University Circle: Building a neighborhood
Posted August 18, 2014 in Articles
Author: Timothy Magaw
For lack of a better phrase, life's come full circle — in the Circle — for Allen Ford. He was born in 1928 at University Hospitals, and today, the 86-year-old retired Standard Oil exec resides at Judson Manor, a senior housing community in the heart of University Circle on Cleveland's East Side. In between, Ford served on the boards at many of the Circle's anchor institutions, including UH, Case Western Reserve University and the Western Reserve Historical Society.
“There's a lot of happy coincidence there,” Ford said.
So, Ford saw first-hand University Circle's transformation into Cleveland's cultural and medical epicenter over much of the last century. More specifically, since he moved into Judson a decade ago, he has observed the Circle's evolution into a more complete neighborhood — one ripe with desirable housing stock, a grocery store, modern dining options and a dense enough population to support those amenities.
But for Ford, what makes University Circle a complete neighborhood isn't so much the bricks and mortar, but the diversity.
“It's a marvelous center for several neighborhoods,” Ford said. “It has an incredibly diverse gathering here.”
What makes a neighborhood is a bit of a subjective question. Some say it's the people or a sense of community, while others say it would be the physical infrastructure and the ease of daily living.
That said, most people agree that University Circle is a complete neighborhood or at least on its way to becoming one, though perhaps not in the same sense as others in Cleveland. Technically, University Circle is a roughly one-mile stretch about three miles east of downtown. However, the community's social fabric is influenced by the dynamic neighborhoods that surround it: Fairfax, Glenville, Hough, Little Italy and others.
The Circle isn't bound by a particular ethnic group or defined by a single institution. Instead, it's a cultural melting pot with a slate of powerhouse institutions — in many cases, competing ones — that create a sense of place unmatched in the region.
“University Circle is one of the most unique neighborhoods in Ohio because of its diversity, international flare, architecture, density,” said Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc. “University Circle is a place of memory. It's a place everybody has a story about — a first date at the botanical garden or a first beer at Euclid Tavern.”
A place to live, work, play
Since 2000, a few billion dollars have been invested in University Circle. Anchor institutions like the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Botanical Garden, Case Western Reserve and University Hospitals have pumped millions of dollars into their own campuses. At the same time, outside investors have pumped millions into new housing and entertainment options in the area.
Take the $65 million, mixed-use Uptown development that's slowly transforming the once-dead, no man's land at the core of University Circle into one of the city's most exciting urban enclaves.
Also, University Circle Inc. is working with two prominent Cleveland-area developers to build a $130 million residential high-rise on a site occupied partially by the Children's Museum of Cleveland. The project — One University Circle — calls for a building of 25 to 28 stories with about 280 units ranging in size from 720 square feet to a 4,200-square-foot penthouse.
Transportation has long been one of the biggest barriers to making University Circle a well-rounded place to live, though efforts are underway to remedy that situation.
One of those new projects under way is a $17.5 million, Little Italy-University Circle rapid station at Euclid Avenue and East 120th street.
“Living next to fixed-rail transit accessibility has become a core value in why a neighborhood becomes successful,” said Lillian Kuri, program director for architecture, urban design and sustainable development at the Cleveland Foundation, whose support for transportation planning spurred more than $1 million in support for engineering studies for three transportation initiatives near University Circle.
“We're on the cusp of a lot of great progress, but have put in motion things to make this a district unlike any other,” she said.
Completing the circle
University Circle Inc. believes what defines a complete neighborhood is a place where people can achieve everything they need in their daily living within a 20-minute walk.
That could include a grocery store, housing, a variety of school choices and access to health care. Based on those metrics, University Circle could be characterized as a complete neighborhood.
And if any of those needed daily amenities aren't yet in place, they're likely well on the way.
“You can get the things you need in every day life increasingly, but not completely,” said Terry Schwarz, a neighborhood planner and director of Kent State University's Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. “It's starting to coalesce.”
For one, Schwarz said University Circle has plenty of great civic spaces — the cultural gardens, the art museum's atrium, the courtyard outside the Museum of Contemporary Art, for example — but none of them seem to have been shared by the public like, say, Central Park in New York or Public Square in downtown Cleveland.
Also, safety will continue to be an issue, or at least a perceived one, much like downtown Cleveland. Matters weren't helped earlier this summer when a group of Case students were robbed at gunpoint in a university building. The event led university officials to launch a new crime-prevention program, which included the addition of new security officers to the area. University Circle has its own full-service police department that works with all of the local anchor institutions' security forces.
Also, while the new transportation options could ease the crunch, parking remains another issue in the densely populated area. Those matters aren't helped by the fact that the neighborhood's anchor institutions are some of the region's major employers. One effort under way to ease that issue includes University Circle Inc. and Cleveland Heights encouraging the 3,300 people who live in the Heights and work in the Circle to make the trip in something other than single-occupant vehicles.
About 75 years ago, Ronayne said University Circle would have been described as a complete neighborhood.
That impression faded in time, especially in the wake of World War II when throngs of people vacated urban cores across the country for the suburbs.
“When you think about it, people haven't thought about this place as a neighborhood for most of the last century,” he said.
But in many cases, that's changing. Sure, there's still plenty of work to be done, but a big reason for University Circle's growth is the willingness of the local anchor institutions — the museums and hospitals, specifically — to work together for the betterment of the entire neighborhood.