A new bike-friendly plan for Lorain Avenue is the conceptual opposite of a bitterly disliked plan for a new McDonald's

Wednesday, December 4, 2013
The Plain Dealer

By Steven Litt

Lorain Avenue on Cleveland’s West Side is becoming a key battleground over clashing visions of the city’s future.

Does rebooting a shrinking city mean allowing it to cater to automobile-oriented businesses such as a new McDonald’s? Or should Cleveland encourage dense and lively growth around re-emergent retail corridors that once carried streetcars, such as Lorain Avenue?

On the suburban side of the question, developers are fighting for city approval of a controversial and highly unpopular plan to install a McDonald’s on Lorain Avenue at Fulton Road.

Residents hate the idea with a passion. Dozens showed up last month at a City Planning Commission hearing to complain that it would dangerously increase traffic and harm Ohio City’s image as a wellspring of the region’s local food movement. The commission voted 5-0 to block the plan.

The McDonald’s proponents will next go to the Landmarks Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals, which could overturn the planning commission. Barring that, the fast foodies could go to court.

In sharp contrast, a new plan - released on Monday exclusively to The Plain Dealer by the Ohio City Inc. community development corporation - calls for a $17.3 million makeover of the avenue from West 25th to West 85th streets with a 2.3-mile bicycle track along the north side of the roadway.

Bicycle tracks, extolled for their safety, are two-way paths separated from vehicular traffic by a standard-height curb or other barrier. More common in cities such as Vancouver, Canada, a bicycle track on Lorain Avenue would be Cleveland’s first.

Today, a typical cross section of the 46-foot-wide roadway has four travel lanes, with the outer lanes available for curbside parking except during rush hours.

The plan would replace that configuration with two 13-foot travel lanes separated by a 2-foot curb from a 10-foot-wide, two-way cycle track.

Ten-foot sidewalks would flank the roadway, along with a parking lane on one side. Storefront businesses could be serviced via alleyways that cut behind many buildings.

Environmentally friendly features would include permeable paving for the parking lane and amenity strips with trees on both sides of the street.

Estimates in the plan based on fresh traffic counts show that switching from four traffic lanes to two would not increase congestion during the morning and evening rush hours.

A community meeting on the plan, devised by the Cleveland landscape architecture firm of Behnke Associates Inc., with engineers from the Cleveland office of Michael Baker Corp., will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Franklin Circle Church, 1688 Fulton Ave.

A second meeting will be held in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood in January, at a time and place to be announced. Those meetings will precede consideration by the City Planning Commission, whose approval is necessary for it to become official city policy.

The theory behind the design is that there's room for the cycle track because Lorain was wide enough to hold a streetcar line earlier in the 20th century without impeding the flow of automobiles. When Cleveland's streetcar era ended, the extra right-of-way was simply turned over to cars.

Using that extra pavement today for bikes would give local residents a free and healthy way to get around. It would also strengthen the in-migration of new residents, particularly Millennials, that has boosted the city’s residential population in certain parts of the city, including downtown and Ohio City.

Anchored by the popular West Side Market at West 25th Street and Lorain Avenue, Ohio City has enjoyed a boom in recent years, fueled by an influx of residents, restaurants, bars and businesses rooted in design and professional services.

The changes are visible up and down the avenue, particularly near West 25th Street:

- St. Ignatius High School in 2009 opened its $12 million Breen Center for the Performing Arts on the south side of Lorain at West 30th Street.
Concept 1 - with islandMODIFIED REV2.jpgView full sizeA variant on the Lorain Avenue proposal to subtract travel lanes for cars and add a cycle track for bicyclists.Behnke Associates, Inc., and Michael Baker Corp.

- MRN Ltd. invested $20 million in a renovation of the historic 10-story United Bank Building at West 25th and Lorain.

- Hansa Import Haus, a German specialty store, restaurant and brewery at Lorain and West 27th, is undergoing a $3 million expansion and renovation.

- JC Beertech Ltd., a company that services draft beer equipment in restaurants and sports facilities throughout the region, is moving to a renovated building nearby on Lorain, bringing 40 employees north from Medina.

