Paul Volpe, President of City Architecture Inc., discusses the company's role in redeveloping Cleveland's Midtown Corridor. Established in 1989, City Architecture's main focus is urban redevelopment in the Northeast Ohio region. Volpe served as the urban architect for the mayoral administrations of George Voinovich and Michael White throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He discusses the ideas within city hall regarding redevelopment during his years working for the government. Volpe also explains how he became interested in urban design, city planning, and redevelopment. Other topics include the role of tax abatement, the company's multiple redevelopment projects in the Midtown Corridor, and the history of his firm. The discussion revolves around Volpe's vision for redevelopment in both the Midtown Corridor and Cleveland.


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Volpe, Paul (interviewee)


Souther, Mark (interviewer)


Midtown Cleveland



Document Type

Oral History


61 minutes


Mark Souther [00:00:00] I will get started. Today is June 24. July 24. Excuse me, 2007. My name is Mark Souther and I’m here today with Mr. Paul J. Volpe, who is the president of City Architecture. I’d like to have you introduce yourself so we can get it in your own words.

Paul Volpe [00:00:18] Sure. Well, I’m Paul Volpe. I’m president of City Architecture. We’re a city planning, urban design and architectural firm here in Midtown. Been here for 18 years and our base really is within the Northeast Ohio region and we do a lot of urban redevelopment.

Mark Souther [00:00:36] Okay, I’d like to start out by going back to how you became interested in architecture.

Paul Volpe [00:00:42] Sure. That far back? [laughs] [crosstalk] Okay, well, I guess I sort of fell into it. I mean, if you really go way back, we’re in high school and I wasn’t one of those folks that picked up a pencil when I was four years old and started drawing houses. Architecture to me, and my disposition is more about urban design and city planning than it is about buildings. Although I love buildings and I love the discipline of architecture and construction, my interest has always been in problem solving. And that’s why I got interested in urban redevelopment. Frankly, I had a guidance counselor in high school that said, this is made for you. I knew very little about it. And I got into the University of Cincinnati and I fell in love with the profession of architecture from the broadest sense, place making, connectivity of how we live and how we exist from the broadest standpoint as opposed to just the iconic aspects of architecture. My firm is called city architecture and that’s why we do what we do today.

Mark Souther [00:01:59] Were you from Cleveland originally?

Paul Volpe [00:02:00] Yes.

Mark Souther [00:02:02] To what extent, if any, did the industrialization and urban decline of Cleveland play into your decision to become an architect so much as the type of architect you became and area you went into?

Paul Volpe [00:02:16] Yeah, I mean, that’s an important question. You know, it’s a grueling process to become an architect, both in terms of getting through school and then getting your license and somewhere midstream in college, I actually began to understand what architecture meant to me and I began to direct my focus toward urban revitalization. I met a- I took planning courses and I met a planning professor named Don Lenz, who was one of my mentors, one of my few great mentors in my career. And Don taught me about neighborhood revitalization being the core to city planning and redevelopment. And of course, I lived in Cincinnati, and Cincinnati, like Cleveland, in a different way. Culturally, it’s a very different city, but it’s still undergone periods of deindustrialization, depopulation, urban sprawl, this is in the seventies, was really beginning to pick up steam. The suburbs were beginning to swell. Disinvestment was taking place. And so I got involved with Don working in urban neighborhoods. And it’s there that I got to experience the thrill, the challenge of the revitalization process and working one to one with people and recognizing that what you build in and of itself is unimportant. It’s who you build for and the reasons why you invest in a community. So what happened was, I went through that process. I focused my energies in college toward those things. I graduated, I worked in Cincinnati for a large firm doing, ironically, civic projects as opposed to city planning projects, because there wasn’t a firm that really focused on what I was interested in fully. And after 13 years in Cincinnati, I moved back to Cleveland. And the long and the short of it is I ultimately became the city architect for the city of Cleveland. I worked for George Voinovich, the now senator, and that was the first opportunity I had in my career. I was 29 years old when he hired me. I replaced a 72-year-old man, and a whole different generation of ideas was brought into city hall. That’s why George hired me, and at least that’s why I think he hired me. I like to think that I kind of shook things up in a way, in my own way. And I spent six and a half years in government working in the city when it was in its most distressed point of its history. George was in right after the default of Dennis Kucinich, and we were beginning an upward climb. And so my responsibilities there were exactly what I wanted to do. I mean, I was positioned to finally do in my career what I was interested in. And, of course, that led to George’s leaving and my starting the firm 18 years ago.

Mark Souther [00:05:29] Was it, would you consider it swimming against the grain or fighting against the grain of people who were interested in downtown, big downtown projects, or was this never really a problem in terms of the mentality, I guess, in Cleveland? I would sense that it would almost be a problem. But I’m wondering.

