Across the industrial midwest, few issues are quite as compelling as urban renewal. The prospects of a revived downtown and vibrant pockets of retail and restaurants are the sorts of things that bring together urban planners, city councilmembers, philanthropists, academics and residents in ways that elude other shared concerns. Want to fix public education? Great. But if you really want to get people out and talking to one another, yakking it up on social media, just propose a dramatic redesign of a shared urban place. Maybe it's our nostalgia for a struggling city's past glory, maybe it's our optimism about what's possible, or a vision of a reborn city we want to transfer. Whatever the reason, we love dreaming and arguing about place-making.

It's in that spirit that Clevelander Joe Baur began a conversation about a proposed skywalk that would connect the historic building housing Cleveland's new downtown casino with its parking garage across the street. Not surprisingly, that conversation has quickly become a crusade.

A broader conversation on this topic has actually been going on since 2009, when Quicken Loans mortgage magnate and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert first began the successful campaign that legalized casino gambling in four cities in Ohio. Part of his pitch to the city he has adopted as a second hometown was that the casino would be designed in ways that would enhance downtown vibrancy. That was why the casinos were to be part of downtowns, and Gilbert pledged to avoid the mistakes of casino operators elsewhere.

Detroit, Gilbert told me in 2009, "blew it as far as where they put those casinos and how they integrated it with the city and they spread them out and didn't put them close enough to downtown." He has consistently talked about how this would be integrated and give visitors opportunities to find connections and discover street level restaurants as they move from, say, Quicken Loans Arena to his casino.

"We care about the downtowns and the cities where these casinos are," he said. "We could have gone out to a cornfield somewhere with a bunker mentality and tried to push this thing through. Our designs and our plans are fully integrated in the urban cores and the downtowns."

It's hard for a lot of people to understand how a skywalk that would deliver gamblers directly to their cars delivers on that promise of integrating the casino into the downtown environment. That's one argument against it. The counter argument is that Cleveland actually has a few of these kinds of things already--there's already a skywalk connecting Quicken Loans arena to Tower City, which connects to the casino; and just north and east of that area is a labyrinth on underground hallways and malls that connect historic buildings and less historic buildings. Tons of downtown workers don't go outside in the winter. Would we be better off if they did? I don't know, but those restaurants in those underground malls would die.

The other argument is aesthetic. Historic preservationists are up in arms right now, and that's mostly where Baur's crusade has gained traction. Casino developers must ask the National Park Service (which oversees the National Register of Historic Places) to give its blessing on the skywalk or risk losing the historic tax credits associated with the building's status. Baur has collected more than 130 signatures in a petition here and delivered them to the Park Service, which will deliver a decision in December.

As you can see in the conversation embedded below, dialogue has been nuanced and involved, and the opposition to the skywalk is strong  But the developers have their backers, too, including key support in city hall. What's great about all of this dialogue, though, is that very little of it is happening through official channels. Baur has used Civic Commons, Facebook and Twitter to convene the conversation; Cleveland's downtown councilman--who supports the skywalk--uses Twitter more than anything else. And all of this social media is effectively broadening the conversation to include downtown denizens and suburban residents, planners and community activists, the business community and local government.

Everybody's looking for the secret sauce for urban renewal. Ultimately, Dan Gilbert will decide whether to do this or not. If he wants to spend the money, it's unlikely anyone will stop him, and if it's built, we'll find out if it helps or hinders urban growth and vibrancy. But it's clear that online engagement is a key ingredient to the secret sauce. If the place matters--and it always does--then someone is going to start using these tools to either gather support or organize opposition.


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Copyright © 2012 Dan Moulthrop; available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.

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