- Developer Andrew Brickman last month revealed he is assembling four acres at the edge of Ohio City for 200 new apartments.

These and other signs lead Eric Wobser, Ohio City’s executive director, to see the Lorain Avenue plan as a way to spur urban development in one of the city’s hottest areas of growth.

And with sidewalks buckled by tree roots and crumbling asphalt peeling away to reveal underlying cobblestones, Wobser says the avenue is ready for a makeover.

Moreover, a cycle track on Lorain would connect Ohio City more safely and firmly to downtown, creating economic synergies that would lift both areas.

If anything, the expectation that Lorain Avenue needs to become more bike-friendly has sharply increased because the Ohio Department of Transportation’s recently added bike lanes on the Lorain-Carnegie and Abbey Avenue bridges, Wobser said.

To be truly functional, those routes need to be connected to similar amenities in Ohio City.

“This corridor [Lorain] is critically important to the region’s future,” he said.

“We view the public infrastructure as a huge key to unite these investments.”

To be fair, the McDonald’s plan and the proposed makeover of Lorain Avenue wouldn’t preclude one another, but they certainly are not in harmony. One is suburbanoid in character, the other decidedly urban.

Wobser would rather see the 0.7-acre McDonald’s site developed with 40 units of housing and with street-level retail shops.

“We’ve got to be denser along our commercial corridors,” he said. “We can’t keep losing sites to single-story, drive-through businesses.”

Unlike the McDonald’s plan, the Lorain Avenue vision enjoys strong support.

“It’s’ one thing to be against something; this is something we’re for,” said Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman of the Lorain Avenue plan.

In addition to Cimperman and Ohio City Inc., the plan’s sponsors include the Detroit-Shoreway Community Development Organization, Councilman Matt Zone, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, St. Ignatius High School, Ohio Savings Bank and the Ohio Finance Fund.

The $80,000 plan is the latest sign of a rising movement aimed at reshaping the city’s roadways, once designed for a city of a million residents, to better serve thriving enclaves where residents prefer to walk, ride a bike or take a bus.

The plan grew out of numerous earlier studies that embody the new community spirit and bolster the legitimacy of the cycle track idea. These include the city’s new Complete and Green Streets Typologies Plan, which identifies Lorain Avenue as a candidate for bike paths, and a recent transit-oriented development plan for the West 25th Street area coordinated by the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.

The Lorain Avenue plan would dovetail nicely with the Rotary Club of Cleveland’s proposal to turn a portion of the RTA Red Line right-of-way into a recreational trail, said Tom McNair, Ohio City’s director of economic development and planning.

The Red Line greenway, as it’s called, would intersect twice with Lorain Avenue and would also intersect nearby with the future Lake Link Trail and the Cuyahoga Valley Towpath Trail, making Ohio City a recreational hub.

McNair and Wobser said the Lorain Avenue plan would also calm traffic – without causing congestion – on stretches that turn into a speedway for suburban commuters during rush hour.

Jacob VanSickle, director of the nonprofit Bike Cleveland, the city’s leading bicycle advocacy organization, points out that the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency ranks Lorain Avenue as a regional hotspot for car-bicycle crashes. A cycle track would enormously improve safety for motorists and bicyclists, he said.

Even so, the Lorain Avenue vision faces big hurdles. The city’s traditionally conservative Division of Traffic Engineering would have to approve it.

Engineer Nancy Lyon Stadler of Michael Baker Corp. said the plan still needs refinement to provide safe ways for cars to turn off the avenue at intersections without causing conflicts with cyclists using the track. Special signals for bicyclists could be an answer.

Wobser hopes that the city will devote $1 million next year from its capital budget to detailed engineering required for construction. After that, the project’s sponsors would need to seek construction money from state and federal sources, and possibly NOACA.

The conceptual work on the plan so far lays a strong foundation for the future of the avenue. It’s also clear that the plan grew out of an organic, local process. In just about every way imaginable, it is the complete antithesis of adding a new drive-through restaurant on a city street where it is clearly not wanted.