The Big Write Off

Cities are cauldrons of innovation and creativity, but misperceptions and bad press often relegate the most exciting movements to the shadows.  In week four of the Change the World Novena, we look at the role that architects can play in expressing the dynamic culture of a place to residents and regionalists alike.

It’s easy to be down on your rust-belt hometown.  Once-great cities of the Midwest have been brought to their knees by demographic shifts, the post-industrial economy and brain drain.  Or have they?  Jennifer Coleman, an architect, entrepreneur and lifelong resident of Cleveland, Ohio isn’t about to give up on her hometown just yet.  She has spent her career as a champion for revitalization, working at a grassroots and city leadership level to help Cleveland shine.

Cleveland has been working on urban redevelopment for a number of years, but many of the textbook solutions of the past decades such as sports and retail venues didn’t have a deep or lasting enough effect. Jennifer views the most positive change to happen in the last five years as the transition of the urban core.  “It went from being perceived as a business center to a place to live and a viable neighborhood,” she says.  “Twenty years ago really saw only one area, the Warehouse District as an example of a multi-use neighborhood, the rest of downtown was still business-based and experiencing tenant flight to the suburbs. The potential for a vibrant downtown was visible, but we did not really have a plan to bring it to fruition, other than continue seeking big projects like sports complexes and museums. While the Gateway project/stadiums built in the 1990’s brought more downtown, they did not produce a 24 hour city. Downtown instead became a place to visit for specific events and then go home.  We’re now focusing on livability issues in lieu of building big projects by looking at creating public spaces that enrich the life of downtown visitors, workers and residents.” 

There has also been a shift in urban design attention to the experience of place as a coherent and rich sequence of events with attention to traffic and circulation issues.  The intent is that the streets and open spaces such as Public Square and the Mall not be merely a place to pass through, but destinations that provide a focal point for surrounding development.  “When big projects that are currently being planned can plug into a larger urban infrastructure instead of relying on project based responses- this is a paradigm shift. Alternative transportation (pedestrian, bikes, public transit) and enjoying the trip is also being emphasized.”

Jennifer’s many years on City Boards and Commissions as well as her experience in private practice have given her perspective on redevelopment from both the design, development, and public policy point of view.  Some insights she shares with others who are interested in making a difference in revitalizing their cities:
Play to your strengths Every city has its unique characteristics and by expressing them, the culture of that place is also expressed, further enriching the experience of inhabiting it.  “Our physical and environmental potential and rich culture and history are unique to Cleveland.  Every city has its stories, but our stories are pretty cool. We tend to forget them.”  Jennifer’s City Prowl project is one way she is helping people to understand the history and culture that are part of the places they pass by every day.  “Our walkability and compactness and rich institutional stock are all within arm’s reach of the core.  Cleveland’s urban center includes the amenities of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. Strong neighborhoods close to the urban core have been redeveloping at a faster pace than the core and their distinctive character is now trickling into the core.  In addition to its walkability, our core has good transit connections, as well as rich historical character.  The city does not need to acquire land to revitalize because we are acting on plans that are in some cases 200 years old.”  However, Jennifer also feels that redevelopment is challenged by another cultural characteristic, “The temptation to sell ourselves short- a collective inferiority complex that holds us back from making big plans- fear of failure.  It’s the entreprenurial spirit that made Cleveland great in its hey day and will make it great again.”   

Form strategic alliances One of the most most successful neighborhood/district/projects Jennifer points to took place at the Cleveland State Universty (CSU) campus on the east side of downtown. The decision of CSU to engage with the downtown fabric in lieu of remaining a self-contained campus as they underwent a major campus expansion has opened up what used to be perceived as a barrier between downtown and midtown.  “Their transformation has created a template for our other urban institutions. Case Western Reserve University, located just east of downtown at University Circle,  is now adopting this mind set for their expansion/renovation projects with other hospitals & schools looking at  updating and integrating their urban campuses.”

Seek and use the insights of the average citizen  “I’d love to see a civic urban core universal concern- a “department of visibility” to make citizens more aware.  It can be very difficult for the average citizen to be aware of what’s going on and the best way to participate in the process,” Jennifer notes.  “The county right now is doing a great job of being more transparent and encouraging interaction.”  On the subject of whether change necessarily needs to be championed from the grass roots, Jennifer felt that interventions can equally be successful from a ‘ground up’ or ‘trickle down’ start. “Cleveland’s biking community is a great example of a grass roots group that has organized and mobilized to making biking safer and accessible to all citizens, from working with City Hall on the Complete Streets ordinance as well as reaching out to the community on various projects and education initiatives. Our mayor has committed to the public square and mall projects and really made them happen.”  Jennifer also believes that cities and civic leaders need to work at channeling the input of interested citizens, “There is a large movement of young people into urban cores because living in the city is a quality of life issue that they believe in.  They bring with them a new concept of city living which includes involvement. Many of the 40+ group are passionate about creating a vibrant core, but weren’t organized and cultivated as leaders as the younger citizens are now. I think the young people's enthusiasm for the city is spreading to their more established, suburban-dwelling older peers."

Set yourself up for success When I asked Jennifer what she thought needed to happen to produce the most transformational change, she championed further development of public spaces, but with an interesting caveat, “We need to teach people how to interact with the city.  Clevelanders are not used to grand public spaces.  It’s important to make sure that we have adequate programming with them and that it is easy for people to book the space for events.  We also need to promote better wayfinding and ease of getting around the city with more easily accessible creature comforts.”
As Jennifer illustrates, architects can play a leadership role in development through their willingness to participate in civic organizations and serve as appointed members of boards and commissions.  They can also be vigilant stewards of cultural treasures and be advocates for preservation and restoration.  One of Jennifer’s favorite Cleveland stories is the saving of the grand theaters in Playhouse Square in the 1970s. “They were literally setting up the wrecking ball to raze them for a parking lot, but concerned citizens intervened. Our theater district is one of the city’s, and nation’s treasures and the saving of them and their subsequent restoration, which continues to the present, was a main catalyst to out downtown renaissance.”

Architect and entrepreneur Jennifer Coleman has over 24 years experience in the field of architecture. Her company, Jennifer Coleman Creative LLC, is dedicated to improving life in the city through smart design. She is also the founder and CEO of CityProwl, a company producing urban walking-tours that can be downloaded from the internet to digital media players for self-led tours. An avid civic volunteer, she serves on the boards of LAND Studio, the Cleveland International Film Festival, the Cleveland Arts Prize, and the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. She is Chair of both the Cleveland Landmarks Commission and Downtown/Flats District Design Review Committee and was appointed to the Mayor’s Group Plan Commission in 2010. Ms. Coleman holds a bachelor of architecture degree from Cornell University. She is a 2002 American Marshall Memorial Fellow and was featured in both the 1998 Crain’s Cleveland Business 40 under 40 class and Kaleidoscope Magazine’s 40/40 Club of 2002. She was Inside Business Magazine’s 2003 Business Volunteer of the Year. Jennifer lives with her husband, architect August Fluker and son, Cole, in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood.