A tough-love report from the Lincoln Institute ranks Cleveland 15th on list of 18 ‘legacy cities’ (Plain Dealer)

CLEVELAND, Ohio — It’s a love letter to aging industrial cities such as Cleveland, and a stark reality check in charts and graphs.

A new study from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass., praises Cleveland for creative responses to decline ranging from its new county land bank and urban farm plots to the rebirth of a half dozen city neighborhoods.

But the report from Lincoln, an organization that seeks to promote discussion about the future of cities worldwide, doesn’t mince numbers. It ranks Cleveland 15th on a list of 18 so-called “legacy cities” examined according to indicators such as population loss, poverty, crime, unemployment, housing vacancy and change in median house prices.

And it urges Cleveland and other cities to avoid the allure of “silver bullet” solutions and instead to pursue “strategic incrementalism,” the patient husbandry of numerous efforts at a variety of scales to rebuild schools, neighborhoods and a thriving economy.

Examples in Cleveland could include everything from nurturing neighborhood music clubs and urban farms to building Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and its new Global Center for Health Innovation.

“Change is fostered through the herculean efforts of local heroes who have forged strategic visions for change, articulated the incremental steps needed to move toward that vision, and brought people together around that goal,” the report states.

Alan Mallach of Roosevelt, N.J., a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who co-authored the Lincoln report, said in an interview Monday that Cleveland has made huge strides in its downtown and in neighborhoods such as University Circle, Detroit-Shoreway, Ohio City and Tremont.

The free report, “Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities,” made similar observations about areas of growth and stagnation all 18 cities examined by the study.

But in the rankings, coastal cities such as Philadelphia, (No. 1 in the report) Baltimore, (No. 3) and Newark (No. 5) scored far better than Cleveland on the collective indices.

Cleveland scored near the bottom of the pack along with other heartland industrial cities such as Canton (13); Dayton (14); Youngstown (16); Flint, Mich. (17); and Detroit (18).

“In each of these cities, there are areas of strength and areas of, let’s say nonstrength,” Mallach said. “The areas of strength are still relatively small compared to areas of weakness.”

A table in the report assembled from 2000 and 2010 census data shows Cleveland has seen strong growth in its downtown population, along with Baltimore, St. Louis and Cincinnati.

“Areas like Cleveland’s Warehouse District and Washington Avenue in St. Louis have seen dramatic transformations,” said the report, co-written by Lavea Brachman, also a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings and head of the Brookings/Greater Ohio “Restoring Prosperity to Ohio Initiative.”

Yet the report points out that while Cleveland’s downtown population has surged with millennial newcomers, it has experienced a nearly 25 percent overall decline in the number of residents between the ages of 25 and 34 as a percentage of the city’s total population.

The 18 cities studied by Mallach and Brachman included Akron; Birmingham, Ala.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Camden, N.J.; Cincinnati; Milwaukee; and Syracuse, N.Y. The authors chose cities with a population of at least 50,000 that had lost at least 20 percent of its peak population by 2010.

The Lincoln Institute is a nonpartisan group with Cleveland roots; it was established by John C. Lincoln, who also founded Cleveland-based Lincoln Electric. Cleveland lawyer Anthony Coyne, who chairs Cleveland’s Planning Commission and Group Plan Commission, was recently appointed to the Lincoln board of directors.

The Lincoln report states that cities such as Cleveland have suffered from decades of disinvestment and federal policies that have encouraged suburban outmigration.

The report touts the benefits of regional cooperation, but is skeptical about whether regionalism can take root in many urban areas. It says that cities are more or less on their own in a nation where state and federal policies are often hostile to urban areas.

It urges cities to rebuild downtowns, to sustain viable neighborhoods, to re-use vacant land for new activities, to use historic assets such as universities and medical centers to attract new residents and build competitive advantages, and to re-establish the central economic role of the core city.

“Intentional strategies are needed to unlock the potential of a city’s assets to bring about sustainable regeneration,” Mallach and Brachman say.

Progress “begins with leaders sharing a vision of the city’s future and then making incremental, tactical decisions that will transform the status quo, while avoiding grandiose and unrealistic plans.”

When asked for local examples of incremental planning, Mallach cited the work of Cleveland City Planning Director Robert Brown, whom he described as “one of the better practitioners” who knows “how to move incrementally in a strategically specific direction.”

He also praised the recent “Re-Imagining Cleveland”resource book by Neighborhood Progress Inc. and the Kent State University Urban Design Collaborative that outlines strategies for the re-use of vacant urban lots without drawing a “hard line map” that could ignite political opposition among residents who don’t want to be pushed out of marginal neighborhoods.

The report says “a major project, such as a convention center, casino or sports facility can become an important asset.” But it cautions that a flashy edifice “is not a strategy for change in itself, unless it is integrated into larger schemes to make a meaningful contribution to the city’s future.”

Mallach said that Cleveland’s new Global Center for Health Innovation, which is intended to attract large meetings of medical experts to the city’s adjacent new convention center, is an example of the kind of integration he considers desirable because it builds on Cleveland’s strength in health care.

Yet Mallach said he’s equally enthusiastic about neighborhood revitalization efforts based on the arts, such as the Gordon Square Arts District in Detroit-Shoreway, where renovated apartments and shops are clustered around several community theaters.

He said such projects could be as important to the city’s future if not more so than preserving big legacy institutions.

“You’re creating areas that have a distinctive quality of life and an attraction for people and that’s what’s really important about it,” he said. “Arguably in the final analysis that’s more important than what happens to the Cleveland Orchestra, even though I shudder to hear those words escape my lips.”

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