Paul Volpe [00:05:49] Yeah, it was. I mean. I mean, the truth is, back then, that was the. I mean, Cleveland has always been a very politically charged city, and you always had the tension between the executive level, the city administration, and the city council level. We have 21 ward council people. I mean, that’s crazy. How do you get anything done? I mean, everybody has a proprietary interest in their little piece of the pie. Cleveland used to have 31 ward council people, is now 21, and there’s discussion about changing that. There are certainly advantages to having ward council people, but there ought to be. I think there ought to be a majority of council people that are at large, and the wards should be much bigger and possibly less council people. But that’s a discussion for another day that this community is going to have to wrestle with. But the point is that because of that system, at least in part, there’s always been this dialogue, this controversy between investing in the neighborhoods and investing in downtown. And back then, back in the early eighties, when I was at city hall, it was a subject of enormous controversy because downtown was taboo. Downtown wasn’t thought of as a neighborhood. Who would want to live there? Businesses were leaving. Why would we need to invest in such things as sports stadiums and retail on Euclid Avenue? I mean, who cares anymore? We need to put our money in the neighborhoods, which, of course, were beginning a severe downward spiral of blight. The early eighties were disastrous in terms of the accelerating population loss. And we had almost 700,000 people then. Now we’re approaching 400,000 people. That’s a very short period of time that that kind of population loss would take place. And so what happened was that George Voinovich and George Forbes, the then council president, had a sort of subtle collaboration, and they recognized that things had to be done downtown. You can’t ignore the core. Even just the symbolism of having a vibrant downtown is enough to charge a community, because it’s something everybody could rally about. If you live in Solon, why would you care about Slavic Village? If you live in Westlake, who cares about Glenville? I mean, there was both ignorance and apathy that were taking place as the region changed. And so, fortunately, through those two administrations, through the Voinovich and then the White administration, we saw significant investment downtown. The Gateway complex, in my opinion, is world class. The stadium in the arena, and mostly the urban design that goes along with it. And it provided the community, in my opinion, some rooting that we needed and some inward looking toward the core city. It’s a good thing. Now we don’t have that contradiction anymore. Now downtown is considered a neighborhood. It’s actually considered a series of neighborhoods, and everybody’s generally comfortable with that. We have the Warehouse District. We have the Flats. We have Cleveland State’s Collegetown area. We have Playhouse Square. We see surrounding areas like the Quadrangle and St. Clair-Superior and Ohio City as sort of perimeter neighborhoods that ring and secure downtown. We didn’t have that back then, and it was nasty. I mean, it was unpleasant. We found some identity in all of that discovery process. The problem is it took too long, and we suffered a lot more deterioration before the recognition took place.

Mark Souther [00:09:52] So it really is interesting that, on the one hand, you really have to have a strong downtown for symbolic purposes as well as economic ones. But you also can go almost too far, I suppose, towards making downtown the only focus of urban revitalization, which some cities have done more than others. What’s your opinion of how Cleveland handled that in the 1980s? Well, in how Cleveland has handled that since, is there enough attention to the neighborhoods right now, in your opinion?

Paul Volpe [00:10:23] Well, I mean, again, Cleveland is a very cautious city. We’ve never taken any, in my opinion, taken any giant leaps forward with initiatives. We take baby steps, and sometimes it’s hard to see progress. I’ve been around long enough and been into this long enough that I celebrate the progress we’ve made. Is it as far as I think it ought to be? Absolutely not. In fact, we labor over decisions here. We’ve been trying to build a convention center for the last 15 years. I mean, we can’t even make a decision about what it is or where it goes, let alone how to finance it. This is Cleveland, and of course, politics enters into everything, unfortunately. But the town has got a pretty strong civic will, and I think that today there’s an awareness about the core city and its neighborhoods that is so blatant and of such great concern that I’m hoping the civic will rises up to the level. I mean, a perfect example of that is the school system. I mean, we passed the levy. I mean, that was a good thing, and we got our schools funded. Now we don’t have enough money, and we’re continuing to lose population, and there’s still lots of controversy about the program and where it’s gonna go, but I think that’s a positive. I think that’s a positive step forward. The new superintendent seems to be very bright and strong willed, and we need that. I mean, that’s what leadership is about, and I’m hoping for good things. There’s not enough awareness about urban problems on a national level, and that’s probably the largest demise we have is that money that this country spends elsewhere, in my opinion, ought to be spent dealing with our core cities and the socioeconomic ills that plague us. I mean, this project, this Euclid Corridor Project is federally funded for the most part. I think 80% of it is federally funded. I mean, to me, it’s a very good thing, and it’s what government can do when it puts its mind to something. I mean, I mean, it’s $220 million. You say, well, that’s a lot of money. It’s only $220 million in a federal budget that spends billions and billions and billions of dollars a year on you know what. [laughs] I won’t say what, but you know what I’m talking about. Imagine what we could do if we channel that money in different places, because the city alone or the county alone can’t survive anymore on its own. Can’t do it. We can’t sustain ourselves. I don’t believe we can.

Mark Souther [00:13:18] When you founded City Architecture, just to move toward your firm a little more, what vision did - I know that you and Mark Dodds were co-founders - what vision did you develop for the business in terms of which direction the firm would go?

Paul Volpe [00:13:27] Is that correct?

Mark Souther [00:13:28] What vision did you, you’ve developed for the business in terms of which direction the film would go?

