Transit-Oriented Development in Cleveland’s Urban Core

Photo via Institute for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP)

As Cleveland’s inner city population has yet to stabilize, despite a massive influx of young professionals, the city has turned to transit as a promising fix for the city’s problems. Transit-oriented development (TOD) is one of many ways cities are remaining competitive with outer suburbs for the almighty real estate dollar, and Cleveland has established itself as a regional leader worth keeping an eye on.

According to Maribeth Feke, Director of Planning at the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority—the city’s transformative Healthline bus rapid transit (BRT) line is responsible for $4.3 billion in TOD. Feke said that TOD was calculated based on a half-mile radius. Despite the apparent success since its opening in late 2008, the $168 million project has its skeptics, though those critics are primarily working toward the same goal of revitalizing the city through transit.

Ken Prendergast, Executive Director at All Aboard Ohio, believes the GCRTA should utilize rail and BRT more extensively in a few targeted corridors. “BRT lite is really just an effort to try and get some federally-funded streetscapes,” he noted. According to Feke, Cleveland’s BRT-planning incorporates amenities such as pedestrian islands and streetscaping in order to boost TOD. “Very, very rail-like,” Feke added.

While conceding that the GCRTA has very difficult public constraints, All Aboard Ohio also espouses better stewardship of Cleveland’s already-impressive rail-based transit system. One such example is the heavy-rail Red Line which lies mostly in an industrial swath of the city. “It is hard to get new communities on board with these bad land-use models around existing stations,” he said. Prendergast suggests that nearby negative examples of land use, including the Red Line’s industrial surroundings, are more influential than further-away positive examples, whether they be Portland, Seattle, or even Cincinnati’s promising new streetcar system. 

For Feke, there lies the rub—as it is politically difficult to coordinate land use around transit lines that transcend multiple municipal borders. “What we’re seeing today is that transportation corridors are regionally based, so we really do have to analyze existing land use and development patterns in those corridors, not to sprawl more.” Feke predicates her argument on Northeast Ohio’s inability to pay for further growing its infrastructure footprint while the regional population is stagnant and the central city is still loosing population.

Regional planning, perhaps through a metropolitan planning organization (MPO) similar to Portland or Minneapolis-St. Paul, will be the key to coordinating land use according to Feke. Prendergast also championed regional planning, and went further suggesting a city-wide TOD community development corporation (CDC) could be an intermediary solution for coordinating between GCRTA and municipalities. Most CDCs focus on target neighborhoods, while some have more thematic missions, like affordable housing.

While Prendergast also concedes rail is difficult to finance because of how Northeast Ohio’s low growth translates into poor FTA scores (compared to competing projects in high-growth areas like Denver that usually win funding), there are a few very simple fixes. These include embracing single-track operation on the outer ends of newly extended rail lines that would reduce rail construction costs, switching rolling stock on the light-rail transit (LRT) lines to bring down those expansion costs. Another is utilizing existing railroad corridors to provide commuter service beyond the existing rapid transit service that terminates in East Cleveland. Suburban Lake County (home to growing communities such as Mentor and Willoughby), he said, would score higher because rail realizes greater transportation efficiencies over farther distances. Job access, he argued, already exists along the railroad. Much of his vision is based on a 2011 Center for Neighborhood Technology study called Broadening Urban Investment to Leverage Transit (BUILT) in Cleveland.

The easiest of all fixes All Aboard Ohio suggests is transit overlay zoning, which right now, only exists along the city’s BRT route. The transit overlay zoning was instrumental in streamlining Euclid Avenue’s revitalization, which has included over 4,000 housing units according to the GCRTA website. Many local planners deduce that the outdated housing stock may be the primary reason for Cleveland’s declining inner city population, pointing to 98% occupancy of downtown housing.

GCRTA primarily sticks to BRT for its vision of how Cleveland could become a national transit leader, with several new BRT systems currently in the works, including a Clifton Boulevard/Shoreway line linking downtown and the extremely dense inner suburb of Lakewood, a HealthLine extension through the northeast inner suburb of Euclid, as well as preliminary planning of a Lorain Avenue BRT that could revitalize the west side of Cleveland. GCRTA’s new transit lines are largely based on a study that identified ten “transit propensity corridors” that will be studied as focus areas.

Feke also offered hope for a W. 25th Streetcar linking Ohio City and Old Brooklyn, as well as projects that build off of the existing rail-based network, like the Blue Line extension in Shaker Heights. She called it “a way to strengthen what we already have and reinforce transit connections and better service.” Exciting rail extensions being considered include looping the LRT Waterfront Line around downtown’s east side, through Cleveland State University, and hooking back up with the existing rail network around Cuyahoga Community College, southeast of downtown. Another possibility is a western Red Line extension to better facilitate business connections around the airport. While Prendergast was skeptical of the airport extension’s cost feasibility, he praised the ideas of a W. 25th streetcar and Waterfront Line LRT extension.

While All Aboard Ohio and GCRTA can be presented with competing visions, that may not necessarily be the case. Cleveland is lucky to have knowledgeable rail advocates who provide an infusion of ideas for transit planning, while the Regional Transit Authority must operate within the political reality of today. This could have been a much longer article, going into more detail on GCRTA’s plans to put Cleveland on the cutting-edge of TOD, including an ambitious program to build new or retrofitted rapid stations in conjunction with University Circle Inc.’s “Missing Links” program, or Shaker Heights’ massive “Van Aken District” Blue Line TOD plan. Likewise, it could have gone into more length on some of Cleveland’s problems, like an $8 billion hole in the local economy going toward transportation needs (cited in the CNT study) which the Brookings Institute concludes far outpaces the national average. $8 billion can support an incredible amount of retail or new housing, and fix many serious problems.

The point, however, is that the regional transit authority and Cleveland’s rail advocates can foster a healthy debate while providing competing visions. More cities need a transit discussion like what is brewing in Cleveland. Here at CEOs for Cities we may be biased due to our Cleveland ties, but 10-20 years from now Cleveland’s rapid transit system will turn some heads while possibly serving as a TOD beacon that helps stabilize the inner city population, as Feke and Prendergast both hope. That can probably happen whether the priority remains building on existing rail infrastructure or trail blazing new long-distance rail service, as long as the city remains bullish on new fixed-route transit corridors.

By Nick 

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