All my life I have enjoyed Lake Erie’s gifts. I have swum in her waters, boated on her waves, walked her beaches, lived on her shore, and sat on her bluffs dreaming of success and happiness.
It has always been a wish of mine to see Lake Erie’s shoreline become something special so people might enjoy the same magic that I have experienced. Knowing my relationship with the lake may help you understand how I felt one week in November: It represented my best hopes and worst fears for our greatest asset.
On Tuesday I attended a sustainability conference at Baldwin-Wallace College to hear former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley speak about the programs he helped initiate in making Chicago green. The city’s environmental accomplishments were impressive: 13,000 rooftop gardens built, 100,000 trees planted, hundreds of systems installed on public buildings that captured rain water and returned it to Lake Michigan.
But not until Daley started to discuss Chicago’s crown jewel — its lakefront — did the temperature in the room rise. This was obviously Daley’s great passion and the subject of the most interest to his audience.
While I had heard Daley speak before, I hadn’t heard him discuss what it took to raise the large sums of money to build one of the world’s most magnificent lakefronts. His response was the same answer that drives the world: self-interest.
Chicago’s lakefront was a win-win for everyone involved: residents, visitors, developers, corporations, employees, environmentalists, retailers, and city, county and state governments. That’s a whole lot of winners.
The secret of Chicago’s lakefront plan is deceptively simple. If Daley said it once, he said it 15 times: The lakefront is for the people.
In fact, Chicago has a law in place that forbids commercial development on the shore of Lake Michigan. The land can be used for beaches and bicycle trails, nature preserves and band shells, but not for commercial development. Not to worry, all the groups were taken care of in its own way, but Daley went to great lengths to explain why it was important to create a world-class park and recreation area on the water: The lakefront was the magnet to attract the millions of people Chicago wants downtown to live, work, shop, dine — all the things people who want to experience the magic of ocean coasts and lake shores like to do.
In its wisdom, Chicago has created the ultimate economic development food chain: (A) attract residents and visitors with a world-class people park; (B) build developments where these people can live, work, shop and play; (C) share millions of additional tax dollars between city, county and state governments.
Now compare this strategy to Cleveland’s. You already know what our lakefront looks like today. So let’s return to that week of contrast in November when Mayor Jackson announced his new plan for the lakefront in Sunday’s Plain Dealer
. The mayor wants to develop 90 acres of lakefront land owned by the city of Cleveland, and it won’t cost taxpayers a dime. The reason: Developers are going to pay the tab.
Don’t look now, but the mayor just put a for-sale sign on Cleveland’s most valuable asset. How’s that for a vision of a great city on a great lakefront?
The irony of what we have done with our lakefront so far is that the city and county would gain 10 times more — maybe 100 times more — in economic benefits using a simple long-range plan everyone agreed upon.
For example, what if we agreed to something like this:
⊲ From now on all lakefront property south of the water for a distance of one mile (or whatever distance makes sense) will be used solely for beaches, parks, nature preserves, marinas, hiking and biking trails. We will build a world-class people park for the enjoyment of residents and visitors.
⊲ Move the airport. It is the elephant in the room that prevents building anything world-class, unless it’s a circus.
⊲ Build a tree-lined boulevard, not a major highway that separates the people park from a bluffs enterprise zone.
⊲ Create a commercial development corporation — a public/private partnership — that will raise money to build the world-class park and also provide substantial financial incentives for developers to build distinctive office towers and condo/apartment complexes.
⊲ Build the most advanced, all-weather people-mover system in the world to connect downtown to the lakefront to University Circle. Why not become the most connected city in the world?
Where will we be in 10 years if we adopt a plan like this in 2012? The answer to that question is easy: A heck of a lot further than where we will be going the way we’re going.
If there is one thing the citizens of Cuyahoga County have learned, it is that it is never too late to bring about change. And maybe the second thing we have learned is that if we want to get something done, we are going to have to do it ourselves.
Now is the time to undertake what could be the greatest gift we could give our children and grandchildren: the gift of a great city on a great lake … on a great lakefront.