Paul Volpe [00:13:34] Yeah, it’s a great question. You know, I walked out of city hall, and we really had no work. I mean, we literally hung up the proverbial shingle. You know, it’s a very difficult profession to start from scratch, and we did that. And coming from government doesn’t give you a leg up because, especially when you’re someone like me that’s focused on neighborhood revitalization, those sorts of things, there’s not a whole lot of money in that. And the direction that we wanted was to focus on the things that we love, which is urban design and planning and architecture that supports that kind of stabilization of the city. So we, in order to get into those markets, which really didn’t exist, this is not a city that likes to plan. I mean, Cincinnati, there’s neighborhood plans. In fact, I brought copies of those, and I, you know, I’d share them with people in city hall to try and create planning initiatives. And fortunately, also the time I was in city hall, I had the opportunity and the privilege to work with Hunter Morrison. He was the planning director. So we had kindred spirits there. You had Hunter and I, you know, a few years apart in age, me as the architect, he is the planner. And we collaborated. We conspired, in some cases to get things done in a system that was generally unwilling to think broadly about the future. Let’s deal with it now. We got to fix the swimming pool. Let’s fix the swimming pool. But, you know, rather than what is the system of swimming pools within the city and how do we invest in infrastructure, whether it’s building infrastructure or roadway infrastructure in a way that will yield more than just a repair or a facility, but will actually generate reinvestment? Well, that, of course, became our mantra. So, when I started city architecture. I wanted to take that kind of thinking into the mainstream and into the private sector. And the area that I was most interested in that nobody gave a hoot about was housing. Nobody cared. Architects, good architects don’t do housing. You know, housing is. I mean, first of all, there was very little housing being built in the city. In 1989, when I started the firm, there was almost no housing getting built. And what was getting built was primarily, you know, various types of rental housing or affordable housing. And it was just minimal starts. And we recognized that that was a way to make the neighborhoods visible. And when I say we, I’m talking about myself and my Mark, my firm. We had a very willing mayor at the time, Mike White, who got it. He got the fact that we had to build housing and he made the strongest set of initiatives, put together the strongest set of initiatives I’ve ever seen because of his belief in that. The local development corporations, which were at the time desperate for investment. You understand, during the Voinovich administration, we were flush with block grant money. And much of that block grant money was spent on good things. Much of it was spent on pouring sidewalks, ribbons of concrete through the neighborhoods. And that’s one of the things that occurred in the ward council system. What made the resident happier than to have new sidewalks and a new driveway apron in front of their house? But that wasn’t dealing with the real core issues of deterioration in the city. Wasn’t dealing with it. Housing, filling in vacant lots with scattered-site housing is what we started with. So you’d have a blighted street. And this was a way actually to do things in the worst neighborhoods of the city because that’s where most of the vacant lots are. So we got involved in doing, getting involved in the low income tax credit program through the state of Ohio, which has now blossomed into one of the finest in this country, and through low income tax credits, we were able to build hundreds and hundreds of scattered-site houses. So a street that had boarded up buildings, that had vacant lots, that had drug dealers, that had real blight, not cracked sidewalks, but real blight, were getting sort of surgically stitched back together in a strategic way. New people were moving into the city. People were finding quality housing. We were able to make a difference. We’ve probably built three, 4,000 of these throughout Cleveland now. And we continue to do that. When I say we, I’m talking about my firm, involved in the design work and others, other architects. But when I say we, I mean we as a community. Then what happened was we started to realized that, and we started to generate a belief that there was a much greater market for reinvestment in the city. It’s hard. You got to find developers. I’m not a developer. You got to find people that want to hire us to design things. And what we were able to do was to work within the community, to stimulate interest by the development community to want to start a reinvestment process in a broader way. We’re talking about, like, we built the first townhouses in Cleveland. Cleveland is not a Baltimore or a Boston or a Chicago, where you have streets of beautiful brick townhomes and rowhouses and neighborhoods that you could set them on fire and the buildings would still be there. We’re not that way. This was a worker town. We had frame housing. You know, when it hit 60, 70 years old, uncared for, it starts to fall apart on its own. And our notion here was to try and introduce density into the neighborhood, because Cleveland is pretty much a 40 foot by 100 foot deep lot, little shotgun house, very difficult to live in by today’s standards, very difficult to live in. If you have a large family or if you’ve got some money in your pocket and you want a cool place to live in, it’s very difficult to do. And the real estate values aren’t there to buy a house for $40,000 and put $200,000 into it, because you’re going to own a $240,000 house on a street of $60,000 homes, there’s no payback. Well, of course, the city responded to that with tax abatement, and we have the most aggressive tax abatement program that I know in this country. Some say it’s wrong, some say it’s right. I feel it was absolutely necessary, and it enabled us to begin to interest people to move in from the suburbs, to move back in the city, to make a choice. So we started building housing in Ohio City and Little Italy and Slavic Village in downtown, in the neighborhoods that had the qualities, I suppose, the characteristics to attract the- You know, we didn’t call it this then, but. But that’s what we call it now. It’s what Richard Florida calls it. But the creative class, you know, we, you know, Ohio City was one of the first. And Ohio City is a tough neighborhood. It’s full of social service centers, it’s full of public housing. It’s a rough neighborhood, but it had all that fine grain potential. Small-scale streets, little Victorian cottages, a main street, one of the only main streets that was actually intact. It was 85% vacant commercially, and what was in it [laughs] was not what you would call boutique retail. But the essence was there. If you go there today, some of my favorite restaurants are there, and there’s housing and new condominiums, and we’ve turned it around. Took hard work, took much longer than it’s taken in other cities to happen, but it’s on the upswing. And that’s the essence of what I think our firm was about and what we’ve been able to contribute to.

