by Frank Lewis
Used to be, back before ex-mayor Mike White had his goons harassing bars out of business on the East Bank of the Flats in the ’90s to make way for The Future, Cleveland’s riverfront entertainment district had the highest bar-to-drunk density from New York to Chicago. But then three high-profile drowning deaths went down in a month, and it wasn't long before most of the East Bank would go dark, food for the wrecking ball.
Don’t say you hadn’t noticed: While the West Bank has been electrified at night going on more than a decade now, the East Bank, where Old River Road was once our own little Bourbon Street, is mostly an industrial wasteland of rubble piles, gravel roads and chain-link fences. This is the view from the West Bank today, all this splendor just a water-taxi-to-hell away.
“It makes me feel off-balance,” says Tom Newman, executive director of the the Flats Oxbow Association, about the lack of symmetry today at the mouth of the Cuyahoga.
But help is on the way, at least the first trickles. Developer Scott Wolstein announced last fall that he would stall his $400 million mixed-use redevelopment here until the economy improved, but that didn’t stop the flow of public money to start getting all the infrastructure work out of the way. About $4 million in loans and grants from the city, county and state have been awarded for brownfield remediation. And the entire sewer system is being overhauled, as well, complete with a new pump station to service the entire area, including the Warehouse District, said Nancy Lesic, Wolstein’s spokeswoman. (The sewer work was mandated by the feds before the redevelopment project was even announced.)
“So, if anything, the Flats East Bank project moved up the timing of that work,” she said.
And worry not: The economy will rebound, and the East Bank will live again — maybe not on the back of a convention center, but maybe a casino. Anything would be better than this.
“Even though the Wolstein project is temporarily stalled, the infrastructure necessary to make the project have vertical [elements] is continuing on,” says Newman. “So that’ll all be ready to build upward on when the economics of it all make that viable.”
“The Wolstein family has already committed at least $40 million to this project,” says Lesic. “And we’re optimistic that it will be restarted with additional sources. We’re looking at stimulus funds, as well as other private investment.”
And when will that all be? “I’ve been down here 30 years,” adds Newman. “I can’t wait much longer or I’ll be dead.”
Wolstein lamented the recent decision by county commissioners to build a new convention center/medical mart on the Mall site next to county HQ: “If you’re going to invest that magnitude of community resources, it has to be something catalytic to downtown. So I don’t know why they settled on this site, which is the least catalytic site imaginable. It’s a crime to take a half-billion dollars, where you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create some iconic architecture, and bury the thing underground. I think, personally, that’s ill-advised.”
So Wolstein, who stands to rake in as much as $100 million in public subsidies to lay the groundwork for his private lake- and river-front development, sits and waits on his property for the fish to start biting again. — Dan Harkins