We Need Action

The letter below was sent to members of Cuyahoga County Council at 8:08 a.m. on April 24, 2013 in response to the work session meeting on April 23 regarding the project ramifications of removing the skywalk from the new headquarters.

Morning,

Supporters of the skywalk on Council don’t seem to have their story straight.

Councilwoman Simon and others have said removing the skywalk will only create the appearance of vibrancy at 8:30 a.m. and at the end of the business day when people are forced to cross the street. But then we heard Councilman Germana imply that increased pedestrians crossing the street throughout the day would make it difficult for drivers to come do business with the county. Which is it? Is it the “large sucking sound” that Councilman Schron has alluded to, or are pedestrians blocking traffic throughout the day?

The evidence would suggest Councilman Germana is correct that removing the skywalk will increase the number of pedestrians crossing the street throughout all hours of the day. But where we differ is that he characterized that as a bad thing! Research has shown that a city with pedestrians filling the sidewalks and crossing the street is better than one that makes it easy for a car to cruise without having to stop.

In addition, the idea that removing the skywalk will cause problems for people coming in to do business with the county is unfounded and based on a preference of cars over pedestrians. Chicago, Montreal, Copenhagen, Toronto are all northern cities that do well because there are thousands of pedestrians on the street at any given moment. Cleveland is not doing better than these cities because you can currently fly down Prospect without being stopped by a pedestrian in the morning. That latter, unfortunate fact shows how auto-oriented we’ve been in Cleveland for far too long.

Additionally, Council President Connally noted that the surrounding apartment projects will bring the vibrancy we seek. Yes, but only in spite of the skywalk. Huron Square is by anyone’s measure a dead neighborhood. When the bar is that low, then of course any new development will make it seem better. Simply put, the neighborhood can be even better by removing the skywalk, opening up that sight line down Prospect, and welcoming the thousands, eventually millions of County Headquarters pedestrians to the streets of Cleveland. Why are we settling for good when we can be great?

Lastly, we were dismayed to see representatives of the disabled community so willing to give the city a pass on not making the streets welcoming for them. One woman discussed the difficulty of rolling onto a curb that hasn’t been cleared of snow in the winter. So why are we not telling city officials that isn’t okay? Why are we saying the answer is a skywalk in every building, as one woman suggested? Not to mention that many disabled and elderly visitors will be traveling via paratransit or RTA. The argument that the skywalk is solely for these visitors that some of you have so heavily leaned on is moot for the large population of Clevelanders who cannot or choose not to drive.

Ultimately, we should challenge the city to do more to make the streets welcoming and safe for all populations, just as other, more vibrant northern cities do without a skywalk.

Bottom line, the facts are on our side and have been willful ignored by some members of this Council. Anecdotal evidence does not trump the wisdom and expertise of 21st Century city planners who have said skywalks — even just one — are a bad idea. Because it’s not just one skywalk. It’s millions of county visitors over time. The skywalk is a contraption that encourages potential customers of the city to bypass Cleveland to get in and leave as quickly as possible. There is not one reputable planner or architect who believes skywalks are a good amenity, especially in a city as small as Cleveland that is trying to increase pedestrian traffic.

Again, we’re not the only winter city in the world. Toronto has the most linear feet of successful retail-fronted sidewalks, Sweden has the highest share of urban trips completed by walking instead of driving, and Copenhagen keeps their outdoor cafés open year-round. We need to embrace being a winter city, like Brian Tucker suggested in his recent Crain’s Cleveland piece against proposed skywalks. And in order to embrace being a winter city, we need to focus on making the streets welcoming to all. Accepting poor sidewalks and forcing the disabled and elderly to the skywalk is a short-term answer to a long-term problem.

Mr. Appelbaum said removing the skywalk would delay the project 2-3 months. We don’t believe it is right to punish Cleveland because this issue was largely brushed over at first without sufficient public input or debate. And as the public has been able to catch up, we’ve heard time and time again that the skywalk should be removed. The Plain Dealer, The Atlantic Cities, Crain’s Cleveland, and numerous other national urban publications have said that Cleveland should stop its skywalk talk. At what point do you, members of the Council, put your personal opinions and conveniences aside, and listen to what an overwhelming majority of experts and leaders have had to say?

Delaying the project 2-3 months is well worth the investment in ensuring Cleveland is a vibrant city over the next 2-3 decades.

The residents and business interests of downtown Cleveland have made it overwhelmingly clear to this Council that we do not support the skywalk in our neighborhood. Why should the interests of those of you pushing the skywalk with suburban interests have more say in our neighborhood’s development than those of us who live here?

Perhaps most frustrating is that we have yet to hear from our representative, Councilwoman Conwell, despite numerous attempts to contact via phone, email and even Facebook. Is this how the new county government wants to begin at the new headquarters? Ignoring calls to restore transparency and faith in county government led by an absentee representative who does not return our calls to meet?

If you cannot be swayed, then please, tell us why Jeff Speck, urbanist author and recent visitor to Cleveland who said we do not need skywalks, is wrong. Tell us why the research-driven data suggesting skywalks are vibrancy-killers is wrong. Tell us why your gut instinct and anecdotal experiences are given academic credence over the research that has been done on this issue. Give us one expert or study that says skywalks are good for a city, not a detriment.

We need you to make decisions based on facts, not convenience. We urge you to restore faith in county government, bring life back to the streets of Cleveland, pass an ordinance to renegotiate the contract, and remove this skywalk.

Thank you for your time.

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