Mayor Frank Jackson put the final stamp of approval on JACK Casino's proposed pedestrian bridge today, the second time the company will directly connect parking lots to buildings it owns as to minimize the inconvenience of folks having to face other people, some of whom may not be white, while walking from their car to a slot machine or JACK-owned office building.
This, by nearly all accounts, is a poor decision that neglects and ignores good planning in favor of just doing something for Dan Gilbert because he's Dan Gilbert. While arguing in planning commission meetings this fall in favor of the pedestrian bridge, chief city planner Fred Collier acknowledged that JACK's contentions — that it would increase street-level vibrancy, somehow; that it wouldn't impair the architectural character of the street or downtown view — were almost assuredly false. "The benefits outweigh the aesthetic concerns," he said. "Is it enough to stimulate the ground floor? Maybe." (JACK has subsequently stimulated the ground floor of the street by ushering in the closing of the Ontario Street Cafe, a legendary and successful bar that catered, in addition to sports fans and downtown workers, to an African-American clientele.)
The benefits here are that Gilbert and Bedrock own just about everything around there, and 70,000 square feet of that is vacant office space they can't fill. (As for why, it could be the market rate they're asking for and not the lack of a pedestrian tunnel that allows workers to waltz between their SUVs and their desk in a climate-controlled tube that bypasses folks waiting for the bus on Ontario.) In Collier's view, getting 500 people, and their income tax, into that space is important enough to capitulate to Gilbert. The planning commission agreed, and city council after that, and Frank today.
In doing so, the city has decided those 500 people are more important than the 19,000 people who live downtown.
The Downtown Cleveland Residents Association was opposed to the pedestrian bridge for many of the same reasons experts are, but in this specific case they knew the bridge would probably be approved. They just wanted their voice heard. They just wanted the same solicitation of community input that goes along with other major projects in residential neighborhoods. They wanted the city, which has touted the growth in downtown residents as one of the city's strongest points, to listen to those residents.
But it didn't happen.
"These pedestrian bridges detract from the things we now know about good urban planning," Downtown Cleveland Residents president Alan O'Connell told Scene. "That a lively street life is essential for downtown, for visiting, for living, and for working. These are counterproductive to promoting livability. The DCR, myself...we're not anti-business. We want more workers here, but not at the expense of livability and enjoyability for everyone else. There was this narrative they had about the bridge increasing street-level density and traffic and that's just disingenuous. They know it's not true. And what makes a place safe? More people, more eyes. If you're taking people off the street that would have otherwise been moving from point A to point B, you're making it less safe. And it doesn't look good. It's ugly. It ruins this beautiful view when you look down Ontario (assuming you're on the other side of the first pedestrian bridge), where we have statues and the courthouse. It's planned and designed that way. It's historical."
Those are just some of the reasons he and many of the residents opposed the bridge. Another key one:
"It's sort of racist," he said. "It's a social equity thing. We're essentially permitting this symbol of separation — of literally separating the classes with people who have cars and money walking overtop the people waiting for the bus below."
"But, for them, it's a purely economic decision," he said. "And we have to make those decisions sometimes."
But, in his view, in one of the fastest-growing residential neighborhoods in the city, the city should make those decisions only after having all of the possible input.
So after it first appeared before the design review committee and planning commission, O'Connell met with city officials and JACK casino reps and sent letters asking not that they vote against the pedestrian bridge, but that the issue simply be tabled until downtown residents could be heard. Table it for two weeks, he asked.
"Even if it got tabled and they didn't change anything, as long as they listened to our concerns, that would have mattered."
Two or three years ago, the DCR was something more akin to a monthly social club than something that resembled the well-organized, tactical and vocal groups of other neighborhoods. That's changed, much like downtown itself, which saw a 25% increase in residents over the last decade whereas the city as a whole lost population. For DCR now, the question of who downtown Cleveland is being built for is an important one, and a question they're eager and ready to help answer.
But while the vote on the pedestrian bridge's second appearance before the design review committee was narrower than expected — O'Connell and other residents showed up to again ask for some time — the issue was not tabled, and was subsequently greenlit across the rest of the process. And once again DCR felt like they got the short end of the stick from the city.
"Holding off for two weeks until they could have a conversation with us might have meant JACK would have incurred some additional costs, but we're talking about a multi-billion dollar development company, and those costs are minuscule compared to the benefits we could have reaped when you talk about community engagement." he said. "The unfortunate thing is the city and the planning commission had the opportunity to do the right thing. They talk the talk about downtown not being just for tourism and business but a real neighborhood with real residents, but when it came time to walk the walk and prove it, they failed."
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