Mark Souther [00:22:33] Did you work a lot with Nathan Zaremba?

Paul Volpe [00:22:35] Yep. Nathan was one of my first clients. I was probably my second year in business. It was a classic tale. We, you know, again, at the time, there was probably five people in my firm, and, you know, we were still struggling. And I was working for a- I was hired to do a small little urban redevelopment plan on a piece of land that was a former state institution. A woman that I respect enormously named Bobby Reichtel, who was with the Broadway Area Housing Coalition out in the Slavic Village neighborhood. And I had had an opportunity to meet Bobbi, and she knew what I did and what we were interested in. She came to me and said, look, I got a few thousand dollars. I’m going to hire you to do some sketches, because we have the former Turney Road state rehabilitation center. It was a mental institution, and it was being vacated fully by the state. And we’re dealing with 75 acres of land. Where do you find 75 acres in the city of Cleveland? Of course, it was fully developed. It had all these institutional buildings. It was full of asbestos. It was a mess. Bobbi’s one of those believers. Bobbi’s one of those people that is relentless. She won’t quit. She doesn’t know how to quit. So she came to me and said, let’s study this. Let’s see what we can do here. Let’s see if we can create a neighborhood. We did some sketches. We generated sufficient interest. Bobbi had leveraged the state to be willing to give the land to the city of Cleveland. And this is at a time when we didn’t really know how to do this kind of development. So Bobbi came to me and said, let’s find a developer. So we came up with a very small list of developers, and Nathan was one of those. I had met Nathan previously because me, with another developer, competed with him and another architect on a project in Cleveland Heights called Top of the Hill. And we met, and it was interesting because the city of Cleveland Heights still hasn’t developed that site. But they liked our firm’s design and they liked Nathan as the developer, so they asked us to get together. The project never got built, but Nathan and I got to know each other. So I introduced Nathan to Bobbi, and she and I interviewed a variety of firms. She fell in love with Nathan, as I did. Nathan was fully introduced now into urban redevelopment. Now he is one of the premier urban redevelopers in Cleveland. At the time, he wasn’t. He was doing primarily suburban development and other kinds of things. And Nathan was amazing. He just got it and he made it better. And the best stuff happens when there’s real collaboration. Nathan got it, and, you know, the rest is history. You know, we built the largest new neighborhood in Cleveland in the last 50 years. You know, it’s all sold out. It works. It was as much a social experiment as it was a physical experiment, and it led to dramatic reinvestment in the Broadway neighborhood. So, yeah, and Nathan and I continue to work together today. We do tons of things together.

Mark Souther [00:26:07] Let’s move to Midtown a little bit more. What was your first project in Midtown?

Paul Volpe [00:26:14] Wow.

Mark Souther [00:26:16] It can include either specific buildings or streetscape designs.

