CLEVELAND, OH, April 23, 2011/The Plain Dealer Editorial Board -Top executives of the Cleveland Browns say the team has no interest in serving as the developer of a mixed-use lakefront district just north of the existing stadium and museums. Neither the club nor owner Randy Lerner individually is promising to be a major investor in any such project. Nor are the Browns wedded to the ideas shown in sketches of a sports-oriented district created by architects and consultants retained by the team.
But with all those caveats in place, do not underestimate the importance of what Browns President Mike Holmgren and his executive team are promising to do: convene potential corporate, nonprofit and government partners to jump-start the waterfront development this community has been talking about for more than two decades.
Much of that talk has taken place at meetings set up by planners representing the city or the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority. Those sessions have produced lots of pretty pictures of what could be done on the water’s edge. They have also led to some substantial public investments: North Coast Harbor and Voinovich Park, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the Great Lakes Science Center and Browns Stadium itself. Business leaders have supported many of these planning exercises and contributed generously to the museum projects. But private investors willing to take the next step — to actually put their own money into commercial or residential development — have been notably absent.
That’s what makes the initiative shown by the Browns — themselves a regional icon — so intriguing. If Holmgren and Co. can entice other private-sector players to take a hard look at the lakefront’s economic potential and actually get into the game at long last, they will have performed an enormous public service.
Keep in mind that Holmgren and many other members of his front-office team are relative newcomers to Cleveland. Like a lot of transplants, they’ve been impressed by this region’s assets. And yet when they look at our lakefront — typically a magnet for development and urban renaissance in other cities — they’re startled by how little has been done to open up the space.
This is a propitious time to change that. More than a billion dollars in construction is under way along the Cuyahoga River and downtown, including the medical mart and convention center just across the Shoreway from Browns Stadium. The city is lining up money to build a marina in North Coast Harbor and trying to kindle interest in private development on and around Burke Lakefront Airport. A commission appointed by Mayor Frank Jackson is studying how best to connect downtown’s assets and enhance its public spaces.
It’s against that backdrop that the Browns hope to act as catalysts — not for discussion, they say, but for action. If they can help activate the lakefront with both public access and exciting private development, Cleveland’s greatest natural asset may finally be in play.