Public officials and civic leaders have developed a comprehensive plan for investing in downtown Cleveland, in hopes of speeding up the center city's recovery from the pandemic.
Over the next few years, they expect to prioritize public spaces, protected bicycle lanes, lighting, murals and events, while striving to reinvigorate empty storefronts and office buildings.
That strategy, announced Tuesday, June 6, reflects heightened collaboration between the city, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, Cuyahoga County, Destination Cleveland and the Greater Cleveland Partnership, after a wave of leadership change.
Collectively, they've agreed on critical tasks. And they've set timelines, from a year to five years, for achieving those goals. "Accountability is critical," said David Gilbert, Destination Cleveland's president and CEO.
At this point, it's unclear how much the initiatives will cost — and who will pay for them.
Some investments, such as growing the downtown alliance's cleaning and safety crews, are well underway. There's funding earmarked for others, including construction of a buffered bicycle path called the Superior Midway and the city's long-anticipated switch to digital parking meters.
Then there are more aspirational projects, such as securing funding to install costly new bulkheading along the Cuyahoga River and starting construction on a pedestrian bridge that will connect the grassy downtown Malls to the lakefront near Cleveland Browns Stadium.
The level of cooperation between the parties is unprecedented, in Gilbert's view. It's also essential after a pandemic that changed work habits, upended the office market and forced cities across the country to reconsider what a central business district should be.
"This is a pivotal moment," Mayor Justin Bibb said in a written statement. "Together, we can capture the momentum we had before the pandemic, shaping downtown into a destination that offers memorable experiences for visitors and that draws more people downtown to live and work."
In Cleveland, leaders keep talking about creating an 18-hour, 15-minute neighborhood.
That's planning jargon. It basically means that downtown should be lively from early morning until late into the night. It also should be safe and simple to navigate, with a mix of living spaces, workplaces, dining, shopping and recreational opportunities.
"To have a strong city, to have a strong region, the core has to be strong," said Michael Deemer, the alliance's president and CEO. "The core also has to connect seamlessly to the surrounding and adjacent neighborhoods in a way that is truly greater than the sum of its parts."
On the retail front, the alliance and Destination Cleveland are paying a consulting firm, Streetsense, to analyze the downtown landscape and come up with a strategy for wooing new tenants, including local entrepreneurs and minority- and woman-owned businesses. That plan should be done by late summer, Deemer said.
Downtown has a vibrant restaurant scene, but Cleveland trails comparable cities when it comes to basic neighborhood shopping and destination retail. The alliance reported a net gain in small businesses downtown over the past few years, despite the pandemic. Yet storefronts are sitting vacant in new residential buildings and recent office-to-housing conversions.
The Bibb administration, which has been rethinking its lineup of economic-development incentives, will continue to offer grants and loans to support retailers and small businesses, said Jeff Epstein, the city's chief of integrated development.