Although it sits on a river and a Great Lake, the city of Cleveland has long been cut off from both—a waterfront city without a waterfront. For decades, too, it has thirsted for economic revival, having lost thousands of manufacturing jobs.
A bold new plan by the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority would attempt to solve both problems. In December, the Port’s board voted unanimously to relocate from downtown to a new, larger site three miles east. The move would open 135 acres of downtown lakefront and riverfront property for new development. According to Port officials, it would also increase shipping capacity and stimulate job creation in depressed areas adjacent to the new site.
The undertaking is enormous. It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take at least ten years to complete. “There’s a reason most cities don’t move their ports,” said Adam Wasserman, the Cleveland port’s president and CEO. “The hurdles are huge—financial, environmental, planning.”
The idea of the port making way for mixed-use development has been bandied about for years, according to Cleveland City Planning Director Robert Brown. The site lies at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River on Lake Erie, adjacent to downtown Cleveland’s thousands of jobs and burgeoning residential population. “It’s the site with the most power to revitalize downtown, and as a corollary, the entire region,” Brown said. But serious planning began only five years ago, when the city launched a lakefront planning effort under then-mayor Jane Campbell. The goal was to reconnect Cleveland’s residential neighborhoods to the lakefront, which has long been choked by railroad tracks, a highway, and heavy industrial uses.
The results of that plan, released in 2005, called for the port to move to a site off the city’s near West Side, on a new island to be created from Cuyahoga River dredging. Yet neighborhood residents rallied against the proposal, arguing it would obliterate a newly created lakefront park and increase truck traffic in nearby residential neighborhoods.
Shortly thereafter, the Port hired Wasserman, who had previously worked for a port revitalization program in Hull, England. He authorized an $850,000 relocation study that examined eight potential sites. It considered results from other port-commissioned studies that showed Cleveland could attract new traffic from congested East Coast ports if it expanded and reconfigured. (Cleveland is connected to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway.)
To grow, the port would need more space—and more immediate highway and rail access than the West Side site could provide. In the end, officials settled on a site off the city’s near East Side, about three miles from downtown, that would be about 70 acres bigger than the current site and would straddle an interstate highway. The City Planning Commission approved the plan in concept at a public meeting in March.
According to Wasserman and Brown, one of the main benefits of the move will be its potential to create spin-off business. The city and Port are collaborating with The Cleveland Foundation on a plan for an international trade district that could begin to form in a 50-block section of the city directly south of the new site, currently full of half-empty early-20th-century warehouses and vacant land.
Wasserman projects 50,000 jobs could be created as the port moves and expands, primarily because distribution and high-tech manufacturing companies want to locate nearby. He says he wants the predominantly African-American, low-income residents of the surrounding neighborhoods to get the new jobs. “We’ll focus on workforce development,” he said, collaborating with high schools and the local community college. The area’s councilperson, Sabra Pierce Scott, supports the plan.
The huge expense of the move has also raised criticism. The League of Women Voters of the Cleveland Area has followed the port’s move for several years and issued a paper critical of its planning process. “It’s a very big gamble,” said Penny Jeffrey, the league’s president. “If it brings a lot of jobs, that’s great, but no one knows. It’s a very long-term thing.” (Wasserman responded that the Port has already seen substantial interest from international and domestic investors.)
As for the old site downtown, the Port will either partner with private developers or sell parcels outright. One local developer, Stark Enterprises, has already expressed interest in parts of the property. Yet in a region with near-stagnant population growth and a fragile economy, will there be residents and businesses to fill the new buildings?
“There’s no doubt,” said Brown, pointing to a 2005 study by the Brookings Institution that found Cleveland’s downtown population had grown 30 percent between 1990 and 2000.
The biggest problem, Wasserman said, is persuading Clevelanders themselves that, by investing in assets like the port, their city can rebound. “Cleveland as a community often feels like it loses, it doesn’t gain,” said Wasserman. “If we think comprehensively and long term, we can revitalize older rust belt economies.”