The Inaccessible Great Lake

January 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Anyone who has ever spoken to me about land use, Cleveland, lakes, airports, or any other topics relating to the aforementioned ones, know more than they would like to how much I despise the very existence of Burke Lakefront Airport.  I am not alone, so it is in no way a controversial position to suggest that something ought to be done with it. What might be done with it has been proposed on a hand full of occasions during the various administrations to have taken office in the city of Cleveland.

In 2004, then Mayor Campbell proposed a long term development plan, that was later adopted by the Cleveland Planning Commission known as the ‘Waterfront District Plan’ parts of this plan have been adopted and some projects are moving forward faster than others. Regardless, in a city desperate for access to the waterfront, the elephant in the room is Burke Lakefront. The city of Cleveland, and the Cleveland Brown‘s no less, have each pitched new, revised, visions for the future of the lakefront in Cleveland. They are complimentary plans, no doubt, but cowardice to say the least.

Amidst billions of dollars in big-ticket development projects taking place in the city of Cleveland including a $465 million Medical Mart and Convention Center in addition to a $350 million Casino the concern for connectivity has never been a higher priority. In Cleveland, we have one of the most highly underutilized public squares in the county, and this is the main space that separates between the two projects. Our current Mayor, Frank Jackson, laid out a plan that would connect the now quartered public square. Jackson said of the project, in the a way only Frank Jackson could, “I want to see one big square.” Sadly, due to lack of funds, this vision of ‘one big square’ will likely not take shape before the opening of the Medical Mart and the Casino, making them each islands unto themselves.

Cleveland has a rich history of developing in this way, their short-sighted vision of what could be is always stopped short of potential greatness, even by Cleveland standards. Prime examples of this can be seen in Cleveland Browns stadium, the Cleveland Indians Stadium, the Cleveland Cavaliers Stadium, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The reason I point to Burke is because, for me, it symbolizes the lack of will power to get things done in a way that might change the feel of the city. When friends from out of town ask about Cleveland, I almost always say, “It is a city a lot like Chicago, only without a lakefront, and without a couple million people.” The sad thing is, part of what makes Chicago a world class city is that it HAS a lakefront. Now, I know, we HAVE a lakefront, after all, our city is nestled up against good ‘ole Lake Erie and bisected by the mighty, and formerly flammable, Cuyahoga. But, we don’t have a lakefront the way Chicago does, hell not many lakefront or coastal cities have as nice a waterfront as Chicago does, but as the editor of Rust Wire, Angie Schmitt, always points out; “There’s nothing wrong with comparing Cleveland to New York” or in this case, Chicago.

In March of 2003, the former King of Chicago himself, took a bold and controversial move to literally bulldoze a lakefront airport, known as Meigs Field, in the middle of the night. Now, this space is one of the most highly utilized parts of Chicago’s dynamic lakefront.

Am I suggesting we organize and rent bulldozers to tear up Burke Lakefront? Not quite, but what I am suggesting is that there ought to be a real conversation taking place about the sustainability of a highly underutilized airport as a lakefront placeholder. If the city and county are unwilling to reconsider alternative options for this 450 acre, publicly owned airport, Cleveland will continue to be nothing more than a mediocre middle-market city, as opposed to a potential world-class destination like Chicago.

To grasp the enormity of the this airport I would suggest watching this video:

Sadly, Burke is contractually linked to Cleveland’s better known airport, CLE International. It is not even as though Cuyahoga County has a shortage of airspace. In addition to Burke the county also owns Cuyahoga County Airport, in Richmond Heights, an eastern suburb of Cleveland.

Burke caters primarily to private corporate jet-setters which makes the possibility of coming to Cleveland without ever really having to experience the city. By closing Burke these business people, who otherwise would be in and out, get to experience the wide range of amenities that Cleveland has to offer. Who knows, they might find something they like and decide to come back on their own volition rather than out of obligation.

I contend that anything would better serve the interests of the people of Northeast Ohio and our region as whole than the perpetuation of Burke Lakefront. Converting this massive swath of land to public use and true lakefront access with beaches, an amphitheater, and bike trails seems like a novel idea. I envision a lakefront that connects Edgewater Beach to Dike 14, with Route 2 becoming Cleveland own Lake Shore Drive. By slowing the speed down to 35 mph, doing away with the concrete median and planting some trees and native species we can convert what is currently a concrete jungle into a world-class destination that invites the public to explore downtown, bask in our lakefront, and for the first time in our cities history; begin to link the countless development projects to our two most invaluable resources – our lake and our river.


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