Small ephemeral waterfall flows into Lake Erie on Kelley’s Island. Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial on Ohio’s South Bass Island is on the background. Getty Images.
For most American cities, a project that lays down a new asphalt walking/biking trail that is less than a mile long and has no one too angry over its being built would be quietly nice, but of little importance overall. Having it near a lake or pond would be a good added feature, but again, the same: good little project and now let’s see who uses it.
But when Euclid, Ohio — an inner-ring suburb just east of Cleveland with a population of 50,000, and one that got hammered by the foreclosure crisis — started to plan a 3/4 of a mile trail along the shores of Lake Erie more than a decade ago, the city knew it was on to something that was very different and tough to explain. It was about convincing the public — and the property owners that held the lakefront trail property the city needed — that public access to Lake Erie had much more importance than merely being a quiet place for walks along the shore.
It was about economic development, propping up property values, giving its citizenry and visitors access to one of the five Great Lakes, and changing the city’s identity, all in a trail less than a mile long.
“There was a lot of infrastructure design needed to be done and public financing to do it, and the community is always wary of when the local government is spending their tax dollars,” said Allison Lukacsy-Love, Director of the Department of Planning & Development for the City of Euclid, in an Ohio Capital Journal interview
“What was going on is that we were sensing a change of mindset in how people in Euclid were seeing Lake Erie,” she said. That change was not just flipping a switch either. For many older citizens of Euclid (and many other Midwest cities), Lake Erie was part of the old industrial complex where the filth was dumped, where the sewers were flushed into, and where the fish might be caught, but not to be eaten.
“For many years people were not seeing the lake as a community asset to invest in and make public access a priority,” Lukacsy-Love continued. “And what made this even more difficult was that we couldn’t show them examples elsewhere of what we were planning, because no one else was doing what we were thinking of doing. At least not how we were going to do it, anyway.”
The “how” of this project was overcoming the difficulty many Great Lakes communities have always had in acquiring lakefront lands for public parks. It is very complicated and involves hundreds of years of court interpretations of what part of the Great Lakes beach front access is public and what is private. Unlike the oceanfront property in Massachusetts, for example, where public access is determined by the tides (the land between high and low tides is public, for the most part), the Great Lakes have no tides and therefore little public access.
That’s’ why Great Lakes frontal property usually always stays in private hands, and the public is not welcome on most of it. Hence, the old legal saying in places like Ohio is that “if you have one foot wet and one foot dry, you’re trespassing.”
Euclid, which had faced a big decline in manufacturing jobs and property values because of the foreclosure crisis, wanted to link two public spaces along the lakeshore with a trail. But the lakefront property where the trail would go was owned by private interests, some general single-family households, some by apartment complexes. Euclid had to find a way for these property owners to transfer their deeds of their lakefront ownership to the city. The problem for the city, however, as cities through the Great Lake region have always dealt with, is getting all the property owners to participate is almost always impossible, as one property owner could hold out and kill the entire plan.
And eminent domain, forced property ownership change (like is done for highway construction, for example) is difficult to do legally for parks.
So Euclid threw out an idea that was very simple: Make them an offer they can’t refuse. The property owners were dealing with the very expensive proposition of cliff erosion, meaning their houses were above the lake and it was costing thousand of dollars a year to keep the cliff from moving further inland because of the erosion. It was worse some years more than others (depending on the lake water level and the weather), but it was a constant problem
Euclid made this proposal: If you give us the rights to the lakefront property for the trail and other accoutrements we plan (small beaches, paddleboat access, a possible small marina), we will shore up the cliff with boulders and sloping descents to prevent erosion of your property.
All of the property owners eventually approved. And their reasoning was very different than old suburban thinking: The erosion control and the trail would provide neighborhood stability and improve their property values.
The trail is now completed, though some of the beaches and possible marina are still in the final planning stages. The entire trail costs about $14 million (most of that was the erosion control part of the plan), and took a hodge-podge of stitching together various funding. Some came from Cuyahoga County’s gambling casino revenues, some from federal agencies like FEMA, some from the state’s ODNR, even a small part from the United States and Canadian jointly run Great Lakes Commission.
Matt Doss, policy director for the Great Lakes Commission, said recently that what is happening in Euclid is reflective of a larger shift in the way we view public waterfronts. “What you are seeing in Euclid is the change in the structural attitude toward dealing with the Great Lakes access issue, and it is an example of landowners working with government, which has been something hard to overcome.”
Before the waterfront trail project, Euclid had only about 6% of its four-mile shoreline publicly accessible. The trail has now added triple that amount of access footage.
Recognition of the project is beginning to roll in. Lukacsy-Love said the city gets frequent calls from other Midwest cities situated on one of the five Great lakes asking for details on how Euclid did this project because they are thinking of doing something similar. Groups from Northeast Ohio political and environmental groups come to the city to get tours of the trail. And the Ohio Economic Development Association (OEDA) gave Euclid the 2021 “Best Project” award in October.
Starting at the end of this month, Allison Lukacsy-Love will join the very influential Greater Cleveland Partnership as a senior director of major projects with a focus on the city of Cleveland’s downtown lakefront plan.
What is sometimes lost in all this was how Euclid was seeing its geographic location on Lake Erie as a possible way to help pull itself out of the recent doldrums. It was largely a bedroom community built after World War II, with a population of commuters to downtown Cleveland and a big manufacturing factory base the closeness of Interstate 90 which passes through.
The population reached its peak of just over 70,000 in 1970 and has dropped to just under 50,000 presently. The effect of the housing foreclosure property value drop is still in effect: In 2010, according to U.S. Census figures, the average home value was about $110,600 and now is around $85,000. The average household income in Euclid is $49,995 with a poverty rate of 21.78%, both of which are below and above national averages.
Still, Euclid is not sitting still and waiting for more poverty to arrive and the home prices to stay down. A fledgling retail comeback has taken place downtown, as well as Amazon taking over the abandoned Euclid Square Mall as a new distribution center. Property values are going up slowly but steadily as well, with young couples, especially in the healthcare industry, finding affordable single-family homes close to where they work.
And a part of that reinvention is repurposing its identity as being on a 10,000 square-mile lake with decent accessibility to it.
“We’ve really looked at our lakefront and how we can capitalize on that asset, and make the most of it,” said Euclid Mayor Kirsten Holzheimer-Gail in a recent video. “Not just look at the problems and what we are going to do about them, but what are our assets and what are our strengths, and how do we build on that.”
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