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Hot in Cleveland? The city’s new, cool Public Square

July 13, 2016 at 6:25 PM EST
Just in time for next week’s Republican convention, Cleveland has unveiled a $50 million renovation of its historic, 10-acre Public Square in the city’s downtown. The landscape architect was James Corner, the same man behind New York City’s celebrated High Line. The square is sure to be the site of expected protests next week. Corner says it’s ready. Jeffrey Brown reports from Cleveland.
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GWEN IFILL: Cleveland is getting ready for the Republican National Convention next week, and a chance to showcase some big changes in the city. That includes a redesign, renovation and revamping of the city’s central square.

Jeffrey Brown has the story with production help from our PBS colleagues at WVIZ ideastream.

JEFFREY BROWN: Strike up the band, turn on the fountain, and ask yourself, what makes a 21st century city livable, viable, even exciting?

In Cleveland, they’re hoping part of the answer is Public Square, the new version of it, that is, a $50 million project, eight years in the planning, 10 acres in the heart of downtown, remade into a space for relaxing, meeting up with friends, cooling off on a hot day.

MAYOR FRANK JACKSON, Cleveland: This is a public space. We own Public Square. So why would you not fix up your own property?

JEFFREY BROWN: All, says Mayor Frank Jackson, with a larger purpose.

MAYOR FRANK JACKSON: As we reinvent and redefine Cleveland, and we reinvent and redefine downtown Cleveland, Public Square is essential in that.

JEFFREY BROWN: The idea here in Cleveland is one that other cities are embracing, or re-embracing, that the social side of urban life, the sheer pleasure of hanging out with other people in a nice setting, can be an important driver of economic health.

JAMES CORNER, Founder and Director, James Corner Field Operations: Well-designed public spaces add significant value to a city.

JEFFREY BROWN: The landscape architect behind Cleveland’s new Public Square is James Corner, whose firm, James Corner Field Operations, is today designing public spaces in many cities in the U.S. and abroad. I met him near his New York office at his best known site, the elevated High Line Park.

JAMES CORNER: It wasn’t that long ago that there was a lot of skepticism about public space, that public space was seen as a waste of taxpayer money, filled with litter, or homelessness, or crime, or just empty space.

I think we have seen a renaissance. If you can create these great spaces where people can come together, it’s enormously powerful. It affects people’s psyche, it affects their imagination, it affects how they relate to other people, and it just charges up the positive energy about what it means to live in a city.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Cleveland, Corner was faced with a square that had long served as a transit hub with two busy downtown streets dividing it, a place to pass through, not linger.

But it actually started life as a public commons. This 1936 painting for the WPA Arts Project imagined the square 100 years earlier. This was where the local militia would assemble and, later, where citizens gathered to pay respects to Abraham Lincoln after he was assassinated. The new idea then is actually an old one.

VERONICA RIVERA, Associate, James Corner Field Operations: This is exactly the idea. People will be able to enjoy the park, sit back, have lunch, just enjoy the center of Cleveland.

JEFFREY BROWN: Veronica Rivera moved to Cleveland as an on-the-ground designer for James Corner’s group. Among much else, construction teams removed a main thoroughfare, restored iconic statues, sculpted elements of the landscape, creating a concert hill, winding paths and new sight lines, all of it creating the illusion of a small natural setting in a large park planned down to the eighth of an inch.

VERONICA RIVERA: It’s relatively flat. So if you would have walked in and seen everything at the same time, it would have been a bit overwhelming. It would have felt more like a parking lot, instead of a park.

And by using topography, we both create an amphitheater for the lawn for events, and also create these smaller, more intimate spaces. We wanted to create that layering effect, that the square can adapt to you walking on your own, but if it’s a huge crowd, that it feels appropriate for that as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: The 15-month construction was captured in this time-lapse video. That followed years of planning overseen by two local civic organizations, Group Plan Commission and LAND Studio.

Public space these days can cost a lot of money. More than half of what was needed to rebuild the square’s surface area came from foundations, individuals and corporations.

Ann Zoller is executive director of LAND Studio.

ANN ZOLLER, Executive Director, LAND Studio: From day one, when we started raising money, we not only raised money for capital, but we raised money for the ongoing program and maintenance. So it’s build it right, make sure it’s used correctly, and, at the get-go, raise money for the future program and maintenance.

JEFFREY BROWN: This city is on a roll, most recently with its basketball championship for LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

And there’s a building boom downtown. Within a few blocks of Public Square are new hotels, a Convention Center, renovated apartment houses, the large Flats East Bank project, and much more.

Biomedical companies have been one driver of jobs, and the downtown population is on the rise. The hope now is that Public Square will bring more.

But Cleveland still has plenty of problems, including one of the country’s highest poverty rates.

Does Public Square benefit everybody? It’s a majority African-American city, I believe. I look around downtown here, mostly white, I think.

FRANK JACKSON: Well, I think, for this event, you will have that, but when you come here on a daily basis and watch who takes public transportation, who goes into Tower City, who goes in to — who comes to work every day, this is a public square.

And we don’t play off downtown vs. neighborhood, black vs. white. We don’t play off those kinds of things. What we do, we invest in the city of Cleveland. And when we invest in the city of Cleveland, we do that for the benefit of the entire city.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now for the Republican National Convention. And the brand-new Public Square may be ground zero for protests and demonstrations.

This park is going to get a real test, right, real soon.

FRANK JACKSON: Oh, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And your city is going to get a real test. Are you worried at all about what…

FRANK JACKSON: Oh, no, no.

JEFFREY BROWN: No?

FRANK JACKSON: No.

Look, we do what we do. You should never ask for something and then complain about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: I also asked architect James Corner if he fears what’s coming.

JAMES CORNER: No, I relish that. I mean, I really hope that there is protest and gatherings and public speech in Public Square. Creating great public spaces is not only about beautification and greenery and social settings. It’s also about platforms for democratic life to play out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even if, in this case, you might have thousands and thousands of people trampling the whole — it could — it’s possible that it could get violent.

JAMES CORNER: It’s been built in a robust way. I wouldn’t be fearful if there are thousands of people in there. It can take it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Maybe so, but few major urban projects have faced such a dramatic test this fast.

From Cleveland, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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