Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (2024)

CLEVELAND, Ohio — City planners have dreamed for more than a decade about reopening one of Cleveland’s most exciting and underused pieces of infrastructure — the lower level of the Detroit Superior Bridge.

The idea once seemed farfetched, but it’s starting to make real sense because the lower level of the bridge could become part of a growing network of bike paths, parks and trails that are making the city more beautiful and livable after decades of automobile-oriented planning.

The bridge, properly known Veterans Memorial, is the most aesthetically appealing span in the city. It has carried cars and trucks on its upper level since it opened in 1918. The lower level, measuring roughly 3,100 feet long, carried streetcars on four tracks until it closed in 1954.

Reopening the lower level could create something akin to New York’s High Line Park, a wildly popular public space installed in 2014 atop a disused former freight railroad line on Manhattan’s lower West Side.

Another comparable project is the Walkway over the Hudson, which occupies the top of a 19th-century railroad bridge in Poughkeepsie, 85 miles north of New York City. It closed after a 1974 fire but reopened as a recreational path in 2009. The views of the Hudson Valley resemble 19th century landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church. They’re stunning.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (1)

Just one problem with the Cleveland bridge: Until now, the ugly and largely neglected public spaces at both ends of the span, along with the paucity of bike paths downtown, didn’t seem to justify reopening the lower level.

Also, since the mid 2000s, the upper level of the bridge has had bike paths and sidewalks. To be sure, they aren’t pleasant. Pedestrians and cyclists contend with noise and fumes from truck traffic and have to cross heavily used intersections at either end to get anywhere else. But it is possible to get across on a bike or on foot.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (2)

Now, however, with a critical mass of new parks, trails and transit-friendly real estate developments emerging at both ends of the bridge, it’s starting to make far more sense to bring the lower level back to life as a safe, weather-protected route that could be open much of the time.

That’s one reason, in fact, that the federal government awarded Cuyahoga County $7 million in March not just to develop a new feasibility study, but to create fully engineered plans ready for construction bids in a couple of years after starting this fall.

If the money can be found, the lower level could be reopened for routine use within several years, Mike Dever, chair of the county’s Department of Public Works, said in a recent interview.

Gathering attention and feedback

On Friday and Saturday June 21 and 22, the county reopened the lower level for the latest in a series of occasional public events intended to stimulate fresh interest in the bridge.

A $50,000 sound, light and sculpture installation by Cleveland artist Chuck Karnak was the headline attraction. But as always, the bridge was the main event.

The structure includes 12 below-deck arches that spring from giant piers that march across the flood plain of the Cuyahoga River. A steel truss arch soars above the central portion of the span, whose bottom edge is 96 feet above the water.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (3)

The interior of the lower level is edged with Roman-scale arches. High railings and pipes block eye level views of the river and the skyline, which is something planners need to address. Accessible overlooks need to be added. But the space has real grandeur.

Despite stifling, muggy weather, it attracted more than 7,500 people. On Friday, they were treated to a sherbet-colored sunset and fireworks after the Guardians’ 7-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays at nearby Progressive Field. When the full Strawberry Moon rose, it went from reddish amber to cream as it ascended through the haze.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (4)

Karnak’s installation splashed neon light everywhere. Square-shaped sails suspended from the ceiling swayed in the breeze, making the air flow visible. Loudspeakers blended sounds of Lake Erie waves and seagulls with the revving of motorcycles on streets far below. It was hard to tell real city sounds from simulated ones.

Christina Johnson of Fairview Park had never seen the lower level before. She was impressed by its architecture and wanted to see the space made available on a regular basis.

“The biggest thing is getting the history back out there,” she said. “This is a really good start to it right here.”

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (5)

A changing landscape

Dever and other planners were eager during the event to gather fresh responses from the public to inform work by design consultants starting this fall. They also wanted to show how the lower level could link to new public spaces emerging around it.

Co-organized with Cleveland History Days, a multi-day celebration of local heritage organized by the nonprofit Canalway Partners, the bridge event included presentations and tours by teams representing some of the upcoming projects taking place around the bridge. Collectively, they helped make a fresh case for reopening the lower level. The list of projects includes:

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (6)

- Irishtown Bend Park, a $100 million effort now underway, led by the Port of Cleveland, the City of Cleveland, LAND Studio and other partners to stabilize a vacant hillside that has threatened to slide into the Cuyahoga River, and to create a new 25-acre park on the reconfigured slope.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (7)

- Bridgeworks, a seven-story, $80 million apartment building starting construction this fall with 219 units immediately north of the west end of the bridge. The project, a venture of M. Panzica Development and Grammar Properties, will include public connections to the lower level of the bridge via a onetime streetcar ticket booth, and a separate access point nearby.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (8)

- A $50 million bus rapid transit line planned by the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit authority on West 25th Street from Detroit Avenue four miles south to Old Brooklyn. A bike path will be part of the northernmost leg of the project adjacent to Irishtown Bend Park.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (9)

