Oasis on the breakwall?
On December 11, EcoCity Cleveland organized a workshop on ecological restoration possibilities for the Cleveland lakefront. More than 20 local experts fisheries biologists, botanists, birders, water quality engineers, and planners spent the day brainstorming ideas to improve habitat and environmental quality along our region's most important interface between land and water. The workshop was facilitated by consultants from the nationally-known landscape architecture firm, Andropogon Associates.
One idea from the workshop has already caught on turning the harbor breakwall into a marsh. The following story appeared in the Plain Dealer on January 12, 2003.
An island of quiet right downtown
By John C. Kuehner
The Cleveland Harbor breakwall stretches across Lake Erie like a thin gray line of string.
For more than a century, the five-mile-long rubble mound between East 72nd Street and Edgewater Park has shielded the city's shipping lanes and shoreline from the whimsy and madness of Lake Erie.
But as Cleveland considers ways to make its waterfront more accessible to the public, Roger Thoma sees the breakwall as the foundation for a bold idea: A narrow island with a beach, native trees and shrubs that would be a nationally known bird and fish site.
He envisions building the kind of habitat that once dominated the lakeshore before people built marinas and docks and lined the river and lake bank with steel walls.
"One of the greatest things lost from Lake Erie is the wetland function," said Thoma, who works for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
"Wetlands not only help to keep the water clean, but they are spawning areas, nursery areas, feeding areas and winter refuge areas for fish."
Building a lakeshore marsh would give Cleveland a premier fishing spot and bird sanctuary right downtown, as well as a great spot for walkers, runners and bird watchers.
People could reach the land by building bridges from Dike 14, a manmade peninsula north of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, or from Edgewater Park.
The concept has caught the imagination of planners.
"I really believe it's one of the most innovative and bold ideas I have heard of for the lakefront in a long time," said Paul Alsenas, director of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission.
"The view back to the city would change our perception of the shoreline and how people relate to it."
Thoma proposed the idea at a daylong workshop last month that brought together the region's environmental experts and planners to brainstorm ways to ecologically restore Cleveland's waterfront.
His idea is to build a second breakwall 200 to 300 yards north of the existing one.
The space in between the two walls would be filled in, using rubble and unpolluted dredge material.
More than half of the land would be underwater and designed to resemble natural wetlands with a variety of plants. Gaps would be left in the wall for fish to pass through and some water to flow in and out in response to the changing lake levels.
Thoma oversaw a similar project this year on the Black River. He designed a shallow fish habitat on the river bank that already shows success in attracting fish.
But what he has proposed for Lake Erie would be much larger.
Thoma believes the marsh would attract more than a dozen species of fish, such as lake trout, lake herring, northern pike and muskellunge.
It also could be home for Lake Erie's native, pollution-sensitive fish that live in wetlands, such as black nose and black chin shiners, and pug nose minnow.
Bird experts liked the concept because it would give birds a natural bypass around downtown Cleveland as they fly along the shoreline. Birds are often confused by the city's reflective, shiny buildings and the lights, which sometimes result in their death.
Plant experts liked the idea because it would provide a much-needed spot for native shoreline plants to grow.
"This is really missing in Ohio," said Jim Bissell, the curator of botany at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "If it's done right, it could be an unbelievably special area."
Natural marshes and wetlands once flourished on Lake Erie's shoreline and the banks of its tributaries, such as the Cuyahoga, Chagrin and Rocky rivers, Bissell said. Now only a few remain.
Altering the breakwall is not that wild an idea, said Philip Berkeley, a project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Buffalo, which has jurisdiction over it.
"It has, and can be, done," he said.
Cost would be a factor. The deeper the water, the greater the cost. Water depth along the breakwall varies from 12 to 33 feet.
Thoma had no idea how much it would cost to build. But he said federal and state money is available for such projects. Engineering issues also would have to be worked out.
It could be built in phases over several decades. But Thoma suspects that once the first section was built, its success would put pressure on to build more, faster.
"It would give Cleveland something to brag about," he said.
The city started its waterfront planning process last year. Cleveland leaders will present the public its draft land use plan for the waterfront in April.
Thoma's idea will be considered for inclusion in the plan, said Martin Cader, a Cleveland planner.
"I have not heard anyone say it's unreasonable or pie-in-the-sky," said Cader, who also attended the workshop. "It's certainly an intriguing idea."
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© 2003 The Plain Dealer.