Paul Volpe [00:26:23] I think my first project, and again, these are. You’re asking really great questions, especially as we look at City Architecture’s history, and you’re asking questions about projects that are actually important to me. You know, meeting Nathan and doing Mill Creek was extremely important to me personally. The project was important, but also the relationship led to the ability of my firm to grow and become what it is today. Cause we’ve grown to 36 people. Never expected that to occur. My first project in Midtown was at that level of significance. It was actually prospect Avenue right here out the window. Again, I’m always pushing for people to plan. And the then executive director of Midtown Cleveland was the first. Her name was Margaret Murphy. And when we moved to Midtown, I got to know Margaret. And this was also probably in my second or third, third year in business, which were the formative years. And I was pushing to do something to Prospect Avenue. My office was in an old mansion on Prospect Avenue, East 30th Street. And it was a wreck. In fact, the reason I ended up there was because we couldn’t afford to pay rent. So we heard about this guy that had this building. He had a recording studio in the back, and he wanted to renovate it. So I made a deal with him that we would repaint the second floor of the building - he had the first floor and then his recording studios in the back - and we would design his recording studios, and we would do that all for free. If he gave us six months free rent, and then we would renovate the- I mean, the plaster was crumbling. I mean, we were up there with spackling. We cleaned the bathrooms. I had my kids up there. I mean, it was- This was real sweat equity start of business. And we had two bedrooms in a hallway that were our office. One bedroom was a- They were big. It was an old mansion. You can see it today at 30th Street. And the building was literally crumbling. The mortar was coming out of the brick and everything. Jimmy was also, you know, sort of building his business. We made a deal. I got. I was right on Prospect. This was when Prospect Avenue was Cleveland’s red light district. And I mean, literally, you would walk out your front door at 530 at night. You’d be accosted by four, five, six hookers, I mean, just getting to your car. It was- The nighttime activity was amazing. And it was, you know, the street was horrendously blighted. Vacant buildings, abandoned buildings, boarded-up buildings, virtually. No, no, no. You know, business life on the street. There was a few hotels at the time that have since been torn down. And they were all brothels. They were all, you know, and it was, it was insane. But we jokingly would say that it was the liveliest street in midtown because there was people here day and night. It needed to change. Well, Gateway was in the planning stages, and it was scheduled to be built. And Gateway was opened in 1995. So we’re looking at about 1992, 1993. And one of the things that was planned as a part of the Gateway thing was the state of Ohio allocated what’s called Issue Two funds to repave. They were going to do a mill and fill on Prospect Avenue. They were gonna grind off the outer layer of asphalt, replace the curbs in their current position, put selectively put sidewalks in. That was it. And it was done. And the whole purpose of it was so people could get to the new sports stadiums and they could get out and back to the suburbs as easily as possible. I mean, that’s really what it was for. It was good. I mean, it needed to be done. The street was a mess. And what happened was Margaret sat down with me and we talked about this investment, and we said, we can do better than that. And so a year before the project was actually slated to be engineered through the city, she hired me to do my first comprehensive redevelopment plan, an urban design plan. Very important to me because I was looking for the opportunity. And what we did was we looked at every building on the street. We looked at who owned it, this is what we do. I can show you 150 projects I’ve done like this since then. But this was the first and the most important. And in the process of this, we turned Midtown in, or we turned Prospect Avenue into a historic district. We got it landmarked, which was bigtime important because that gave us design control. The most aggressive thing we did beyond creating enormous awareness. See that, see that poster there? A Brighter Prospect? That was hanging in just about every building along this street. That was- We created that because neighborhood involvement is a big part of city planning. So everybody had that hanging. And, you know, the hookers would come down the street and they’d see A Brighter Prospect. You know, they’re going, what is this? Well, there was awareness that this street was changing. And even though nothing was under construction yet, you could see those banners. People had their lights shining on them, and. And it mattered, and you’ll still see them 15 years later in people’s windows today. And lastly, we came up with what we do now, which is, it’s called today, it’s called traffic calming. Back then, it was called crazy thinking because people thought we were nuts. But Prospect Avenue was a six-lane street. It was three lanes eastbound and three lanes westbound. And you could park on either side of the street at selected times. It had almost no tree lawn, just a tiny little sliver of tree lawn. There was almost no trees in the tree lawn. You’ll see a few historic trees that somehow were able to survive that, and deteriorated sidewalks. Well, I proposed to Margaret that we take two lanes out of the street, we make it a four-lane street, widen the tree lawns, redo the sidewalks, plant trees, new lighting, put in crosswalks and slow the traffic down. Calm it down and put parking on, unlimited parking on the street except during the rush hour, 2 hours in the morning, 2 hours in the evening. You can’t park on one side of the street or the other, but the rest of the time you can park here just like you do in a, in a real urban neighborhood. All day long, all weekend long, no interruptions. They said we were nuts. No way it was going to happen. Well, we convinced ODOT, we convinced the city, and we got it done. We got it built. That changed the street. If you come down the street now, obviously you don’t see any hookers. You see significant reinvestment. This building’s an example of it. This building was boarded up. It was used as a warehouse. People parked cars in the front, right in front of the door. I mean, you don’t see that now. I mean, you see trees, you see ornamental fencing. All of the mansions have been redone, including the one that I was in. The one I was in that was falling down was actually purchased by a multimillionaire, and he spent over a million dollars on it, converted into his corporate headquarters. You can see it right at 30th. It’s pretty remarkable. That’s urban revitalization. That’s what planning can do.

Mark Souther [00:34:16] This is actually one of. Just as an aside, this is the street I was one of the streets I was introduced to first time I moved to Cleveland four years ago. We did, in conjunction with a Cleveland Restoration Society, we did a walk down Upper Prospect. So this was one of my introductions.

Paul Volpe [00:34:32] That’s great. Yeah. And CRS, the Restoration Society, is one of the great results of all this. I mean, you know, not only is it a historic district, but we actually brought our restoration agency right on the street, and they restored one of the mansions, the Sarah Benedict house. So it’s a real victory.

Mark Souther [00:34:52] What vision of Midtown’s possibilities guided your work here beyond the streetscape? Because I know you’ve done other work here, and this is an area that’s definitely in the midst of revitalization efforts.

