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Can the Long-Maligned Cuyahoga River Drive Revitalization in Cleveland?

The latest multimillion-dollar, multi-decade plan to reinvent Cleveland’s riverfront does not lack for ambition. 

Unveiled in December by the real estate firm Bedrock, the project promises to transform 35 acres of land behind Tower City Center, the city’s landmark former passenger rail hub, into apartments, offices and green space.

The master plan penned by architect Sir David Adjaye, famed for his Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, shows a mix of new and reused buildings, as well as green space and walking paths. The Bedrock project invokes urban planning’s hottest buzzword — the “15-minute city,” where all daily amenities and necessities are available within a short walk. The developers promise a mix of live-work-play features that “link shore to core,” providing what Bedrock CEO Kofi Bonner called a boulevard from Public Square — a downtown space laid out by namesake Moses Cleaveland himself — through Tower City and down to the east bank of the Cuyahoga River.


There’s also something familiar about the scheme: For the past half-century, Cleveland has tried to turn the industry-lined waterway that snakes through its heart as it flows into Lake Erie into a place where people might want to spend free time — and yes, even live. To make that happen, Clevelanders may have to forge a fresh relationship with the Cuyahoga, a river burdened with an infamous history. 

“When people talk about connecting to the waterfront, people think: the lake, the lake, the lake. But the riverfront is right here and it’s more accessible,” says Tom McNair, executive director of Ohio City Inc., which is working on a similar plan for public usage on the west bank of the long-neglected river. “I’ve always considered it a magical place.”

Jobs and Pollution

Almost from the beginning, the river was a magnet for industry. In 1827, the same year that the Ohio & Erie Canal was completed between Cleveland and Akron, the Cuyahoga Steam Furnace Co. was formed — the first “dirty” business that could be found on the riverbank, says John Grabowski, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University and the author of The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. But it would not be the last.

Soon, mills and factories started to fill up the banks on the east and west shore. When oil was discovered in Northern Pennsylvania, Cleveland became a hub for oil refining, thanks to enterprising local businessman John D. Rockefeller. Standard Oil was incorporated in Ohio in 1870, and at one point, Grabowski says, Cleveland was home to 26 different oil refining facilities. Freighters laden with coal and iron for the city’s mills and factories carefully made their way along what is still called the crooked river.

The meanders of the Cuyahoga, each with its own name for navigational purposes, shaped the city’s neighborhoods: Irishtown Bend, named for the Irish immigrants that packed its narrow streets; Wheeling Bend, so named for the railroad bridge that spanned the river there; and the ominously named Collision Bend.

Read entire article at Bloomberg CityLab