Lessons from Milwaukee

by | Jun 10, 2016

There is a famous painting by John Gast from the late 19th century called “American Progress.” The painting depicts an angel-like figure stringing telegraph wires across the western American countryside, as frontiersmen carve out the landscape. The painting’s tone is heroic, optimistic and warm suggesting that infrastructure and the resulting subsequent development are an American phenomenon worthy of embracement.   

Some 80 years later, a similar optimism embraced an infrastructural expansion beyond the core of the city to surrounding suburbs. The 1956 Highway Act, paired with the ability of many American workers to own an automobile and affordable homeownership options in the suburbs, led to a mass exodus from city centers.

Now, the stream seems to be flowing in both directions in some parts of the country. While outer-ring suburbs still continue to expand, the inner city is seeing a notable uptick in investment and a redefinition of social engagement. Advocacy over the past several decades has encouraged many to move back to city centers, by promising lifestyle amenities, a sense of community, and easy access to major job centers still located in the city. In city planning circles, thinking about how to structure cities that are equitable and that provide more sustainable patterns of land use might loosely be called “smart growth.” 

How are development patterns playing out in Northeast Ohio? One could look to the Opportunity Corridor project for clues. When complete, the Opportunity Corridor will be a five-lane boulevard connecting the end of I-490 to E. 105th St. From a regional perspective, the Opportunity Corridor connects two of the region’s largest job centers—downtown Cleveland and University Circle. At a neighborhood level, the Opportunity Corridor traverses a large part of the city that has unfortunately been labeled the “Forgotten Triangle,” due to its lack of investment over several decades.

Now that this part of the city will see a $331 million investment, it’s time to think long term about what kinds of neighborhoods we want to create for the 21st century. Sustainability and equity are not simply goals to be lauded; they need to be the driving forces behind any development project across the region. Cuyahoga County has seen a loss of more than 113,000 residents from 2000-2010, while more than $3.6 billion of income has moved outside of the county since 1992. This creates a lower tax base to support infrastructure, schools, parks, and public safety. Decisions that encourage regional smart growth include reinvestment and re-imagining local neighborhoods.

A study by the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC) points to the dangers of continuing the same old development patterns, while the Fund for Our Economic Future’s “Geography of Jobs” report emphasizes improved job access as an imperative to creating both growth and opportunity in Northeast Ohio. Projects like the Opportunity Corridor provide the basis to showcase new regional and local priorities. New models for regional cooperation, governance, and economic opportunity should be at the forefront of creating a shared vision of what the areas surrounding the Opportunity Corridor can become.

Luckily, our region can look to some innovative models in nearby cities for inspiration. The Menomonee Valley in Milwaukee, for one, links an outer neighborhood to its downtown. The Valley reinvented itself as a large-scale sustainable neighborhood and now attracts 21st century manufacturing due to its unique regional identity; the result of the coordinated efforts of the nonprofit Menomonee Valley Partners Inc. and others. Other features include recreation and entertainment options, a business improvement district, and multimodal bicycle trails that link this new job center to downtown. In Kentucky, Seed Capital KY is linking disconnected neighborhoods through the creation of the West Louisville Food Port. An inclusive hub for food production and consumption, it will create more than 300 jobs and provide space for community education. An anchor development like this would make sense along the Opportunity Corridor, given the number of food production facilities in the area including Orlando Baking Company, Miceli Dairy, the Urban Agriculture Innovation Zone, and Green City Growers.

The Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative advocates for multimodal transit-friendly development and investment, the creation of new job centers, and sustainable green infrastructure at the scale of the neighborhoods along Opportunity Corridor. At the heart of the matter is a choice—deciding whether we will repeat the patterns of decades-old planning and rhetoric, or invent and encourage new models for improving our region’s neighborhoods—some of the best assets we have. 


Editor’s Note: A cross-sector group of leaders is working to develp an Economic Growth Strategy to foster connection of the neighborhood development — occuring as a result of relative proximity to the Corridor — to the regional economy, with funding support by the Fund for Our Economic Future. To help inform the Economic Growth Strategy, the Fund is co-hosting along with The George Gund Foundation, the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, and the Greater Cleveland Partnership, a learning trip to Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley and its 30th Street Industrial Corridor on Monday, June 13-Tuesday, June 14. More than two dozen civic leaders from across Cleveland’s public, private and nonprofit sectors are attending and will tour these developments and meet with their respective counterparts in Milwaukee to learn about these projects’ successes and challenges. Stay tuned for a recap of that trip on our blog in the near future!