Thursday, February 16, 2012


Buildings do not exist in isolation.  They are part of a larger community, and have a responsibility to make a positive contribution to the health and life of the street.

After traveling to many beautiful cities in the U.S., I have often wondered why Cleveland doesn’t have more of the interesting townhouses and brownstones that can be found in places like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, and San Francisco

Townhouses are good for a city because they allow for more dense development than single family detached dwellings do.  This in turn means more inhabitants per acre, which can increase the viability of local retail, and also of transit, such as bus lines or streetcars.

I’m sure there is a historical reason that they are not more common in Cleveland, perhaps having to do with when the city was growing most rapidly, or the way lots were platted in Cleveland, or simply regional building traditions.  As I continue to study the city, I eventually may learn the answer to this question.

In the meantime though, I have found that if one looks hard enough, many great townhouse examples do indeed exist in Cleveland.


Detroit-Shoreway Townhouses-West 65th Street Elevation

Here’s a townhouse type that merits further study.  It is located on Bridge Avenue, at the corner of West 65th Street, in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood on the near west side of Cleveland.  
Detroit-Shoreway Townhouses-Bridge Avenue Elevation
Its massing, materials, and detailing are pleasing to the eye.  The porches, steps, and bay windows make for an interesting elevation, animating the street.  The details are simple and well-crafted, without being particularly extravagant.

The corner tower element punctuates the street intersection well, bringing distinction to this row of townhouses.  No doubt the tower’s octagonal form makes for some nice interior spaces in this unit as well.

The porches are fairly small—6’ deep by 9’ wide—but they are still useful.  Their shape and design, with an angled portion adjacent to the bay windows, allows just enough room for a chair or a bench for sitting.  Addressing the street with small, inhabitable porches brings life, interest, and activity to the street.  In addition, when residents sit on their porches, they can make connections with passersby, strengthening connections in the community. Having people out on the porches also increases security in the neighborhood, by sending the message that residents are paying attention to what is happening on the streets. 


Newer Townhouses-Bridge Avenue Elevation
This group of newer townhouses was constructed several years ago on Bridge Avenue, at the corner of West 52nd Street, just a few blocks east of the older townhouse group.  These newer units have some good things going for them.  The developers can be commended for choosing to build in the city, helping to fill in the gaps in the existing urban fabric.  These townhouses also feature interesting bay windows with brackets supporting them, and a nice tower element that makes an effort to address the street corner. 

The biggest problem with these units is the battery of garage doors that face the street, and the wide swaths of concrete driveway that accompany them.  The driveways interrupt the sidewalk in numerous places, and prevent the planting of street trees for shading and aesthetics. 

In addition, the garage doors present a blank and uninviting face to the street.  They also limit the width of the front porches, making them not very useful as actual outdoor ‘rooms’ that can accommodate chairs for sitting.  And finally, the wide concrete driveways mean there are no front gardens or other elements that could be a source of interest or pleasure to the pedestrian. 

In terms of character, life, and security, these newer units do not give as much back to the street as the older townhouses do.

And it didn’t have to be this way.  That is the frustrating aspect of this newer construction.   The lot where these units are located is deep enough to allow access to the garages form behind the units.  If the garages were in the back, the front façade of the building could have been unmarred by the garage doors, and could instead have had more interesting elements facing the street, such as larger porches.

Detroit-Shoreway Townhouses-Bridge Avenue Elevation, looking west. 
Which sidewalk would be more interesting to stroll along?

Much can be learned from the existing architecture in Cleveland, and applied to new construction in order to yield more positive outcomes.  Following some simple design strategies, like “porches in front, garage doors behind”, can make a big difference.  By making more thoughtful choices, we can bring strength and vitality to our neighborhoods, and consequently improve the quality of life for all city residents.

1 comment:

  1. That old townhouse is groovy. It would be a much nicer sidewalk to stroll along. Only problem is that it would be such a short stroll. Cleveland, give us miles of interesting sidewalks to stroll along!