The problem of systemic corruption in some Cleveland’s fiefdoms

Background and Structural Observations

I love Cleveland, and above all, its people. There is something unique about people who are part of families with generations-long legacies of building a place into a symbol of hard work, middle class prosperity, and making it in America. At its best, Cleveland is a diverse city that proudly features its ethnic and immigrant communities, all of which come together every day. The city grew as one of the nation’s largest manufacturing hubs, with growing factories that didn’t discriminate for labor, extending opportunity to WASP Americans, waves of ethnic immigrants direct from southern and eastern Europe, and the Great Migration of African Americans from south to north. History doesn’t stop there, and for better or worse, that story continues on.

At its worst, Cleveland devolves into a broken tapestry with sections of prosperity, sections of emerging middle class mobility, and sections of widespread and systemic, multi-generational poverty. This broken tapestry tends not to act or think as “One Cleveland,” but rather as distinctively separate communities that deal with each other as weird neighbors. This multi-lateral Cleveland tends to elect leadership and enact policy through tokenism and strong-man relationships, and all three sections of this broken tapestry do it and enable the others as a three-legged stool. City Hall, the Greater Cleveland Partnership, middle class and affluent suburbs, and even lowly East Cleveland, are all complicit in the current status quo that has this region collectively circling the drain while surrounding regions are rebounding. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and even Detroit, have all performed empirically better than Cleveland on balance; Columbus and Chicago are absolutely stealing Cleveland’s lunch money at this point, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

I have always had an affinity for Cleveland because it resembles America as a microcosm, it is an inherently urban city and surrounding region, and it has the resources and building blocks to tackle big challenges. Along with the rest of the Rust Belt, I have never liked picking on down-and-out communities, and beating a dead horse, while missing the opportunities that still remain.

That brings me to the point of this post: Cleveland can still right the ship, more effectively solve for its problems, and emerge as an urban model for its region. There is all of this opportunity, which isn’t new, and isn’t going anywhere. That said, I have been biting my tongue in calling out the cronyism and corruption holding back Cleveland. I have watched innumerable scandals, mini-scandals, and things that should be scandals, with direct consequences in missed opportunities. I kept my mouth shut, aspiring to professionally take a more direct role in helping Cleveland, and uncertain of how to use this website/blog to constructively talk urban issues while balancing my professional aspiration toward making a difference.

From my last four years of statewide involvement in development financing, I can say from the outside looking in that city politics are eyeroll-worthy. State-level policy and financial professionals are admittedly guilty of tunnel vision on deal volume and just getting deals done, but it has been my observation that the city politics that slows down these deals have less to do with which proposals are best for neighborhoods and people, and more to do with politics.

Every City Hall has favored developers who helped the mayor and council get elected. Most City Halls are also clumsily trying to manage some level of balanced favoritism between non-profit players, for-profit players, politically-active neighborhoods, gentrification, and displacement. The Cleveland variant of this system, however, involves a delicate balance between some good developers, overly-involved gadfly council members, some shady developers, some good non-profits, and woefully mismanaged non-profits.

Structurally, Cleveland’s political system is wide-open and allows for the direct involvement of its citizens through 17 different wards and also at the neighborhood-level with community development corporations (CDCs). These CDCs are a unique legacy of Cleveland’s de-centralized planning system which gives wards and CDCs a significant role in spending CDBG funds and other resources dedicated toward neighborhoods. Regionally, the key factor is the sheer volume of distinct suburbs, spanning several rings in all directions, all with maximum political autonomy for lack of any real regional structure (NO a regional chamber of commerce is NOT a regional structure).

For the most part, this diffuse political system is a good thing. Regardless of municipality, the neighborhoods comprising Greater Cleveland all have direct political participation. However, I will delineate 10 distinct episodes – I won’t call them corruption scandals but rather just public disappointments – and you will see how this system of political diffusion has enabled the region’s lackluster leadership that has proven incapable of tackling any real issues like regional and racial disparities uniquely afflicting Greater Cleveland. Tangibly more than in other peer metros, Cleveland’s current leadership often uses political office for personal gain and to hold onto those offices by spreading benefits to their network of friends.

Public Disappointments

Cuyahoga County Scandal: For the sake of relevance, let’s just start at the beginning of the modern era of Cleveland leadership, which was the end of the last. That was an untimely (or timely for the public) and messy ending to the 90s and 2000s era of regional leadership that ignored the region’s problems and focused on personal gain, much like the current generation of leadership. In 2008, the FBI raided the offices of county commissioner Jimmy DiMora and County Auditor Frank Russo, who sat at the top of a corruption racket involving more than 100 named persons of interest, all benefiting from kickbacks. Those convicted of crimes include county judges, county officials, city officials, suburban officials, developers, non-profit leaders, construction company owners, hospital administrators, school administrators, the Housing Authority CEO, union chiefs, and more. The whole system was corrupt and inhibited from solving the region’s challenges because it was more focused on generating kickbacks for the family.