Paul Volpe [00:35:04] Well, you know, the- We now had an understanding, a recognition that planning had to be a precedent to revitalization. You got to think big. You got to be organized. You got to be strategic. If we’re going to get investment dollars, we have to enlarge our arsenal so that it’s not just goodwill and/or response to issues or problems. I mean, when this organization was founded 25 years ago, you know, you know, the essential strategies were to, you know, paint, paint light poles and clean up dirty property and, you know, the traditional stuff, you know, and now we’re into three or four generations beyond that. We needed a strategic vision, and I believe it was back in 1997, we decided to do a comprehensive plan for Midtown, which a piece of it is hanging on the wall behind you. And we got together as a community and as a development corporation and decided to do what we did on Prospect Avenue in the entire- In the entire neighborhood. I won’t go into all the, you know, the intricacies of it, other than it was, in my opinion, you know, a superior piece of work that we did. And it- We’ve updated it twice since then, which you need to do. And it’s become more than just a guide. It’s become a regulating device, a catalytic device, which is what a great plan should do. It led to zoning, the rezoning of Euclid Avenue. We have very aggressive, unprecedented zoning on Euclid Avenue. We have what we call the mixed use district zoning. Never been written before. Cleveland never had a provision for that, and we’re making it work. It is one of the stimuli to generate real transit oriented development along the Silver Line. Without the zoning, forget it. Wouldn’t happen. People could do anything they wanted to with their property. I’d rather wait ten years for something good to come along than to have something, you know, second-rate occur like we’ve had prior to the zoning. You can draw anything you want on a piece of paper, create glorious plans, beautiful visions like that. That’s a drawing that my firm did for our technology district. You can draw all that, but it ain’t gonna happen unless you’ve got the will, the policy, the strategy, and the staying power to see it through. That’s what this organization has done and is doing now. So that vision has led to some very powerful investments in the neighborhood. We have what we call Upper and Lower Euclid, and Lower Euclid, which is where my office is at, I’m at 36th and Euclid Avenue, has seen tremendous reinvestment. We call it our sort of downtown area. The American Red Cross building was built. We built. We renovated our old warehouse into our new office building. We built a new office building next to that. Lots of infill construction. We’re filling in all the gaps on the street, and we’re not finished. We have a lot of stuff that’s left to be done. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District built their office building there and just a whole variety of other things. Now we’re focusing on Upper Euclid Avenue between East 55th and East 79th, which is Prospect Avenue, what Prospect Avenue was, times ten, vacant lots, vacant buildings, so on and so forth. We just met on Saturday, and we have a special subcommittee working on it. And we reviewed planning proposals that I put together, and we’re all enthusiastically moving toward implementation. And think of it this way, we’ve created a much larger context to think about the neighborhood, which is what the city of Cleveland needs to do, in my opinion. We tend not to think outward enough. We lament our problems and don’t focus on the opportunity so we can position ourselves. It’s like, I guess, playing to win, if you will. You’ve got to understand, you know, the team you’re playing or the competition, to use a sports analogy. In this particular case, if you look at what’s happened over the last 20 years, you know, in the context that we’ve been talking and that I’ve been working in Cleveland, we’ve turned our downtown around and it’s on a corner. We have, we have over 2,000 new housing units, condominiums that are planned downtown. I’m working on the Avenue District, Wolstein’s working on the Flats. Price is working on the west bank of the Flats. There’s 6, 7, 8, 9 other individual projects going on. The Warehouse District has got more initiatives. I mean, it’s great. I mean, we have the potential to hit 30,000 residents in downtown, literally 30,000 residents in the next ten years if we can continue to reposition ourselves and we can have some breaks in terms of the economy. University Circle, similarly, is on an upswing. There’s real attention being paid. There’s planning going on. There’s three or four or five wonderful initiatives taking place, from the arts and entertainment district to the Upper Chester neighborhood. There’s new jobs being created at the Clinic with the Heart center, the Urology Center, University Hospitals with the West Quad at Case. So imagine these two hubs, you know, that are sort of complete places, you know, moving forward in the next ten years. They got to, I mean, they can’t wait any longer. They have to happen. We have to make them happen. And then think that there’s, I don’t know, what, 4 miles, 5 miles between downtown and University circle, and a third of that is taken up by the Cleveland Clinic. And the rest of it is essentially Midtown. The different quadrants of midtown, upper and lower Midtown. Imagine if we can position ourselves to respond to that, and we’ve got this public transit, transit line riding in between. What does it suggest? I mean, to us, it suggests that Midtown is a fabulous place to provide the support services, some of the housing, particularly the neighborhood based, more affordable housing, because most of the stuff happening on the ends is, is higher end and or specialty housing, like student housing. It’s a great place for corporate investment, for technology type investment. We’ve got the land, we’ve got the infrastructure, we’ve got a smart street, we’ve already got a business base in the community. It’s a natural place for that to occur. If it doesn’t occur here, it’s gonna continue to occur in Beachwood and Independence, in Westlake, it’s going to continue to occur in those places in Solon, God forbid out in Streetsboro. So, you know, I think there’s a fantastic, phenomenal, roughly ten-year window of time where this whole corridor reemerges. And with it comes Cleveland. That’s tremendously optimistic [laughs], but I believe it’s possible. I believe we’ve done enough and we’ve got enough in place that if the community wills it, the political support is there, which I don’t know if it is, we can do phenomenal things. And all of that is why I’ve always been so supportive of the Euclid Corridor Project. As disruptive as it is, as unnecessary as some people say it is, I’m absolutely convinced that it is the right thing to do. And if we hold up our end of the bargain, RTA and FTA did their job. If we hold up our end of the bargain in the city, if we hold up our end of the bargain, we’ll see some substantial development occur in this four-mile stretch.

Mark Souther [00:44:03] Let me ask you a little bit broader question. How do you engage people who may pass by the buildings you create? What are some of the design features that you would point to as being most important in terms of creating the look and the feel, the environment that suggests that Cleveland is on its way back?

