CLEVELAND, Ohio — The 2014 merger of Holden Arboretum and the Cleveland Botanical Garden was one of the more dramatic cultural rescue stories of the past decade.

It joined the big, financially healthy arboretum, with its 3,500 acres of forested land in Lake and Geauga counties, to the 10-acre Botanical Garden, a beloved University Circle institution struggling near collapse under $10 million in debt left over from a $47.8 million expansion and renovation finished in 2003.

Now functioning under an umbrella organization called Holden Forests & Gardens, the two institutions are ready to face their next big task: How can they enlarge, diversify and connect audiences across the urban-rural chasm that divides American communities by race and class?

Beyond that, how should they make physical changes at the garden and the arboretum that support a bigger, more diverse, more actively engaged audience?

To answer those questions, they’re embarking on a new, eight-month master planning process led by New York-based landscape architect Thomas Woltz. His name should sound familiar to Clevelanders who follow developments on the city’s lakefront.

Woltz is the lead designer behind the innovative proposal made public by Haslam Sports Group — owners of the Browns — to extend the downtown Mall north across rail lines and the Ohio 2 Shoreway to attractions around North Coast Harbor, including FirstEnergy Stadium.

Woltz, the owner and co-founder of the firm of Nelson Byrd Woltz, was already familiar with Cleveland from his work for the Browns when he learned last year about a request for proposals issued by Holden Forests & Gardens.

Jill Koski, the organization’s president and CEO since 2017, said she was impressed that Woltz made a 900-mile round trip during the Thanksgiving weekend to visit the arboretum before applying for the job.

She was even more impressed that Woltz, who has designed projects from New York to New Zealand, responded to Holden’s expressed desire to diversify its audiences by making Cleveland’s ThirdSpace Action Lab a key part of his team.

Founded in 2018, ThirdSpace describes itself as a grassroots research, strategy, and design cooperative created to “disrupt the vicious cycle of disinvestment and displacement that negatively impacts the vitality of low-income communities of color.”

The organization, based in the Glenville neighborhood, just north of University Circle, facilitates training sessions offered by the North Carolina-based Racial Equity Institute, and provides consulting on organizational strategy, collaborative design, impact investing, community events, and solutions workshops.

Koski, Woltz and Evelyn Burnett, the CEO and co-founder of ThirdSpace, said in an interview with and The Plain Dealer that they see the Holden master planning process as an opportunity to move beyond the traditional white, upper-class associations aroused by the botanical garden and the arboretum.

And they see a huge opportunity for cross-fertilization between the garden and the arboretum, located 26 miles to the east in Kirtland.

If anything, the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on communities of color over the past year, and the national reckoning over systemic racism, has added urgency to Holden’s planning process, Koski said.

“The pandemic taught us that people were wanting and craving and needing to get out into the garden and the arboretum,’’ she said.

Yet Holden Forests & Gardens is aware that physical and psychological barriers limit access and enjoyment at both of its locations.

First, there’s the matter of admission: It costs $15 per adult and $10 per child at the botanical garden and at the arboretum.

Beyond that, for example, Woltz and Burnett said, the environments around both institutions send subtle “keep out’’ messages to persons of color.

Woltz described the arboretum as “a massive forest in the middle of what looks like horse country. It’s absolutely beautiful but there are a lot of visual signals that don’t necessarily say everyone is welcome.”

In University Circle, which is flanked by the low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods of Hough, Fairfax and Glenville, residents worry about being profiled by police when they simply go out for a walk, Burnett said.

She cited the example of Ward 9 Councilman Kevin Conwell, who was stopped and questioned while walking on Ford Drive in March 2018 by a Case Western Reserve University police officer. Barbara Snyder, then CWRU’s president, called Conwell to apologize and the university later expressed regret.

(University Circle Inc., which serves the city’s cultural, medical, and educational district, has mandated implicit bias training for its own police force and has organized numerous free cultural events and programs aimed at making neighborhood residents feel welcome in University Circle institutions. “We acknowledge that education and medical arts districts interwoven in city neighborhoods need to be inclusive and accessible to all,’’ said UCI President Chris Ronayne).

Holden can’t solve all problems of perceived bias through a master plan, but it “is very bravely taking on a challenge that is much bigger than itself,’’ Burnett said. “I see a team willing to roll sleeves up and do that work with honesty and integrity.”

At both of its locations, Holden Forests & Gardens is seeking ways to create a deeper sense of engagement and enjoyment for all visitors.

At Holden, that could mean making first-time visitors more comfortable exploring its 15 miles of trails or creating experiences that share scientific research performed by staff members.

At the Botanical Garden, Koski said it’s imperative to make the institution feel more welcoming. The 2003 expansion, designed by Boston architect Graham Gund, a son of Cleveland industrialist and philanthropist George Gund II, has an entrance largely hidden from East Boulevard and Wade Oval Drive by gardens.

Once inside, she said, visitors traverse a good deal of interior space before reaching the site’s outdoor gardens, or indoor exhibits in its Glass House conservatories focusing on flora from Madagascar and Costa Rica.

“When you walk in, I want everyone to know immediately you’re in a space filled with life, plants, and trees and right now, we’re not sure that’s your first impression,” Koski said.

Koski said she also wants to see the conservatories made more flexible and efficient, so they can encompass changing displays that encourage repeat visitation. Today, she said, it’s easy to say: “well, I’ve already been to the Glass Houses.”

The Botanical Garden has faced a threat for seven years from a lawsuit launched by heirs of Jeptha Wade, who donated land to the City of Cleveland in 1882 for what eventually became Wade Park.

They claim that the Botanical Garden violated the terms of Wade’s gift by erecting a fence around its 10-acre site and charging admission. Lower courts have disagreed, but the plaintiffs have appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which could decide the case this year.

Removing the fence would seriously undermine the garden, Koski said. Woltz pointed out that removing the fence would expose the gardens to deer and create safety issues along the edge of a ravine that drops sharply from East Boulevard on the east and north sides of the garden.

Koski said she’s hopeful the garden will prevail. And Woltz said he’s excited about the potential to redesign portions of the landscape to explore biodiversity, soil health, food, climate justice, climate extremes, and more.

“You can have beautiful gardens and landscapes that begin to address these urgent topics of today,’’ he said.

Source News