By Lee Chilcote
Photos by Lee Chilcote

Standing atop the viaduct bridge that carries commuter trains between downtown Cleveland and the city’s west side, Lennie Stover stoops down and fishes a rusty piece of metal from the gravel next to the tracks. The action comes as second nature to him. For the past 25 years, the retired financial services advisor has spent nights and weekends as a volunteer caretaker of the 2.5-mile stretch of railway adjacent to the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s Red Line.

He pauses and looks out at the Cleveland skyline, the twisting Cuyahoga River, and the low-lying industrial Flats.

“This is where you’d take someone who comes here from out of town,” says Stover, who spearheads regular cleanups of the area with the Rotary Club of Cleveland, a group that’s maintained the corridor since the 1970s. “When they first opened the High Line in New York City, they thought they’d get 300,000 visitors a year, but they got three million.”

lenny on bridge w dntn in background

Lennie Stover looks down from the RTA viaduct bridge

A train approaches with a loud rumble, a reminder that this is still an active rail line. Stover, who gives regular tours of the area in his battered 2001 Ford truck, is allowed up here because the Rotary Club has a services agreement with RTA. As he unlocked the gate earlier, he called RTA dispatch to let them know he was here.

Stover and other Rotary leaders now want to open up a section of the railway to all comers. They envision turning the 2.5 mile stretch no longer used by trains into a $13 million trail and linear park called the Red Line Greenway. Their goal is to create a new recreational space and transportation corridor that they say will appeal to both Cleveland residents and visitors.

“Not only is it a green space and park for you to come and enjoy, but there are a lot of people who don’t have cars, who want to commute by bike,” says Matt Koriath, a health insurance manager who rolls up his sleeves to run a Bobcat on cleanup crew on the weekends. “This would create a corridor that’s safe and confined, with high visibility from trains, and that allows people to go get their groceries and come home.”

future red line greenway - trail alongside rapid tracks

View of a Cleveland RTA train from the planned Red Line Greenway property

In recent years, a flurry of reclaimed infrastructure projects have been launched in cities across the U.S. Rust Belt cities like Cleveland are uniquely positioned to take advantage of this trend, given the abundance of old rail lines, abandoned factories, and other unused infrastructure that exists in post-industrial cities that have shed people and jobs for decades.

“This is a project that celebrates our industrial heritage, who we are, and doesn’t hide from that, but embraces it,” says Ann Zoller, Executive Director of LAND Studio, a nonprofit that uses public art, sustainable design, planning, and programming to connect people and neighborhoods in Cleveland. “It’s not that it’s intended to be the ‘High Line Lite,’ but there are lessons here in terms of reclaiming infrastructure in a way that tells the story of the region.”

Forty years of prep work

The seed for the Red Line Greenway was planted in the late 70s, when Rotary volunteers began cleaning up trash and graffiti around the tracks to create a good first impression for visitors coming to Cleveland. The west side train shuttles people between the airport and downtown, so volunteers focused on track near the viaduct bridge, calling the project “Rapid Recovery.”

Over the years, the Rotary has acted as the area’s unpaid, weekend-warrior landscape crew. Volunteers have picked up hundreds of tires, sprayed fast-growing Japanese knotweed, and carted dumpsters full of metal to the scrapyard. A few years ago, they got permission from RTA to scrap some old track and ended up making $50,000 that they put back into the project.

graffiti on RR tracks near greenway

Graffiti along the tracks adjacent to the Greenway

With the neighboring Ohio City, Tremont, and Detroit Shoreway neighborhoods experiencing a wave of gentrification, Rotary leaders say the time is ripe for the Red Line Greenway. The tracks function as a de facto dividing line between up-and-coming neighborhoods and poorer ones to the south, yet there are twelve spur trails and bridges planned that will help to bridge the gap.

The Rotary Club’s dedication to cleaning up the area is one thing that has inspired RTA and other partners to sign on to the project. Although RTA was initially hesitant – transit agencies tend to get nervous when asked to consider putting people on bikes next to trains – RTA officials now say they’re completely behind the greenway and are pushing to make it a reality.

“One of the reasons RTA is really behind the project is that biking and using alternative forms of transportation are well within our mission,” says Maribeth Feke, Director of Programming and Planning for RTA. “Bikes assist people with taking the train and using RTA to get to other places. There’s something in transit called ‘the first and last mile’ and that’s what bikes assist with.”

LAND Studio was also an early advocate for the project and put some funding behind the creation of conceptual plans. “We were so struck by … the very pragmatic way [the greenway] connects to what’s happening in our neighborhoods,” says Zoller. “It was kind of a no-brainer for us to say: ‘Let’s take this incredible idea … and take the concept and make it a little more real.’”

From vision to reality

While Stover and others have been pushing the idea of the greenway for several years now, it might have been left stuck on the drawing board if Rotary leaders hadn’t convinced Cleveland Metroparks, the regional parks organization, to consider adding the greenway to its portfolio.

view from lenny's truck of future greenway

View from Lennie Stover’s truck while driving the future Greenway

In January, Metroparks received a $2.1 million Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant from the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA). Suddenly it seemed the project had legs. RTA also completed a survey and engineering study showing it’s feasible to build Phase I, which runs from the viaduct to West 41st Street and is estimated to cost at least $4.7 million, by separating the proposed trail from the active tracks with a fence. Phase II would involve building a trail alongside Interstate 90, while Phase III would involve building a cantilevered trail off the bridge.