Paul Volpe [00:44:22] Sure. Well, I mean, the most important thing, and it’s something that we recognized when I worked in city hall. I mean, I understand there was very few buildings built in the sixties and the, and the seventies, particularly the seventies. Public buildings, especially. But just about anything in the city, there was very few things built. I mean, most of, most of what was built was downtown, like the National City Bank tower. You know, we had the third-string architect from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and there was no belief there could be retail on the street. Fortunately, there was windows on the street, but it was banking space. I mean, that’s a retail street. It should be retail. In the public sector, particularly in neighborhoods like along Euclid Avenue, the sad sign of the times was buildings boarded up. Main Street buildings that had broad streetscape and high first floor ceiling heights were boarded up or they’re blocked in. You’ll still see buildings. If you go down, you see the building that is Dubick Fixtures. It’s a classic example of a big, beautiful terra-cotta building. You can see it from here out this window, and the windows are all boarded up with concrete block. The first and most important thing that we did and do and integrated in our master plan is that if you build a building on Euclid Avenue, the front door has to face the street. You got to see the front. You got to see where people come and go. No more. The parking has to be on the side of or behind the building. No big parking lots in front. We’re not going to look like we’re not going to look like Independence. You know, we’re not going to look like Rockside Road. We’re going to be urban. You got to have glass on the ground floor, and you have to have a predominantly glass building. There has to be a lot of sufficient amount of windows, but the ground floor has to be predominantly glass. And we strongly recommend that it at least be designed so it can be converted to retail if the market exists for that to occur. And now that thinking is integrated into our zoning, it wasn’t before we had a master plan. It wasn’t even integrated into the master plan, so people built whatever they wanted. The first opportunity that I had to sort of show what a revitalized building could look like on Euclid Avenue in Midtown was the Pierres Ice Cream company headquarters. It was a very difficult project because it was primarily a giant distribution center. And it was a. It was, you know, that was done probably back in 1993. You know, that was done when, you know, none of this thinking had taken place. It was more personal ideology than it was any accepted thinking. And frankly, it was at a time when we were happy to get anything. If somebody wanted to build a bunker on the street, Midtown probably would have taken it, or the city would have taken it. You know, we were giving land away. You know, we had urban renewal property, and we were just here, you want to anything, just give it to anything is better than nothing. I don’t believe in that. It was a project that my firm doesn’t necessarily do, actually. There was a big engineering firm that was hired to design the distribution center, which is a giant freezer for ice cream. To make a long story short, the firm that was working for the owners of Pierre’s Ice Cream had designed just an absolutely awful bomb shelter kind of a building. It was just awful. And fortunately, some folks recognized how awful it was and sort of told them. And, you know, I was kind of lucky. The owner of Pierre’s Ice Cream came to me, and I had met her before, and she said, we’d like you to come up with some ideas for our building. And, you know, the rest is history. She, you know, we hit it off. We told her that, you know what? Most of your thing is a big 60,000 square-foot distribution center, but you got an office building in the front that was 8,000 square feet or something. It wasn’t big, but I said, you know, if we stretch this across the front and we. We do something interesting with it, and we put a little Willy Wonka into it, you know, make it look like it’s, you know, you make ice cream here, and, you know, if you know the building, it’s got little ice cream cones across the front on a steel lattice. You know, we wanted to give it the look of being taller than it was, and that’s what that steel frame does. And it’s got curved drums. You know, if you see her drums, she has these wonderful round ice cream cartons. So those are in her conference room, and they’re white. And if you go in the conference room, there are actually display cases to put all her- You know, that’s not what the thinking was back then. But she got it. She got it. And she let us build that building. And it’s full of windows, and you can see the front door. It’s got a big glass canopies on it. And it sort of changed the thinking about what you could build on Euclid Avenue. And very proud of that building today. And that was intended to begin to change the thinking about what’s good enough in this neighborhood. And I think it helped in that process.

Mark Souther [00:50:09] How important would you say- A lot of what I’ve seen is, and I’ve looked at some of your work on the web- At first, for some reason, I couldn’t get the website to work on my computer because it was a flash thing, but now it works great.

Paul Volpe [00:50:20] Oh, good.

Mark Souther [00:50:21] Anyway, it’s a very impressive website.

Paul Volpe [00:50:23] Thank you.

Mark Souther [00:50:24] A lot of your projects really have the aura of the past, but in a, you know, in a way that’s very contemporary as well. Could you comment a little bit on the use of the traditional architectural styles into what is really also very modern or postmodern design?

Paul Volpe [00:50:46] That’s. That’s. That’s, um, very, you know, observant, perceptive on your part. We’re not a stylized firm. A lot of architectural firms, especially good firms, good architects, that do, you know, you know, the higher quality work, which I consider our firm to do, tend to have a certain style. I build everything out of glass, and I do this and I do that. And to us, ours is- Our firm is a true studio. I don’t direct the design language of our firm. I participate, I guide, I’m heavily involved in, but we collaborate. We believe that architecture is the most social of professions. I mean, it’s here forever, and buildings are here forever, streets are here forever, neighborhoods. And it’s not for us. We don’t design architecture for architects. So we spend a good deal of time thinking about context, thinking about the long-term effect of a building that we build. How it is today may not be how it is tomorrow. Especially in an urban context that’s changing. We think about what might get built next to it. And from a stylistic standpoint, we think a lot about how style can influence the way people feel about the place. Does it define space? Is this a place where people are going to gather? Is it a historic neighborhood? I’m an absolute believer in modern architecture, but some of the things we do are actually what we call neotraditional. Some of the housing we built, like Beacon Place and some of the senior buildings we build in urban neighborhoods. The reason for that is neotraditional architecture, if it’s done well - I hate tacky stuff, just stuff that’s just pasted on buildings - but if it’s done well, if you do a really great Georgian building or a wonderful little Victorian house, there’s a reminiscence about it. There’s a sense of calm and security that comes that you might not find with, let’s say, maybe a more edgy, modern building. And sometimes we want buildings that just- Many times we want buildings that just sort of recede into the background and say, I’ve always been here. You’re happy that I’m here. You know? We’re not trying to change this neighborhood. We’re just trying to kind of fit in and be comfortable but do it in a simple, elegant way. That’s hard to do when you’re. When you’re in an ego-driven profession. But we’re also not a firm that designs art museums and that kind of stuff. I mean, we design some very cool things, in my opinion. But we don’t have big budgets and we don’t necessarily think that that’s what’s important. For every Frank Gehry building, for every Weatherhead School, for every Weatherhead School that gets built, I would venture to say 5,000 ordinary buildings get built in this country. Shopping centers, houses in the suburbs, additions to industrial buildings, whatever. I mean, those are the ones that matter. What good does one piece of icon do if you screw the rest of it up? So our attitude has always been to focus on the ones that really matter. And so. Oh, so that’s what- That’s what we’ve been- That’s what we set our goals out to do. So and so stylistically, you know, we’re all over the map and we love it. [laughs]