Ed Fitzgerald: In a bit of Shakespearian tragedy, Fitzgerald was a former FBI agent, tasked with investigating mafia influence and public corruption in the Chicago area, who was mayor of Lakewood at the time of the above Jimmy Dimora scandal, which positioned him to win election as the region’s first County Executive. The County actually made major steps forward toward consolidating political power and enacting ethics reforms with actual teeth, which Fitzgerald championed. However when he later ran for governor, it was revealed that Fitzgerald was abusing his influence and driving without a driver’s license for ten years, which is not a good look for someone casting themselves as an anti-corruption reformer.

Public Square: The reconstruction of Public Square became a costly and stupid Public Spectacle, which is still ongoing, when it became clear that public transit has no role in a Cleveland that has been revitalized by Mayor Frank Jackson. So to transit riders, congrats – your city has been revitalized by Mayor Jackson, according to Jackson – but you are no longer welcome downtown. Jackson used federal grants for the HealthLine, which triggered long-term use agreements with FTA preventing the city from making detrimental changes to the federally-funded project, and then backtracked on those usage agreements when he decided buses had no place in Public Square. Frank Jackson decided this unilaterally, while buses were still included in the plan, and RTA was still attempting to work around the project while still using its Public Square hub, resulting in millions in additional costs to RTA. Additionally, FTA said the city (vis a vis RTA) had to return $12 million and put future funding at risk. In order to save face, Jackson has insisted on safety concerns with buses in Public Square, resulting in hideous jersey barriers being added to the middle of the new public space, which will cost another $2 million to replace with bollards. I don’t believe Jackson benefited any cronies through this, but has abused his power to usurp control over a planning process and save face.

RTA creams: An internal RTA investigation found that 10 different employees had defrauded the transit authority out of $2 million through a prescription pain cream scheme. Essentially a bus operations instructor was approached with this scam opportunity, and recruited other employees, to fill these costly prescriptions that nobody needed, except for their reimbursement value. This scandal shows that corruption doesn’t just exist at the top, but that bus drivers can also get in on the action.

TJ Dow: I have written about the in-your-face corruption of TJ Dow, who was voted out of office, in the difference made by just 13 votes. I find it to be an inspiring story of how every vote matters and how more people should get involved in their community, and I hope it turns out well with new leadership. To recap, corrupt councilman gets booted, then before he has to clean out his office requests to transfer his neighborhood’s remaining resources to his crony councilman’s ward just to spite his neighborhood.

Ken Johnson: That crony councilman to whom TJ Dow tried donating his neighborhood’s funding was Ken Johnson, of Kenneth Johnson Recreation Center fame (seriously Cleveland stop naming your own projects after yourself, and your brother, your sister, your parents, and so on; are there any rec centers that don’t memorialize nepotism?). Ken Johnson is using his neighborhood’s funding, funneled through his useless community development corporation, to give his friends and family jobs mowing yards, and house his son rent-free. His shell corporation, I mean community development corporation, has now been barred from working with federal funds, which is unfortunate for his neighborhood and the constituents he doesn’t serve.

Joe Cimperman: Corruption and judgment lapses aren’t just for east side councilman. My own councilman when I lived in Cleveland, with whom I was always very impressed, plead guilty to 26 ethics charges for his vote to award a design contract to a firm with close ties to him and his wife. The state threw the book at Cimperman here. Cimperman was the most-involved councilman when it came to urbanism, planning, and design, and that contract went to the Land Studio, which is the city’s primary non-profit urban design entity. The Land Studio’s work is ubiquitous in Cleveland, and they are a key player for anyone who wants to bring urban design to a location. Nonetheless, when city contracts were at stake and council votes were being tallied, Cimperman needed to recuse himself. Whether he did so to seal a deal that needed his vote, or whether he was ignorant of the ethical implications, it is obvious that Cleveland City Council would benefit from ethical guidance.

East Cleveland Recall: East Cleveland, the rapidly declining inner ring suburb across the tracks from prosperous University Circle, has long been a public emergency and threatened with state emergency management. The city is dependent on federal funding and red light tickets, and incapable of digging itself out of the vicious cycle it finds itself in. Cleveland is generally supportive of a long-debated merger between the two cities, which would give East Cleveland new life as a part of Cleveland, with enhanced resources and opportunities. Former mayor Gary Norton, an urban planning graduate of Cleveland State, had a deep understanding of this situation and a deep commitment to the community he grew up in. Norton is bright enough to easily find more successful by moving on and elsewhere, but tried to make a difference in East Cleveland, where instead he was recalled for working toward the merger. This ruffled feathers with former and current councilpersons who were drawing comfortable pensions for their “service” in East Cleveland, all while doing nothing to benefit the community as a whole.

