building to the sky as depression looms

Submitted by Susan Miller on Sun, 10/25/2009 - 20:00.

In the NY Times, Nicholas Ouroussoff writes about the burst of the arts and cultural district bubble.

An American Architectural Epoch Locks Its Doors

This article was emailed to me by someone who recently visited me in Cleveland. We went to see the Gauguin show at CMA and she was amazed that in these tough economic times, CMA was "under construction" and not in a small way. For those who may not know what is in process, I decided to add a link to show you. Here it is: Envisioning a masterpiece

All architects begin with a vision for a new structure. Rafael Viñoly is no exception. This page contains photographs, drawings, and architectural renderings about his vision for the new Cleveland Museum of Art.

OK, maybe it is my computer, but this page does not contain any photographs.

But back to that wow factor I was noting. Indeed, it is incongruous that CMA should be straddling this epoch with it's Viñoly (read "star architect") undertaking.

As Ouroussoff notes: "A dynamic moment in American architecture — the explosion of art museums, concert halls and performing arts centers that transformed cities across the country over the last decade — is officially over. The money has dried up, and who knows when there will be a similar boom."

Phew! Akron made it just in time.

But Ouroussoff goes further to mention (thought he does not mention Cleveland in his article) how highway projects have cut arts and cultural districts off from surrounding neighborhoods. So this month we will have an "opportunity" to chit chat with our esteemed art and architecture critic, Steve Litt and some visiting planners regarding their opinions of this opportunity to build a new highway in town.

Ouroussoff goes on to say: "When an arts district flounders, the causes are often found in the social history of its site. Particularly in the aftermath of the highway construction and slum clearance strategies that reached their height in the Eisenhower era, the question has been not only how to create vibrant public spaces but how to repair social, racial and economic scars that are decades old. 

But to Litt, the question is: "whether we've learned anything from the mistakes of the first great wave of highway construction and can design Opportunity Corridor to help create jobs and new addresses for businesses without scarring neighborhoods and causing more damage." Sounds like a foregone conclusion doesn't it? Hear any admission of the social, racial and economic wreckage already wrought in that question? It seems like planners are saying "we'll forget you and starve you into extreme poverty until you let us build our driveway through you". Could the real question be, how long does it take to drive people in the city to desperation so intense that they will gladly grasp at anything that vaguely resembles like a possible solution? Why hasn't money been invested there before now since it seems that, according to the heads of state (CCF, UCI, GCP), that the opportunity corridor is the magic bullet?

The scenarios in Ouroussoff's article sound all too familiar. Arts districts and now hospital and university complexes, like castles in the sky, are surrounded by abject poverty. The lines are drawn and they are clear. University Circle does not blend into the surrounding neighborhoods; it drops off like the continental shelf in an ocean and sports a similar riptide in its divisiveness. Cleveland Clinic to the west of our shining cultural district has been involved in "slum clearance" for years. Now it appears that UCI and CCF have joined forces to pull another slum clearance fast one on Cleveland. With economic development as their sword, they charge forward with their projections of bringing new life to the neighborhoods of Slavic Village, Central, Fairfax and Kinsman. Really!?! A new road will do this?

Imagine NYC with a highway where Soho and Washington Square Park remain. What sort of economic development might have developed from that? Not much I would guess. In the days of Moses v. Jacobs (the link is an interesting interview about the clash), Jane was sort of out there on her own - a lone soldier, a David to Moses' Goliath. May we please see that our neighborhoods do not become victim to the Goliath of UCI as "the money has dried up" yet construction continues. Do we have a Jane Jacobs among our city advocates. Is there a planner out there who dares to say no to the "disadvantaged corridor"? Do the remaining "little old ladies in tennis shoes" who stopped the Lee Clark Freeway which planned to slice up the eastside suburbs give a shit about this do-over that will not take our their lovely Shaker and Cleveland Heights homes? Are these women all now long gone? Has the will to object faded?

I explained to my guest that CMA had decided to tap the rainy day fund (the endowment) to finish the expansion project. The wow factor increased; her eyes widened. But what made them bug out were the stories of the driveway to the district and she paled when I spoke about the Medical Mart and the port move. "Boy!", she said, "Is anyone in Cleveland paying attention to what's happening with the global economy!?!" I could see her adding those sums in her head. "Nope", I said, "We are pretending it's not happening."

So not unlike the Terminal Tower, completed in 1930, Fenn Tower, completed as a gentleman's club in 1929, we see Cleveland once again failing to grasp the direness of the current economic circumstances. Chicken little? No, no, the sky is not falling, but Cleveland's wise business and government leaders seem doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past with nary a care for the human scale blocks, the pedestrian friendly neighborhoods it already has. They see not an opportunity to help neighbors to stay in their homes and small businesses (the life blood of neighborhoods) to remain, but instead builds castles in the sky and roads to reach them. I believe this is what is known as vision lacking sight.

Heaven help us.

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Cautionary Example

Perhaps HealthSpace Cleveland offers a cautionary example of damaging expansion. HealthSpace opened a new building in 2003, borrowing $17 million of the $32 million cost of the building (and other projects). By 2006, interest payments on the new building were being paid from the organization's endowment. Later than year, in financial distress, HealthSpace sold its building to the Cleveland Clinic for $17 million. The organization was then absorbed by the Museum of Natural History.