- The Memorial Bridges Loop, a city proposal to create a three-mile bike and pedestrian trail using the Detroit Superior Bridge, the Lorain Carnegie Bridge, and connections on Huron Road and West 25th Street along the new RTA bus rapid transit line.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (10)

- Canal Basin Park and Superior Hill Park. The nonprofit Canalway Partners, working with the City of Cleveland, unveiled new ideas for the 20-acre park, which includes the northern terminus of the 101-mile Towpath Trail, and the site of the onetime turning basin at the northern end of the 1832 Ohio & Erie Canal.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (11)

- Land acquisitions and long-term planning undertaken by Cleveland Metroparks, which has spent $11.3 million since 2013 to assemble 15 acres in 16 parcels on Columbus Road Peninsula below the Detroit Superior Bridge. Metroparks is assessing opportunities for continuous trails on or near the river, along with potential adaptive reuse of its new properties.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (12)

- Bedrock’s Cuyahoga Riverfront development. The real estate company owned by Detroit billionaire Dan Gilbert, owner of the NBA Cavaliers, is planning a 20-year, 3.5-million square foot development on 35 acres southeast of the Detroit Superior Bridge along the Cuyahoga River.

This admittedly partial list shows that the lower level of the Detroit Superior Bridge has the potential to link and strengthen everything going on around it.

Safety is a must

The catch is that the lower level needs to attract enough routine use to make it feel lively and safe. That’s a very real concern.

During public events that attract hundreds or thousands of visitors, the bridge feels like a compelling place to be. The lower level is a single, elongated space that shoots across the river with a gentle arc that creates a sense of liftoff and landing.

The long curve bellies high enough in the middle that you can’t see the other side. The obstructed view pulls you forward to see what’s over the rise. But there are dead-ends at either end, plus blind spots along the way.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (13)

Absent big crowds, the lower level might feel lonely and perhaps unsafe, unless it’s clean, routinely patrolled, lighted, and observed with security cameras. All of that would create new responsibilities and costs for the county, which built the bridge; the Ohio Department of Transportation, which is responsible for major maintenance and repair projects; and the city, which provides more routine upkeep for the upper deck.

Dever and Annie Pease, Cuyahoga County’s special advisor for transportation, said all of those issues will be explored in the new study, along with ways to plug interior leaks that dampen the west end of the bridge, and create a stagnant pool at the east end.

It will be especially important to understand how the lower level could link seamlessly to everything around it. Five connections will be explored in the new study. Of those, three already exist. One is the garage door at the north side of the east end, which provides access from Superior Hill Park, a small, city-owned park uphill from Settler’s Landing Park next to the Cuyahoga, and nearby Canal Basin Park.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (14)

Two other entries exist on the north side of the west end of the bridge. One is next to the construction site for the Bridgeworks apartments. A second is located inside the old streetcar ticket booth, which has a staircase and access tunnel lined with white subway tiles that leads down to the lower level.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (15)

On the south side of the bridge, additional connections will be explored to Irishtown Bend on the west end of the bridge, and on the east end to federally owned property that is now leased to a parking lot operator. The potential exists here to remove an eyesore that mars the foreground of the Carl Stokes U.S. Courthouse and to replace the parking lot with a hillside park connected to Canal Basin Park.

That’s an idea that was first explored in 2013, in a visionary study of the lower level of the Detroit Superior Bridge conducted by Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and NOACA, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (16)

The county’s new project will also take a serious look at whether the old streetcar level could extend east far enough to surface on Superior Avenue west of Public Square, where streetcars once emerged after crossing the bridge.

Such a connection makes sense because the city is scheduled to start construction next year on the $25 million Superior Avenue Midway, a two-way cycle track separated from traffic, from Public Square 2.5 miles east to East 55th Street.

Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (17)

If the Midway were extended west of Public Square in the future, it could connect with the lower level of the bridge, creating a safe, weather-protected connection separate from traffic to the city’s West Side. That’s a really compelling idea. And it’s one more reason why it could soon make sense to make new use of a long-hidden masterpiece of Cleveland infrastructure.

Get involved

Offer feedback: Cuyahoga County’s website offers a portal for public comment about the lower level of the Detroit Superior Bridge at: https://tinyurl.com/4mjrphr3.

Take a tour: Additional visits to the lower level are available on second Sunday afternoons through September through Take a Hike, a project of the nonprofit Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corp. For details, visit: takeahikecle.com/veterans-memorial-bridge.

More urban planning stories by Steven Litt

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  • Federal-state power clash over controversial I-71 Boston Road exit still unresolved as Ohio legislature heads toward recess
  • What is Cleveland city planner Phil Kidd learning by running every street in the city?
  • Friends of Superman ready to launch $2.2M campaign to create long awaited monument to Cleveland-bred superhero
  • NOACA board votes to extend Grace Gallucci’s contract as executive director for six months starting July 1

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Here’s why reopening the lower level of Cleveland’s Detroit Superior Bridge could make great sense—Commentary (2024)
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