Armond Budish’s Chief of Staff: Naturally, the county executive who came in to clean-up after the last disgraced county executive, who came in to clean-up after the county commissioners scandal, has his own scandal. Armond Budish authorized his Chief of Staff, Sharon Sobol Jordan, to pursue an MBA at Ohio State (including travel to Columbus) on the county’s own time and dime. Jordan accepted the Chief of Staff position contingent on being able to pursue this MBA, a $170,000 salary, and education and travel-expenses paid by the county. As the MBA program met 3 days a month, required 20 hours per week of additional study, and two week-long immersion studies (all of which Budish told HR is to be considered time worked), I am not sure exactly when Jordan had time to earn her $170,000 salary.

Amazon and Unify Project: Cleveland’s bungled Amazon bid, which was symbolic of the city’s leadership style, prominently featured an amazing local start-up that will revolutionize the tech world. Unfortunately, this amazing local start-up actually does nothing, except provide employment for Sharon Sobol Jordan, the aforementioned County Chief of Staff who is now in need of another job befitting her new MBA credentials. Despite being implored by anyone and everyone to leverage the useless lakefront airport that chokes the city off from the lake, Cleveland’s lame bid offered up Terminal Tower for Amazon’s real estate needs and focused more of its time fighting open records requests and finding ways to benefit friends of City Hall. Not sure why Amazon wasn’t enticed by that.

Why This Matters

Cleveland has real, tangible issues that stand in the way of regional prosperity, cohesion, and inclusiveness. The region’s transit authority, once the pride of transit planning in the Midwest, is legitimately in danger after being cut to the bone by budget cuts and funding woes, and further denied replacement funding while the county and city instead prioritize stadiums and kickbacks. When Clevelanders complain that recently-repaved roads quickly become impassable with new potholes, it’s not uncommon that the work involved a contractor with City Hall connections.

With one of the nation’s highest rates of minority and family poverty, Cleveland and Greater Cleveland are doing nothing as a regional public sector for those in need. Funding for these neighborhoods/wards and CDCs is usually very well-managed, but in those neighborhoods with the greatest need, instead gets funneled into kickbacks and benefits for cronies. The city doesn’t dare investigate or demand accountability of these CDCs until the media is already on it. Other CDCs respectfully decline to become involved in other communities. The churn continues, and these neighborhoods fall further and further into disrepair, poverty, and violent criminal activity. Well-managed and well-led neighborhoods and wards want nothing to do with the bad leadership across the street, which is understandable, but further perpetuates Cleveland’s inequities.

All of this is everyone’s fault. Solving it will take everyone.

The only real solution to the pitfalls of all these fiefdoms is building bridges and regional partnerships. Cleveland, more than any other region, desperately needs regionalism. That isn’t just a regional non-poaching agreement, although it should include that too. This requires regional funding mechanisms, equitable provision of services, and regional oversight. No neighborhood should be an island, deprived of resources, and left to squander whatever pittance it may receive from City Hall. No neighborhood is a lost cause, lest we will be stuck with these islands of despair and mismanagement.

United Cleveland will rise, but divided Cleveland will continue to circle the drain. On the bright side, Cleveland comes together every day and at numerous occasions, but on the flip side, Clevelanders go home to their own insular fiefdoms every night.

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Inner Beauty – Lessons from decladding buildings

Sometimes true beauty is what lies underneath the skin, and this is especially the case for otherwise handsome buildings that were reclad in the 60s and 70s with facade systems more fashionable at the time. There is truly a pandemic of historic building stock, with “good bones” and Victorian details, that have been covered up in aluminum or EIFS over the ages. Oftentimes building owners were told this was “the fashion” at the time, as well as easier to maintain. My friends at Heritage Ohio call these cases “Mr. Muddle buildings,” and have a fun little display for presentations where they do awful 70s-era things to buildings.

This is has been especially the case in the cities I’ve lived in, Oklahoma City, Cleveland, and Columbus. Currently in Columbus, the oldest-standing building in downtown was previously pitched for demo until it was realized that the historic facade was entirely in-tact under its awful gray aluminum facade. Being redeveloped by a historic-minded developer, the project shifted to preservation and I was able to snap some great photos of the facade removal:

Proposed for renovation with 40 residential units, I am sure this will be a great project. Perfect example of someone turning an eyesore into a great asset by realizing what existed in the first place and not throwing the baby out with the bath water.

This is similar to the Schofield Building in Cleveland, anchoring the key intersection of 9th and Euclid, which is a gorgeous neo-classical building that someone thought needed to be aluminum instead. This building become a high-end Kimpton Hotel that opened just before the Republican convention.

