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Cleveland Mayor Bibb touts plans for a post-pandemic recreational and residential Downtown

A view of the Downtown Cleveland skyline.
Henryk Sadura
A view of the Downtown Cleveland skyline.

As cities across the country grapple with struggling Downtowns post-pandemic, Mayor Justin Bibb said he and other local officials have a plan to not only revitalize Downtown Cleveland, but transform it into an area of residential and recreational activity.

“If you think we’re going back to a pre-COVID world, you’re sadly mistaken. We're not,” Bibb said at a Tuesday press conference on Mall C. "The future of downtown has to be bold, has to be different and we have to change the value proposition of our downtown.”

His vision laid plans for 15-minute walkable city neighborhoods connected to Downtown, a new economic strategy to decentralize business districts and a safe and accessible waterfront.

Even as the area hemorrhages workers, with only 60% of employees returning to Downtown offices as compared to pre-pandemic levels, Downtown is the city’s fastest growing neighborhood with a 32% population growth since 2010. Meanwhile, foot traffic has tracked at 80% of pre-pandemic levels.

Bibb’s plan denotes a clear shift from a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. business district to a residential and recreational Downtown: one that will still focus on work, through short-term goals of prioritizing retail and attracting business, but also life and play, with real estate, housing development and mobility at the forefront.

A major key, Bibb said, is waterfront activation.

“Where we're standing right now will one day be an amazing world class pedestrian bridge where you can walk directly to the lakefront,” Bibb said at the Downtown park.

A $5 million feasibility study is currently looking at a lakefront connector that would allow residents to walk over Route 2, which currently severs walkability between Downtown and the Lake Erie waterfront, as well as tourist and recreational attractions like Cleveland Browns Stadium, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center.

Much of his recent spending plans, including a $20 million commitment of federal stimulus money to waterfront activation and a study to determine the possibility of closing and redevelopment Burke Lakefront Airport, has gone toward his goal of creating a more equitable and accessible lakefront for city residents.

“It's our time to reach the Cuyahoga [River] with support for projects like Irishtown Bend, the Canal Basin Park, the Detroit Superior Veterans Memorial Bridge Project, where you're going to literally see neighborhoods connected and that river valley, it's going to transform,” said Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne, who committed assistance with the waterfront, infrastructure and public safety.

And as Downtown events and activities ramp up — an expected 18% increase in 2023 over last year — Downtown Cleveland Alliance President and CEO Michael Deemer said the group will hire 20 more people specializing in safety and de-escalation to help residents and visitors find resources.

The city, county and other stakeholders will look at implementing both short- and long-term plans such as a retail action plan, promised by the end of the summer, over the next five years to get more people Downtown.

Bibb cited the city’s upcoming smart parking meters, which will replace coin-operated meters with credit card kiosks and mobile pay options, as a small step toward creating a more accessible and welcoming Downtown.

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.