In May, Rotary officials and other partners took their vision to the public, hosting a public meeting that drew over 200 people. Although Phase I seems to be doable, the rest of the project remains highly conceptual at this point, but the Rotary’s long-term goal is to create an authentic public amenity and tourist attraction like the Dequindre Cut in Detroit or the newly opened 606 in Chicago. “We don’t want it to be just any trail – we want it to be a work of art,” says Koriath, citing the possibility of public art, natural ecosystems, bike rental facilities, and features like a café along the greenway.

Stover wants to see the trail happen quickly, but the CMAQ grant only covers half of Phase I, and those funds won’t be available until 2020 at the earliest. This fall Rotary officials plan to launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise a portion of the $520,000 match that the grant requires.

“Nobody wants the trail to take a decade or more,” says Stover. “Getting it done in 6-8 years for the first three phases would be really good.”

Slowdown ahead?

Yet the reality is that it could take a lot longer. One of the problems with building new trails is that funding is notoriously difficult to identify and secure. State transportation agencies can fund trails, but the vast majority of Ohio Department of Transportation funding goes to roads, bridges, and highways. Liberal think tank Policy Matters Ohio says that Ohio spends less than one percent of its annual transportation budget on public transit and ranks 47th among states in transit funding.

view of downtown from RR tracks

A few of downtown Cleveland’s buildings from the tracks

Policy Matters believes the Red Line Greenway could face a bottleneck without the help of more state transportation dollars. “The greenway hopes to be a much-needed catalyst towards a more walkable, equitable city,” writes Sophia Zupanc, an intern with Policy Matters Ohio, in a blog post. Yet “it may be a while before Clevelanders get the green space they deserve. The state of Ohio could and should do MUCH to help, but past experience suggests they won’t.”

Typically, trails in Northeast Ohio are built by patching together public and private funding. The $15 million Lake Link Trail in Cleveland’s Flats, a portion of which follows abandoned railroad right-of-way, has been in the works for at least a decade. In the end, project partners raised the money to build the trail mostly from private donors, including the Cleveland Foundation.

“It does take a long time,” admits Zoller, whose organization has been a key advocate of trails. “You’ve got to bring a variety of public partners and stakeholders on board. It takes a while makes sure the planning is being done with proper engagement. I think there’s a huge opportunity in this region to look at trails and how they might be funded and ways to fund them sooner.”

lake link trail - greenway connects to this

The new Lake Link Trail which would connect to the Red Line Greenway

Ohio has the money to fund trails, argues Policy Matters sustainable development researcher Amanda Woodrum, but has misplaced priorities. Woodrum cites the $330 million Opportunity Corridor project – a three-mile road linking I-490 to University Circle paid for by turnpike funds – as one example of how Ohio prioritizes building new roads over funding public transportation.

“When it comes down to it, where there’s a will there’s a way,” she says. “They talked about leveraging dollars from the turnpike to mend bridges and fix roads, but how is that money being spent? On lots of new highways and expansion of roadways. Every time you bring up better funding for transit, it’s ‘Yeah, but we’ve got all these roads and bridges to fix.’ But when they come up with $400 million for a road or highway project, then nobody bats an eye.”

Not exactly waiting around

While leaders work to raise funds for the greenway, Rotary volunteers have already gotten to work on carving out the future trail. Rotary stores two large shipping containers full of maintenance equipment along the greenway, and each week, Stover brings dozens of volunteers down to help maintain the area. On a recent June morning, 50 Forest City Enterprises volunteers trimmed trees and overgrowth along Turn Avenue, a street of modest homes in Ohio City.

Recently, Stover, Koriath, and others rented equipment and excavated an abandoned alley that traverses Columbus Road hill from the viaduct bridge. It will become a spur trail that links the Red Line Greenway to the Lake Link Trail, leaders say. RTA had no idea the project was taking place until it was finished, which ruffled a few bureaucratic feathers. Yet Stover, who bops around in his truck like he owns the place, would rather ask for forgiveness than permission.

“I quit golf because I like this better,” he says with a laugh. “I was a twelfth handicap at one time, but I just realized that no one criticizes me if I miss a blade of grass down here.”

nickel plate road bridge

The Red Line Greenway approach to the Nickel Plate Road Bridge

Cleveland, long dominated by cars, is having something of a greenway renaissance: the Lake Link follows an old railroad right-of-way, while the Towpath traces the old Ohio and Erie Canal. When these trails connect to the Red Line Greenway, pedestrians and cyclists will have access to a greenway network.

Mother Nature isn’t exactly waiting around for the ribbon cutting, though. Although the greenway is touted as a transportation corridor, it’s also a burgeoning natural ecosystem full of plants and animals. Ironically, this biological resurgence is only possible because Cleveland’s population, decimated by deindustrialization, urban sprawl, and the housing crisis, has shrunk from one million in the 1950’s to less than 400,000. Stover and other advocates say turning this old infrastructure into a park will help to create a healthier, greener city.

On a recent tour, Stover pointed out wildflowers by the Nickel Plate road bridge and a rusty catenary with a tree growing through it. “There are these woodchip piles by the West 25th station, and they grow grubs,” he says. “Foxes love grubs, so they attracted a den of foxes. Every night, they bring their cubs out for a walk.”

“So many people travel all over the country to see the High Line in New York and other successful greenways,” adds Koriath. “We have a very unique opportunity here. Very few other cities have a corridor like this that goes directly into the city, full of wildlife and trees.”

Lee Chilcote is a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. He works as Managing Editor of Fresh Water Cleveland. He also writes essays and poetry.

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