These don’t always go so swimmingly. In Oklahoma City, when the horribly over-leveraged SandRidge Energy Corporation wanted to expand its corporate campus, the city violated its own downtown plan and city code and granted demolition permits for SandRidge to demolish 6-7 structures, only one of which was historic, to create a park-like campus setting in addition to one new build. The end result was SandRidge tore the buildings down, completed the proposed scope (but not additional buildings that were vaguely promised by the Rogers Marvel firm), and then instead of growing laid off thousands of workers and had to sell off the new building.

The historic building they demolished was the India Temple, a former hotel that was at the time downtown’s oldest-standing building, and briefly served as the State Capital after the state seal was moved from Guthrie to OKC while the new capital was under construction. This building was reclad in the 70s as well, and demolished on the merits of the ugly 70s facade, with no interest in preserving or even further discovery of what laid beneath. The local newspaper reportedly interviewed the contractor who installed the 70s facade, who stated the historic facade was entirely preserved underneath.

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This plays out in nearly every city I am sure. While I don’t at all mind when cities tear down legitimate eyesores that lack options, I think all could benefit from looking more closely before they issue demo permits. Sometimes that ugly duckling is hiding a really cool building underneath, and once torn down, that can never be recreated. Preserving a cool older building lends itself to finish products with a vastly longer shelf life than new-builds, and all cities need to be reminded of this, with no one particular city standing out as a unique offender. In particular, Chicago might be a surprising culprit for a historic preservation crisis in its current building spree.

Stillwater TIFing a bridge to campus

There are all kinds of planning tools with which cities have physically and strategically linked their downtowns to neighboring institutions or landmarks; whether they be a greenway axis, physical bridges, transit corridors. A TIF would be a new one in my experience, but not outside the realm of rational nexus due to the obvious necessity of financing more physical linkages.

The development scenario playing out in Stillwater, Oklahoma – home of Oklahoma State University’s flagship campus – is that of a large land grant university growing in spite of its college town, where development has generally not taken full advantage of the campus or other core opportunities. Stillwater has sprawled to the southwest, blanketing the hills of the Crosstimbers with residential neighborhoods, and to the northeast where strip malls and apartment complexes have spilled into the flat plains north of town. Downtown’s iconic Main Street corridor has benefited from revitalization a la preservation-minded developers and a retail-focused BID, while the surrounding blocks have visibly languished.

The entire core of Stillwater has languished with disinvestment and high renter-share due to typical college town housing dynamics. Landlords can rent out a minimally-maintained house for a premium, with no incentive to upgrade or invest for longer-term due to the transience of college tenancy. Stillwater has spent the last decade discussing options and ideas for revitalizing the core between campus and downtown, illustrated in the below aerial:

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While the downtown, shaded in blue, shows good density in the aerial and appears anchored along Main Street, activity and investment drops off sharply off of Main Street and even north of 6th Avenue along Main Street. The picture on the ground, illustrated below along 4th Avenue equidistant between campus and downtown, is even more stark:

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Further along Main Street itself, north of 6th Ave:

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Which we can compare to the healthier core of Main Street between 6th and 12th streets:

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Furthermore, where development is occurring, it can make surrounding deteriorated conditions and public infrastructure disinvestment all the more obvious:

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What’s happening in the above photos are classic examples development in spite of planning. REITs behind student housing developments have gotten religion on housing consumers wanting walkable, urban-styled housing; they are building this, despite the obvious lack of a walkable, urban-styled environment and supporting infrastructure.

As it stands today, the core between downtown and campus resembles both physical challenges and intrinsic challenges, the latter stemming from a lack of pride in a community that should do better as the state’s premier college town. The physical challenges involve housing conditions, lack of density, lack of sidewalks and those few that exist being in disrepair, general street conditions, and land that is likely unsuitable for development even if there were investment, which is instead occurring in new development areas on the edge of town. None of this is the fault of the city or any planners, who have for decades talked about walkability and trails/paths/streetscapes in this area, but lacked a funding mechanism to bring them to fruition. Now the private sector has given up waiting and is just moving in on the area without planning or coordination, and it remains to be seen how all of these mid-rise development will come together in the end. All of this forms the backdrop for Stillwater’s major proposed TIF.

