Cleveland becomes a parkland as trails and greenspaces multiply

Cleveland is a cleft land, and not just because of the Crooked River. For centuries, railroads, highways, ravines, utilities and more have barricaded us from each other and from our waterways, which didn’t attract us anyway. A confusion of roads and bridges high and low have linked us and kept us apart.


The forthcoming Wendy Park bridge looking south. Photo courtesy Grant Segall.

The forthcoming Wendy Park bridge looking south. Photo courtesy Grant Segall.

Cleveland is a cleft land, and not just because of the Crooked River. For centuries, railroads, highways, ravines, utilities and more have barricaded us from each other and from our waterways, which didn’t attract us anyway. A confusion of roads and bridges high and low have linked us and kept us apart.

Now the waters are much cleaner and more accessible. The Metroparks have taken over and improved many lakefront and riverfront parks in recent years. They have created Rivergate Park, the Cleveland Foundation Centennial Lake Link Trail and more, plus a few things temporarily closed in part or whole for the pandemic, like Edgewater Beach House, Merwin’s Wharf and the Cleveland Water Taxi.

With interest in parks at an all-time high during the Covid-19 pandemic, local leaders are hoping that a slew of recent, current and expected projects will draw even more people to visit, work and live in or near downtown.

Five projects covering more than four miles were recently finished or started in a Cleveland Metroparks venture called “Re-Connecting Cleveland: Pathways to Opportunity.” The $16.45 million project is funded by a $7.95 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant, plus state, city and foundation money.

Meanwhile, after 27 years of sporadic work, the 101 miles of Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail should be finished by 2025 and Cleveland’s stretch later this year. And city officials plan to build a Canal Basin Park next year at the towpath’s northern terminus.


Tiger Trails map courtesy Cleveland Metroparks

Tiger Trails map courtesy Cleveland Metroparks

Mera Cardenas, who runs the nonprofit Canalway Partners, says about the Towpath what could also be said about the other trails nearby: “It’s connecting disparate parts of the city. It’s connecting people to their industrial heritage. It’s connecting people to their major greenspaces. It’s connecting people to the outdoors. We’re so disconnected by the pandemic, we need those outdoor spaces more than ever.”

People like Jennifer Temple. Walking her dog the other day near the Red Line Greenway project, the Ohio newcomer said she’d chosen the near west side to enjoy its spreading all-purpose trails.

Others aren’t so sure. Maria Perme has mixed feelings about the swift growth of trails and parks near Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. “It brings a lot of people down here, which is good in one way, but it takes over from the quiet,” the Clevelander said the other day on a trail under construction at Whiskey Island’s Wendy Park. “This summer, the whole frigging place has been packed. It’s cool and everything, but I want to get away.”

Yet local leaders don’t want people to get away from the lakefront and riverfront. Jacob VanSickle, head of Bike Cleveland, says all these connections are about redeveloping Cleveland. “It’s about building a city with a high quality of life, with choices on how to get around and recreate.”

The Towpath will link Cleveland, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Akron and New Philadelphia. Says VanSickle, “In what other big city can you be downtown and use trails to get to a national park?”

Tiger trails

The Metroparks estimate that the Tiger projects will provide at least $54.5 million in benefits for recreation, safety, mobility and more.

“These trails will serve as a catalyst to link our communities, improve connections to the urban core and create all new opportunities to explore our lakefront,” said Brian M. Zimmerman, Metroparks CEO.

Two of the projects, due for completion next spring, will shorten walks, bike rides and other jaunts between the western Flats and Wendy Park at the river’s mouth from more than three miles to a few hundred feet.

Wendy Park Bridge: Abutments have been poured for a footbridge between Wendy and the Willow Avenue Lift Bridge. The footbridge will be 500 feet long and about 27 feet above the Norfolk Southern tracks. Its all-purpose surface will be 12 feet wide. The people it carries will include residents of Lakeview Terrace, a public housing complex near the Lake Link Trail’s current northern terminus.

The Metroparks plan to extend the trail to the footbridge via the Willow Avenue Lift Bridge. The lift bridge is aging, city officials are studying its fate, and many locals want to stop it from carrying dust-spewing trucks from Whiskey Island’s salt and gravel plants. Still, Metroparks leaders officials are optimistic that the link will survive on an improved bridge or a new one nearby.

