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Port of Cleveland breaks ground on $60 million Irishtown Bend stabilization project

A paddle boarder in the Cuyahoga River just below the Irishtown Bend Hillside.
Jon Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
The view of a paddle boarder in the Cuyahoga River from the Columbus Road bridge facing the Irishtown Bend hillside on Friday, August 25, 2023. The Irishtown Bend hillside is unstable, and at risk of collapse. Port of Cleveland celebrated a groundbreaking ceremony Friday for its $60 million hillside stabilization project.

The Port of Cleveland celebrated the groundbreaking of its Irishtown Bend stabilization project Friday to prevent an eroding hillside from endangering the economy along the Cuyahoga River.

Sediment and fill material were placed along the hillside in the 1960s and remains there today. It has since mixed with soft, clay material below creating a risk of collapse, Port of Cleveland President and CEO Will Friedman said.

“There is a very real risk and threat that we are beginning to avert today,” he said. “I know when you look at it you think ‘Oh, that looks stable to me,’” he said. “It’s not. There’s things going on underground and there’s conditions there that are a real threat to jobs.”

Will Friedman, President and CEO of the Port of Cleveland standing and speaking at a podium.
Jon Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
President and CEO of the Port of Cleveland Will Friedman discussing the importance of Irishtown Bend to the City of Cleveland at a groundbreaking ceremony on Friday, August 25, 2023.

If the hillside were to collapse, it could threaten the shipping channel along the Cuyahoga River that Friedman said could lead to $4.7 billion in annual economic impact and the loss of more than 22,000 jobs.

“It’s important that we fix this problem, he said, “take it on, which we’ve done together as a community.”

The Westerly Low-Level Interceptor is a sewer line below the hill that serves customers on the west side of the river and Scranton Peninsula. The pipe also prevents sewage from flowing into the Cuyahoga River, Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District CEO Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells said. The pipe would be threated if the hill were to collapse, which would endanger the river itself.

“Without this pipe, there is no sewage treatment for this entire area, and as we stand here today, 185 feet of this pipe is being slowly crushed by the gradual failure of this hillside,” Dreyfuss-Wells said. “If you're an engineer in this room, you're looking at this hillside and you're just basically sitting here crossing your fingers.”

The sewer district has systems in place to monitor the hillside and mitigate any sewage that would escape if the pipe were to collapse, Dreyfuss-Wells said, but the hillside stabilization project offers a permanent solution to the problem.

The biggest concern, Lake Carriers’ Association President James Weakley said, is the potential impact on people and the city’s economy if the hillside were to fall into the river.

“Failure of this hillside would be catastrophic to anything upriver,” Weakley said. “Steel would stop being manufactured in Cleveland, and that supply chain, if not completely disrupted, would certainly be challenged.”  

Port of Cleveland partnered with federal and local agencies to bring the project through to fruition, Friedman said, including the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, West Creek Conservancy, Ohio City Inc., LAND studio, Cleveland, Metroparks, Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several state agencies, including the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Ohio Public Works Commission.

The American Courage cargo ship travels down the Cuyahoga River passing Irishtown Bend.
Jon Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
The American Courage cargo ship travels down the Cuyahoga River passing Irishtown Bend on Friday, August 25, 2023. Port of Cleveland celebrated a groundbreaking ceremony Friday for its $60 million hillside stabilization project to prevent the hillside from collapsing and crippling the local freight economy.

The Port of Cleveland received more than $14 million in federal funding for the project that Freidman attributed to the advocacy of Senator Sherrod Brown on behalf of the Greater Cleveland area.

“I live here, but these ideas didn't come from me,” Brown said. “They came from people like Ernie and Jeff and Blaine and the mayor and Grace coming to us with ‘What do you need? What can we do to make this city more livable, to make this city more successful, to make the city more vital?’”

The Port of Cleveland also received $14.5 million from the State of Ohio and $19 million from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, Cuyahoga County and the City of Cleveland.

“The city put in over nearly $8 million dollars in this effort but also a lot of sweat equity. A lot of emails and phone calls,” Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb said. “But today is also an amazing symbol of what can happen when the public and private sector come together and do great things for our city and our region.”

Though it might not seem like it, Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency Executive Director and CEO Grace Gallucci said the hillside stabilization project is also a transportation project.

“We all tend to think about transportation in terms of roads, bridges, public transit, bikeways,” she said. “But our region is fortunate enough to have a navigable river that connects the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence Seaway supporting our economy and improving the quality of life in the region.”

The Cuyahoga River binds Cleveland together, Cuyahoga County Executive Director Chris Ronayne said. He went on to highlight the diverse makeup of the communities surrounding the river and those who lived and worked nearby in the past, including indigenous people who first inhabited the river valley, German and Irish immigrants who built the canal and Black Americans who migrated to work there.

“I want to honor those who came before us,” Ronayne said. “This river has brought together the entire mosaic of Cleveland – 120 ethnic communities strong.”

Cincinnati-based contractor Goettle was selected in July to handle the stabilization portion of the project.

The stabilization process will begin by removing the fill material from the hillside and reducing the risk of collapse. The sewer line will also be repaired and more than 2,100 linear feet of bulkhead will be installed along the river’s edge.

A backhoe at the top of the Irishtown Bend hillside with its shovel full of dirt as it begins to dig up the hillside.
Jon Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
A backhoe at the top of the Irishtown Bend hillside officially breaking ground on the Port of Cleveland hillside stabilization project on Friday, August 25, 2023.

After stabilization is complete, there are plans to select a separate contractor to lead a development project to transform the area into a 23-acre public park bringing the total cost of the project to more than $100 million.

“[A] 23-acre, world class riverfront park that is connecting residents and visitors of all different backgrounds to provide a safe and stable river, river channel and high-quality green space for our entire community to enjoy for many, many years to come,” Ward 3 City Councilman Kerry McCormack said.

Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin says the project is one with a “triple bottom line,” since it maintains and improves the city’s greenspace, commerce and environment.

The project will also include the construction of a bridge from the riverfront to the nearby Riverview Towers apartment complex, Griffin said, which is a Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority complex that has lacked access to the river.

“My beautiful granddaughter literally stays two blocks up the street,” he said. “I look forward to the day that I get a chance to walk her down here and tell her about this day when we kicked off this beautiful river project in the city of Cleveland and how Cleveland came together and showed alignment from the public, private and philanthropic sector.”

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.