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A few key facts about this TIF, according to two Stillwater Newspress articles (article one, article two):

  • Covers a concise area generally representing the Main Street commercial corridor, surrounding downtown blocks, and everything between 6th Avenue and campus excluding the 6th Avenue commercial core
  • Runs until 2026 or 2027 according to Stillwater Newspress
  • Generates $32.5 million over lifetime, earmarked for physical improvements
  • Proposed Project Plan to be approved after TIF mechanism is approved, with already stated purpose of enhancing walkability and beautification
  • Stillwater Public Schools has City agreement for $5.6 million guarantee on top of state’s equalization funding formula, thus increasing net school revenue
  • County is proposed to forego $700,000 in theoretical property tax, and VoTech district $5 million, none of which is currently on tax rolls today
  • Projects must be consistent with Comprehensive Plan, Core Commercial Districts Plan (2005), and Corridor Redevelopment Plan (2012) all of which previously lacked funding mechanisms

While I believe that generally, the city should find mutually beneficial ways to achieve common goals like county-provided services and workforce development with the Meridian Technology Center, I look forward to seeing Stillwater bring some of its decades-long planning to fruition now with the assistance of a funding mechanism. I think generally, as a premier college town, Stillwater is a somewhat unique beast when it comes to property development, land use, community investment, provision of public services, and economic development – I think that the town-and-gown divide has prevented unity toward achieving all of these goals and getting them to work in tandem. While making everyone whole in the end, I look forward to seeing my college town find ways to finance long-term community investment.

This is not to say that I support TIFs in general, nor do I support or oppose the details here, but do believe this to be a worthwhile case study and a development scenario I intend to watch closely, while rooting for its success.

Conversely, I was in Denver last month, and had some time during a flight layover en route to Seattle to take the train downtown and explore. Denver has extended its iconic 16th Street corridor with bridges and tails that connect across the Platte Valley to the neighborhood across the Platte River and I-25. In doing so, they have created deliberate linkages that are visually and intuitively obvious, and seamlessly connected their downtown to areas of west Denver that previously felt disconnected. Doing this has not only improved west Denver, provided pedestrian access to economic opportunity in downtown, but also created billions of dollars of development opportunities in the Central Platte Valley, all anchored by these incredibly textbook connections.

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Compare to the above development photos from Stillwater, and consider the long-term importance of infrastructure and human environment toward bringing planning goals to fruition. There are a lot of means to an end, and a TIF can accomplish a lot of means, but what is really the end goal, and how can a TIF truly elevate that?

In economic development, an often-missed point is that nothing is advanced in the long run by development for the sake of development.

Travelogue: Mummified town planning circa 1500s New Spain

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A novice to Mexican travel, I recently had my first ever opportunity to explore Mexico – a Mexitrip a la Eurotrip of sorts, comprised of Puerto Vallarta, Tequila, Guadalajara, Guanajuato, and San Luis Potosi. Of the five, Guanajuato will stand out in my memory as one of the most incredible places I have ever seen. All of Mexico was great, and while Guadalajara was somewhere I could see myself doing the expat thing, Guanajuato is inspiring in a different, less selfish way. While I know I will never call Guanajuato home, despite my possessive tendencies with places I love, I want the entire world to lay claim to Guanajuato and reap its wonders.

This central Mexican city, first founded by the Spanish in 1548 with the discovery of silver in the New World, is unspoiled by modernity, which it has fiercely resisted. While the rest of Guanajuato state (Leon and esp Silao) have attracted modern manufacturing, Guanajuato has remained concentrated around its historic university and growing tourism base, the latter of which is probably its economic life blood. As such, it is profitable to resist change. The Guanajuato of today is not unlike that of 1548 – a non-motorist city where the laws of engineering and planning succumb to the laws of gravity and nature, resulting in a colorful ecosystem of sandstone dwellings arranged along cliffsides and interrupted only by monumental gathering places and cathedrals.

The city was built around three key “innovations” in urban planning history: Vernacular mixed-use, functioning ecosystems of gathering places, and congestion detouring.

Categorically speaking, Guanajuato has three types of real estate I observed (compare to zoning classifications in most of the US): Hilltop/cliffside mansions (~5% of properties), main street/square frontage properties (~15% of properties), and vernacular mixed-use dwellings that line streets with steep inclines, the latter of which probably comprising over 80% of the city’s real estate. This is just simply historic mixed-use on a grander scale than we can produce in the US in today’s regulatory environment. Guanajuato is one of the few places on the planet where most residents in a city of 200,000 can live in a mixed-use dwelling, with shops (potentially their own) on the street level, which is afforded by having vernacular mixed-use. The result of this scale and practicality is that Guanajuato has gotten many generations of use out of these hundreds-of-years-old structures, while other cities across the U.S. and Mexico have repeated cycles of short-sighted development, subsequent slum clearance, and redevelopment. U.S. and Mexican cities are really not different in that regard.

As an aside, buildings are either vernacular (everyday) or intentionally designed for landmark functions, the latter of which is how and why mixed-use happens in today’s development climate. For instance in Ohio, when true mixed-use happens, it usually involves high-end condos, a flagship restaurant/retail tenant (think HQ Kroger in Cincy, or Whole Foods in many cities), and specialized/finite financing – this is moving the needle toward mixed-use, but not extending the opportunity to most housing consumers.