Whiskey Island Connector: This 1.25-mile trail under construction between Wendy Park and Edgewater Park will spare bicyclists and others from negotiating Whiskey Island Drive (also called Ed Hauser Way), a narrow road mostly without sidewalks. It will include a footbridge 500 feet long behind the Westerly Wastewater Treatment Plant. To work on the sewer junction below, crews will open hatches in the bridge or use a crane to lift the whole structure.

The other three Tiger projects are:


Grading of Red Line Greenway trail near RTA viaduct and Franklin Connector. Photo courtesy Cleveland Metroparks.

Grading of Red Line Greenway trail near RTA viaduct and Franklin Connector. Photo courtesy Cleveland Metroparks.

Red Line Greenway: This trail in progress flanks its namesake transit line for 2.25 miles. It will connect the Michael Zone Recreation Center Park at West 53rd Street with the Lake Link Trail at Franklin Boulevard and the Cuyahoga. The Greenway should open next March.

Cleveland Lakefront Bikeway Connector: This trail opened last year, hooking up the Lake Link Trail and the bikeway.

Canal Basin Park Connector: This trail opened last year, hooking up the Lake Link Trail to the forthcoming park. The city of Cleveland plans to build the park next summer for $688,000, including $550,400 from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program.

Nearby, Cleveland plans to close the Center Street Swing Bridge next spring and renovate it for a year. Meanwhile, Lake Link Trail users will have to detour for 1.5 miles over city streets to reach the Wendy Park Bridge.

Projects besides Tiger:

Brighton Park Trail: Working with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy and the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, the Metroparks have begun to turn an old landfill at Pearl and Henninger Roads in Old Brooklyn into Brighton Park. They’re planning to extend the Lower Big Creek Connector Trail from the park to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo westward and to the Treadway Creek Trail eastward. The project should cost $696,000, funded by the state, county and foundations.

Officials hope eventually to extend the Lower Big Creek Connector from Treadway to the Towpath.


Towpath Trail photo courtesy Canalway Partners

Towpath Trail photo courtesy Canalway Partners

Towpath Trail: The 1832 Ohio & Erie Canal was the young nation’s first inland link between its northern and southern watersheds. It quickly became the heart of the heartland. It connected Lake Erie and the Ohio River, powered mills and factories, made Cleveland a leading port, spawned Akron, and enriched the young Ohio. But the railroads took over most of its traffic soon, and a 1913 flood wrecked its last working stretches.

Since 1993, crews have gradually recreated the northern 101 miles of the canal’s towpath. South of Cleveland, the only stretches not yet reopened are nine miles in New Philadelphia and Dover, due for completion by 2025. In Cleveland, crews reporting to Cuyahoga County recently opened a stretch from Steelyard Commons to Literary Avenue and started work on the city’s last two stretches. One will run north near University Road from Literary Avenue to Sokolowksi’s University Inn. The other will run from Carter and Scranton Roads to Canal Basin Park.

More trails ahead

More trails are expected to follow. Over the next few years, the Port of Cleveland plans to shore up and open up the eroding Irishtown Bend, which plunges from West 25th Street and Detroit Avenue to the river. The Metroparks plan to complete a gap there in the Lake Link Trail.

Metroparks officials hope someday for a trail along West 65th Street between the zoo and Edgewater. And local leaders are also talking about turning a current half-mile trail into a 3.5-mile Slavic Village Downtown Connector Trail.

More projects may arise from a plan called “Vision for the Valley,” being developed this year by OHM Advisors and funded by four local agencies. The consultants are studying the river valley between Harvard Avenue and the lake. They’re tentatively calling for development in Collision Bend and elsewhere, riverfront promenades from near Lake Erie to the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, a harbor for small crafts by the West Third Street Peninsula, centralized control of lift and swing bridges, and a waterfront park under the Interstate 490 bridge.

Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning reporter who spent 34 years with The Plain Dealer. He has also published freelance articles, fiction, and “John D. Rockefeller: Anointed With Oil” (Oxford University Press).

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