Seeking Solace At The Solstice Steps

By Jeffrey Kerr

“It's a sense of opportunity that many of us have had when you stand there on a great summer night and you watch the sunset, but you just stand there and look through a cyclone fence; many folks have commented, might we do better?”
--Lakewood Mayor, Michael P. Summers

A new sense of opportunity hung in the air at the site where the Lakewood Solstice Steps would reside, as onlookers lingered to watch the sunset over Lake Erie—peering through a rusty cyclone fence.

Limited public access to waterfronts is an obstacle for most northeast Ohio lakefront communities, except for residents whose property touches the water’s edge.

As one of the densest communities between New York and Chicago, the city of Lakewood is a classic example of how an inner-ring suburb continues to make itself relevant in the 21st century. Residents west of Cleveland have 3.7 miles of Lake Erie shoreline, of which only 1,600 feet (8 percent), is accessible to the public.

Any alteration of the waterfront for the past century has been enabled by industrial use. From accommodating growing transportation infrastructure, the industry byproducts and actions have held environmental health and accessibility as low priorities.

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Before it became Lakewood Park, the land was a private lakefront estate. In 1918, it was home to city hall, and eventually turned into the city dump. Taking back the lakefront from the dump was no easy feat, let alone creating a project that would transform the relationship between residents and the lake.

The Lakewood Park Solstice Steps project was to create a community space to enjoy the Lake Erie sunset. Upon construction, the project’s significance swelled into much more. The city then became a catalyst for a newfound appreciation of northeast Ohio’s largest natural resource.

Environmental Design Group was hired in 2013 to prepare a master plan for Lakewood Park site improvements. As part of the process, designers used the challenge of elevation changes as an advantage in designing the Solstice Steps, producing more dramatic vistas of the lake for residents and visitors.

Great DNA
The Solstice Steps at Lakewood Park is one of those projects that simply had the DNA to be a great place. The objective was to not over-design but to let the experience and the lake do the work. The experience is not the steps—it’s the view. In some ways, it isn’t even about the view—it’s the tranquility and reflection that people seek in the experience. This space allows a person to sit, reflect, talk with family, friends, and neighbors—and share the motion of an endless lake, a fall breeze, a storm on the horizon, or a sunset.

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Beyond the engineering complexities of building steps on the side of a landfill, the project also required approvals from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) through its Rule 13 process, which states authorization must be obtained to fill, grade, excavate, build, drill, or mine on land where a hazardous-waste or solid-waste facility was operated.

Perched 60 feet above the shoreline, the 480 feet of precast concrete steps curve around the northwestern corner of the park. The five tiers of four-row steps climb 36 feet from the lower promenade to the upper bluff. A simple stainless-steel ribbon embedded into the steps aligns with the summer’s solstice, around June 21, when the sun sets to the furthest north. Fourteen different precast forms were designed to create a seamless arc for the 435 precast concrete units that make up the Solstice Steps seating.

The strong horizontal lines created by the steps are continued with the use of Gro-Low Sumac (Rhus aromatic Gro-Low). This fragrant sumac cultivar was selected for its dense, low-growing, rambling structure, which spreads by root suckers and typically grows only to 1 to 2 inches tall. This plant helps stabilize the hillside as well as provides attractive shades of orange and red during the fall months.

A video of a 3D rendered model was developed to help sell the project’s vision. Thanks to social media, public excitement took off, allowing the city to capture funding support.

Technical Issues
While the vision of the park was being shaped, technical engineering issues had to be overcome.  Environmental Design Group continued to help the city develop the design through construction documents and services.

While gentle breezes and warm sunsets occurred during the summer months, blasting wind and damaging ice provided major obstacles during the winter. Material considerations were carefully selected to withstand the harsh environmental conditions.

With the integration of development partners, much of the project’s success relied on multiple professional disciplines. Geotechnical and landfill conditions were considered when designing the space. Cement stabilization and significant subsurface drainage systems were installed to limit movement of the steps.  Environmental and civil engineering teams helped develop a plan with landfill-specific issues that required special permitting and design requirements through OEPA.

Building upon a landfill and adapting to extreme fluctuations in the season’s environmental conditions were the two greatest challenges and encouraged intense collaboration. Each step of the design development needed to ensure that park goers would be safe and land use was preserved.

A Wise Investment
Upon completion, the project was quickly praised for the public investment. In June 2016, the park’s first summer solstice celebration drew more than 3,000 residents and visitors, and a year later, the space continues to be a landmark for northeast Ohio.

The Solstice Steps project became much more than the city envisioned. The direct impact of the space has allowed for year-round use. From sitting and looking at the lake to alternate uses, including math classes, book clubs, fitness programs, and holiday church services, the Solstice Steps has taken on new meaning. Hundreds of sunset selfies have been posted on social media portals, making it an ecotourism destination for the Cleveland region.

As the steps get more recognition, city officials hope the space will raise property values, encourage more visitors, and drive additional economic development in the west-shore suburb.

The completed $2.1-million project created one of the most regionally significant places for public lakefront access and dramatic views along the entire coastline of Lake Erie. To highlight the project’s success, Environmental Design Group partnered with the city to produce a video showing the significance this outdoor space has to the area.

Jeffrey Kerr, PLA, AICP, ASLA is a principal at Environmental Design Group. He is a licensed landscape architect and a certified planner. Reach him at jkerr@envdesigngroup.com.