I believe that cultural context plays a role in Guanajuato’s ecosystem of gathering places, which can best be described as a connected string of pearls formed by intensively-used public squares, cathedrals, markets, and transitscapes, all connected by arteries large and small, main streets, alleys, and even singing choruses. The strangest thing I saw every day and night in Guanajuato was the estudiantinas – dozens and dozens of troupes of pied pipers, donning Medieval attire and customs, who lead public life in the main square around the theater and largest church. At nightfall, these troupes perform on the theater steps and then lead their audiences on a long walk around the town singing traditional songs, playing mariachi, and wise cracking at each turn. If you’ve ever been to Mexico, you know that mariachi can go on and on. I also later learned that the region’s anchor institution, Universidad de Guanajuato, is primarily known for arts/music, and this is what its students do. That said, I still found it paranormal that these troupes have been doing this – activating and programming their town’s public spaces – every single night, of every year, since 1962 (I could have been fooled and convinced it dates back to 1548).

Of note relative to Guanajuato’s public spaces are the way that one space or square (such as the Jardin Union, or central plaza) taper into others like the Cathedral Square. Also of note, squares have public display foci, deliberate views created and maintained, and often actual stages or steps used as stage. Additionally non-performance squares, such as a mercado plaza, still put vendors “on stage” and put the approaching pedestrians up in risers a la steps. These Mexican squares also make use of vertical separation by thoughtfully sinking activity spaces and raising the approach. I think a bad recreation of these spaces, as attempted by the indoor shopping mall of the 1970s and 1980s, often replicated this order in designing food courts and other gathering places.

Lastly, as pretty much all of Guanajuato City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city’s urban fabric is sensitive and vulnerable. Furthermore, growing tourism activity has increased traffic volume beyond what the city’s cobblestone pavers can carry. The solution to this imbalance has been an underground network of major streets that carry most of the city’s motorized traffic to a point where transportation users can switch to human means above ground. The tunnels of Guanajuato were originally built in 1883 to save the over-built hillside city from increased flooding risk; the tunnels have been expanded and converted to roadways with the added capacity for flood runoff. This reminds me of the way Houston’s freeways are designed to serve as drainage corridors (some even with advanced permeable cisterns below pavement) when the city’s frequent floods overwhelm the reservoir network. While in Houston the result has been over-built capacity for traffic and under-built capacity for flooding, in Guanajuato the opposite is true, and the practical outcome is probably Mexico’s top urban tourism destination.

Brookings exercise with air traffic data

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Toward the goal of sharing something kind of cool that I’ve been sitting on for two years now, I suppose there is no shame in uploading an infrastructure research brief exercise for a Brookings Institution position that I did not get. Full disclosure, Brookings was great and no hard feelings after not ultimately winning the position (truly an honor to do a final round with them), but even after 4 interviews (one in DC), 90% of the time spent toward this was working with this massive data set from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics that included two separate data sets containing records of every flight movement in the nation; whether it was commercial or cargo, passenger/cargo counts, departure/destination city, etc. My task with Brookings was to analyze all of the data, combine the data sets to represent traffic between MSAs and not individual airports, and then analyze which MSAs have lost the most flights and flight seats between each other and the policy implications of this.

I have enough self awareness in retrospect to see how clunky and conservative my document branding was. I think I was onto something toward sticking with a clean classic look, with red/blue color scheme, but was still attempting to do way too much in the infographic with a graph, map, and not enough context.

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Report/graphic design aside, I think the data is still incredibly interesting. This represents all the largest losses in seats and passenger counts between MSAs, which appear to follow a few trends of hub-to-hub and easily drive-able trips; the latter of which has been more impacted by security/TSA hassles that add a greater percentage of additional time. In practical terms, air traffic between Chicago and Indy has plummeted (and several other short routes) as it now takes one about as long to get through TSA regular security as it does from the Chicago Loop to Gary by car. When you subtract those trips, what you’re left with is simply hub consolidation; hubs are getting fewer (Cincinnati lost its Delta hub during this time frame), and hubs are handling more traffic between non-hub cities and flying less to each other (DC – Atlanta – NYC all with less seats in between).

They’re coming for my favorite vacant lots

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I always loved the way that this vacant lot at Grant and Oak streets, in downtown Columbus, reflected the mural shown above. In many ways this quiet, forgotten corner of Columbus’ expansive downtown illustrates the beauty of neglect found in so many rust belt scenes and increasingly rarely elsewhere in Columbus itself. The perfect angle to get these lovers’ reflection in the ponding street requires the setback granted by the gated vacant parcel in the foreground.

Six-Story Mixed-Use Building Planned for Capital University Lot Downtown

Well not anymore. Columbus Underground is reporting that this lot will soon see a six-story, mixed-use building developed as a joint partnership between Capital Law School and Pizzuti. The latter being one of the nation’s most sophisticated developers, I have no doubt this project will be of the utmost quality, but gone will be the simplistic beauty of this corner on a lonely, dreary day.

