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Cleveland Mayor Bibb introduces legislation to remove Public Square Jersey barriers

Jersey barriers on both sides of Superior Avenue in Cleveland's Public Square
Annie Wu
Ideastream Public Media
Jersey barriers on both sides of Superior Avenue in Cleveland's Public Square.

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb wants to remove the concrete Jersey barriers in the city’s Public Square in Downtown Cleveland.

The city installed the barriers along Superior Avenue in 2017, a year after a $50 million renovation of the square. Superior runs east west through the middle of the square.

“Public Square should be the people’s park, but for too long, Jersey barriers have got in the way,” Mayor Bibb said in a statement. “Today, my administration is taking the first step towards removing these barriers and restoring Public Square to its original intent - to serve as a meeting place in the heart of our city.”

The Jersey barriers line Superior Avenue on both sides. Their installation appeared to violate the spirit of landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations’ redesign, which then-Mayor Frank Jackson's administration had described, upon completion of the work, as transforming Public Square “from four separate quadrants into a unified public space.”

Many critics have decried them as brutal, concrete eyesores.

"The city either has no idea what they want to do long term, or they're doing this expressly because it's ugly," Ken Prendergast, Executive Director of the transit advocacy group All Aboard Ohio, told Cleveland Scene at the time. "It's either expedient or it's tactical. But either way, it's mind-blowing."

Many feel Jackson installed the Jersey barriers out of spite, following his unsuccessful battle to prevent a return of public bus traffic through Public Square. Jackson cited safety and terrorism concerns.

Those concerns were enough to keep Superior closed to bus traffic when Cleveland hosted the Republican National Convention in July 2016. But those restrictions were supposed to end once the convention was over.

“We spent a lot of money hiring a top architect to design this space. They would have foreseen the need for those kinds of design elements if they were truly needed,” said Lakewood resident and longtime transportation journalist Angie Schmitt, author of “Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America.

Jackson dragged his feet on lifting the restrictions. Four months after the convention, he announced the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) had agreed to give up the route and to work with the city on alternatives.

He backed down on that plan in 2017, after the Federal Transit Administration objected to the Superior Avenue closure and threatened to claw back $12 million in federal grant money used for improvements to the city’s Euclid Avenue corridor.

“The placement of these Jersey barriers in the middle of Public Square was unnecessary. This was generated out of a feud,” said Ward 3 Cleveland City Councilman Kerry McCormack, whose ward includes Downtown Cleveland. He supports Bibb’s plan to get rid of the barriers.

Under Bibb’s proposal, the barriers would be replaced with removable bollards. He said he’ll use $1.5 million from the city’s capital budget for the design and execution of these improvements. The total cost is expected to be around $3 million. The legislation would authorize the Group Plan Commission, the original stewards of the 2015 redesign of Public Square, to do the work.

Schmitt said the removable bollards aren’t necessary either.

“What we need in this location is for the bus drivers to be very careful, and I think they’ve done a good job of that throughout this whole time,” Schmitt said. “Really, the bigger safety concern is what’s happening around Public Square.”

She said the real safety issue is the traffic pattern that sends buses and other vehicles around the square in a one-way pattern requiring multiple left-hand turns, which she said can be dangerous.

In 2016, an RTA bus driver struck and killed a 69-year-old woman crossing a street in Public Square.

“There are blind spots for the drivers. It’s just always a little dangerous when there are a lot of left turns,” Schmitt said. “I think the money would be better spent focusing on safety improvements outside the square.”

Updated: March 4, 2022 at 3:21 PM EST
Amy Eddings is Host/Producer of NPR’s “Morning Edition” on Ideastream Public Media.