But Ray isn't impressed. Linear footage is just the edge. She wants to know how deep that public space is along the waterfront -- the square footage.

She has a rash of other questions, too. How close will the public be able to get to the waterfront? How much of it will be accessible? How much will be accessible only to boaters or restaurant patrons?

"We have never taken the position that this should all be a park," Ray says. "We think there should be attractions in balance with free public space. But you shouldn't feel you have to buy a margarita to sit by the water."

The city expects the critics to come to the public meetings that have yet to be scheduled. Some will have specific complaints. They will want the Steamship Mather included in the plan. They will want a public beach or lakefront housing.

Unlike Chicago, Cleveland has little accessible waterfront. David Beach, executive director of EcoCity Cleveland, will question whether turning the North Coast Harbor into a tourist trap is really the best use for such a valuable swath of shoreline.

"The best kind of development there is [is] no development," Beach says. "Let's build parks that are free, that anyone can use."

Others, like Councilman Ed Rybka, will have more general concerns. He will want to know why the mayor has developed the lakefront on a project-by-project basis, with no overarching plan. Why not connect the waterfront to the Ohio Canal Corridor Project? Or to the neighborhoods? Rybka's concerned that too much of the lakefront planning has been top-down.

"I think that a noble desire [to preserve the lakefront for the public] got lost in a higher priority -- to develop a new convention center," Rybka says. "The convention center ended up driving the project . . . It has become a project that drives the process, instead of process identifying projects."

County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora also believes the convention center has provided the impetus for the lakefront project. That's why, shortly after the project was unveiled, he unearthed an alternate plan for a convention center complex. His plan, designed by VanD Development, is bigger, easier on taxpayers, and offers more retail, housing, and office space. Valerian says the convention center committee refused the plan months ago because of problems identified by the Port Authority -- height restrictions on the airport, among them

"We've got to get the politics out of these issues," says Valerian, a longtime supporter of the convention center and the director of the Muldoon Center for Entrepreneurship at John Carroll University. "The fact is, it doesn't matter who suggests the plan or whether the plan has X person's name on it. To the business community, it's whether or not the plan adds to the economic strengths of the community."

The economic benefits of a convention center have already been figured, Valerian says. Provided Cleveland builds the proper facility and buoys it with attractions -- such as the type of development embodied in the lakefront plan -- they will come. And they will spend lots of money.

While convinced of the convention center's importance, Silliman insists it isn't driving the mayor's lakefront initative. He maintains that White has been a proponent of making the lakefront more accessible to the public since his councilman days.

Silliman says what distinguished the VOA plan was its focus on turning the lakefront into a "family destination." The other plans restricted access with too much residential or commercial development. Of course, family destinations -- parks, children's museums, and other free spaces -- don't make money. Neither do convention centers.

To make both a reality, the public will have to pay. Taking into account the public funding that has already gone into the Browns stadium and Gateway, Council President Polensek thinks another $765 million is a lot to ask. That's why he has vowed to review the plan carefully. Despite the urgency assigned to the project by the mayor, council won't be rushed.

For inspiration, the mayor can look again to Chicago. It took decades of political wrangling before the Navy Pier, a dumping ground in the late 1980s, was rehabbed. Finally, in 1989, Mayor Richard Daley and Governor James Thompson succeeded in lassoing $150 million in state funds to remake the Pier. When asked if that was the thing that finally pushed the project forward, Reilly is absolute.

"If the Pier had to not only pay its operating costs, but also debt service on $150 million, it couldn't have been done," Reilly says.

Maybe White should head to Columbus. So far his sales pitch for the lakefront development has been that it worked at the Navy Pier. Will a Navy Pier work in Cleveland, too? If White can find money the same way Chicago did, maybe we'll get to find out.

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