So it goes in a “booming” city. That said, great site for such a development.

The difference made by 13 votes in Hough

This post was originally just going to chronicle some shenanigans of Cleveland’s (now former) Ward 7 Councilman T.J. Dow. For those who do not follow Cleveland politics, Ward 7 is the near east side of Cleveland covering neighborhoods like St. Clair-Superior, Midtown, Asia Town, and Hough. This is a historically significant community that has been through a lot (such as the Hough Riots), and has always provided refuge to Cleveland’s emergent minority communities. I firmly believe that this is an important heartland relative to the City of Cleveland and representing these constituents is important work.

So with that said, I must congratulate Ward 7 on electing a new councilman – Basheer Jones – who is also the city’s first Muslim-American councilman. The latter is of note because while Cleveland does not have a significant Muslim community a la Detroit or Columbus, immigration has been proven as essential to the rust belt revival. Cleveland is putting its best foot forward in the world with the Global Cleveland Alliance which seeks to attract immigrants and refugees and invest in their personal and professional development. Ward 7 includes an important component of Cleveland’s strategy, which is the Asia Town district, where a significant Korean and Southeast Asian community has emerged.

I am not a political actor or organizer, and am not endorsing Mr. Jones nor condemning Mr. Dow, the latter of whom lost re-election to the former by exactly 13 votes. The only political message here – which is an important one – is to remember who you represent and for those being represented, to go vote! Your vote truly matters. Especially in Ohio. Especially in Cleveland. Especially in Hough.

Events precipitating Mr. Dow’s ouster are many and include an arrest warrant issued by Shaker Heights, improperly expensing the cost of his self-published book series “The Success Factor” to the City of Cleveland, not paying his own taxes for five years, opposed retail development at League Park, and blocking a high-profile redevelopment project with apartments, retail, and a dental center to be ran by the Cleveland Clinic. The latter being the real issue – large multi-block, multi-use, multi-tenant projects almost always require zoning variances and public finance, and would almost certainly provide not just jobs but also sorely needed services to the residents of Hough. Mr. Dow changed his objections to the development several times..

  • First claiming that the Cleveland Clinic doesn’t employ Ward 7 residents (they absolutely do)
  • Then claiming that the developer was keeping neighbors in the dark (plans were very public)
  • Then taking issue with a rear-facing parking lot (it was removed)
  • Then claiming the plan would encroach on community gardens (developer then deeded over a plot for a community garden, which was only ever intended as a temporary use following blight clearance)
  • And then finally acknowledging that he sought contributions from the developer for a “community resource center”

Eventually the developer contributed $477,000 to hard construction costs of a community resource center, which in the developers own words, he “hopes the resource center would help train residents interested in working at the new facilities.” But no guarantee, and no further news regarding the construction of this community resource center.

The aforementioned development project (occupying almost entirely vacant parcels, and preserving anything else including Newton Avenue in the middle of the project):

Following the will of the voters, Mr. Dow requested that the balance of his neighborhood development funds (more than $700,000) be earmarked to another Ward, on the other side of town, where the councilman is a friend of Mr. Dow’s. The newly-elected Mr. Jones had already been sworn into office when Mr. Dow filed his request with City Hall, which typically approves spending requests of outgoing councilpersons. The cross-town project that needed Ward 7’s neighborhood development funds – programming at a community recreation center named after that ward’s current sitting councilman, Kenneth L. Johnson of Kenneth L. Johnson Recreation Center fame. The request was denied. Ward 7 is immediately $731,496 richer, to be spent at the discretion of their new councilman.

Again, this is not a political post nor am I a political actor or organizer. I am just a professional planner, and presently a consultant, not remotely as involved or responsible as I would like to be in these kinds of neighborhoods. However, I have observed so much discussion and debate and fighting over the concentration of development in downtown and subsequent neglect of the east side’s distant reaches. I know first-hand the difficulty of building capacity and consensus to right the ship in a declining neighborhood. Neighborhood decline is difficult quicksand to escape.

However, in Hough, people voted – and due to the difference made by 13 votes – the Ward has its $731,496 back. Mr. Dow also did many good things, including crucial support of the Hub55 project, and I seriously hope to see the $477,000 community resource center come to fruition. However, Hough’s funds need to stay in Hough. I don’t expect Ward 7’s councilperson to represent my interests or fight for areas of Cleveland where I hang out. Ward 7 has to fight for Ward 7 and never forget who they represent, whether I agree or disagree with the outcome of that, and I hope every other challenged neighborhood takes note of this valuable lesson in democracy.

CMAX’s Maiden Voyage

I was in downtown Columbus the other day, where COTA’s new bus rapid transit system – the C-MAX – is enjoying its maiden run. CMAX is free for the first week, which was a nice gesture for riders who had to wait in sub-zero temperatures during the first week of 2018.