Mark Souther [00:54:39] This is great. I wish I could spend all day asking you questions but I realize you have other things to do, so I wanted to sort of move toward a conclusion even though I’m probably dying to ask a bunch of other questions. There’s so many things I could follow up on. One thing I wanted to make sure that I asked about is that your involvement in the design, the discussions about design that surround the reconfiguration of the Innerbelt, I wondered if maybe you could tell me a little bit about that.

Paul Volpe [00:55:07] Sure.

Mark Souther [00:55:07] And what we might expect to see in the next 10 or 15 years.

Paul Volpe [00:55:11] Sure. Boy, is that a tough one. You have some great questions. I’m hoping you’d avoid that one because it’s so difficult. That’s Prospect Avenue times a billion [laughs] in terms of its size, its complexity, its budget, its essential nature, is what that was, which is an infrastructure project that has been conceived of in the essential way that we conceive of infrastructure here, which is curbs, concrete, sidewalk, streets, traffic safety, meet the minimum basic requirements and get on with life. And of course, that’s not good enough. It’s just that kind of positioning, ideology doesn’t work anymore in a dying city. We gotta aspire to greater things. And that’s part of this is kind of- This question is kind of the culmination of our whole discussion. I mean. I mean, look at us. We’re happy putting in a freeway ramp, and Boston does a Big Dig. Come on, we can do better. So the greatness of the Innerbelt project that we’ve got, hopefully will retain $1.6 billion. Never had that kind of money before. It’s the largest, largest infrastructure project since the freeways were built in the state of Ohio. Bigger than anything in Columbus, bigger than anything in Cincinnati. And we’re screwing it up. We are. We’ve been talking about it for seven years. The first six years, there wasn’t any planners, urban designers, architects involved in this project. It was all engineers. It was just all engineers. Nothing wrong with engineers. But the project was never positioned to be something that could connect rather than just move through, move in and out of the city. It was Innerbelt. Get me in, get me out, as fast as you possibly can. Fortunately, the Ohio Department of Transportation has some good people there that really began to get the message. It took long enough, but we’re in a process of repositioning. Just like Prospect when we made the decision to take the two lanes out. We’re in a process of looking at this thing differently. How does it relate to the neighborhoods? Is it one homogeneous set of construction ideals from one end to the other? Or does it change as you pass through it? Sometimes you’re high, sometimes you’re low. Sometimes you’re above. Sometimes you’re under. Sometimes you’re driving through Asian Village [Asiatown], and sometimes you’re driving through Midtown. Sometimes you’re driving through Downtown or the Quadrangle or Tremont. And special treatment. These neighborhoods warrant special treatment. How do you do it? What does it feel like to get on it? What does it feel like to get off it? What does it look like in the evening? What does it feel like during the day? Is it a green experience? Is it a hard, concrete experience? Does it have public art? And can it, more than anything else, can it serve to be a catalyst for subsequent redevelopment? That’s the big question. Every project we do, can it cause things to happen as a result of the investment, or are we spending $1.6 billion on a road? You know, we contend that you can get more out of that than just a road. You got to get more out of that than just a road. It’s not all that difficult if you sort of recognize the potential. So that’s what we’re doing now, finally, where’s it going to go? Where’s it going to end up? I don’t know. There’s lots of controversy associated with it. You know, there’s, you know, issues of whether ramps go in or ramps come out and, and so on and so forth. But despite all of that, we’ve got to stay focused on the prize. If we- And I’ve, you know, I’ve talked extensively about this. Just because we may have a peace that is unresolved doesn’t mean we can’t cooperate and collaborate on everything else. And we’ve got to do that. Unfortunately, we’re not right now, the whole thing is delayed, and I think that’s sad. And again, going back to a federal government that doesn’t want to spend that money here, they really don’t want to. I mean, their attitude generally is, to a certain degree, well, if Cleveland doesn’t want it, we’ll just take it back. We’ll use it someplace else. We can throw a new layer. We can do a mill and fill on the highway, just like we can do that on Prospect Avenue. We got to be really careful that we don’t lose this, because I think it’s vitally important. I think the interval project is an enormous, enormous boost for this community, not just in terms of jobs, but in terms of what it could potentially look like. And when you study infrastructure like we do and you look at what happens in other cities, it’s just, it becomes very obvious. So we’ll see. It’s a tough one.

Mark Souther [01:00:44] I want to respect the time that we had said. So I want to close now and thank you again for the interview today.

Paul Volpe [01:00:50] My pleasure. Great questions. [laughs]

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