My initial observation is that the bus was honestly hard to photograph due to traversing past High and Broad much faster than usual COTA buses that slowly mosey through downtown. The CMAX is projected to cut travel times by 20%, but my observation based on rider experience is that could be cut much further by reducing boarding and waiting times at transfer points.

Cleveland puts its money where its mouth is: Active mobility

Cleveland has long produced all the right, actionable but unfunded, masterplans for everything on an urban planner’s wish list: planes and trains, active bike/pedestrian mobility, urban parks and greenways, lakefronts and riverfronts, boardwalks and beaches, skylines and ski chalets, and so on.

Just in my short window into Cleveland’s story the city has planned for the Red Line Greenway (a bike path following the light rail Red Line corridor), the Lorain Avenue Bikeway, the Midway (a system of protected bike highways in the middle of excessively-wide eastside avenues), the Towpath Trail (bike network following Cuyahoga River/Valley from Cleveland to Canton) and Ohio & Erie Trail (a state-wide trail system connecting the Ohio River to Lake Erie), Circle-Heights bike plan (with bike lanes on Edgehill and others to connect University Circle up to the Heights), the Detroit-Superior Bridge bikeway, the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge bikeway, the Shoreway redesign, and more. Lakewood also did a really nice job with Madison Avenue (I however lived near Madison when the street was a poorly marked, road rage-inducing crater field).

I have of course seen the bad, particularly the reverse-buffered painted bike lanes on Lorain Avenue in far-west Cleveland. This was one of the city’s first attempts at large-scale bicycle infrastructure – one that was poorly planned, with the buffer zone placed to protect the curb from bicyclists, and not the bicyclists from traffic. However, since then, the city has been on a tear executing solidly-planned and efficiently-implemented bike lanes – best example being the Detroit Superior Bridge buffered bike lane (pictured below), brought to fruition for only $81,000 (previous plans to do the same would have cost over $4 million).

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As shown above, these don’t have to be perfect. All it takes is paint, pylons or sticks, and one lane of traffic, and these bike lanes function as well as any. The additional cost between functional and perfect is typically not met by more users; more people would bike if the bike lanes reached farther than if they were nicer.

I like active transportation because there are some ways in which it is equitable or not equitable, and if planned and implemented the right way, can be more equitable and really bring communities together. While access to road-ready bicycles can be difficult for low-income communities, personal vehicle ownership really is lower in these neighborhoods than one may realize, and access to exercise and active lifestyle options are limited. I like bike lanes primarily because they really do bring fitness opportunities to communities and put more eyes on the street at the same time. I am a huge believer that Americans would be so much healthier if they just walked or biked a little bit in their daily routine.

Toward that end, and after some key early successes and lessons learned, Cleveland now appears ready to seriously invest in some of these plans. End of last year, NOACA (the Metropolitan Planning Org for Northeast Ohio) unveiled an unprecedented set of active transportation investments that will get virtually all of the aforementioned plans at least rolling if not complete. $33.5 out of $47 million awarded to regional transportation projects in their last funding round went to active mobility projects.

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This includes:

  • $8.3 million for the first leg of Superior Avenue’s Midway (pictured above, from Public Square to East 55)
  • $6.1 million to fund the rest of the Lorain Avenue Cycle Track
  • $13.4 million for 20 new CNG buses for RTA
  • $2.5 million for 14 new buses for Lake Tran
  • $4.8 million for the Thrive 105-93 corridor from Bratenahl to Garfield Heights
  • $3.1 million for a new bulk shipping terminal at the Port of Cleveland
  • $2 million for improvements to Lorain County’s Black River Trail
  • $560,000 for the West Creek Greenway in Parma.

Only $5 million went to roadway projects – $4 million for traffic signal studies across Cuyahoga County, and $1 million for a new roundabout at Landerbrook.

While NOACA is really to be commended for such an unprecedented investment in regional active mobility, this would not be possible if regional planning and transportation entities weren’t putting forward funding-worthy initiatives. This will likely not become the new norm for transportation funding rounds, nor be repeated across Ohio, but for the time being mobility planning wins big in Cleveland.

Cleveland may really be awakening to the amazing potential of its dense albeit patchy cityscape and interesting topography. In particular, the topography with its level coastal plain, wide river valley, lakefront bluffs, and Allegheny Plateau rising on the east side, is a strong hand of cards to be dealt towards the goal of getting people out of their cars and outside in the sunshine. At least half of the year.

Detroit is a construction mess

That’s a good thing, though. Some photos taken this week. Qline surprisingly seemed to be half-full and had passengers waiting at stations during day – in sub-zero/single-digit cold and snow. If Detroit is going to leverage transit for broader, inclusive neighborhood revitalization, there’s going to have to be an understanding that Michigan winters are going to impact ridership numbers.

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