Mayor Justin Bibb appoints Lillian Kuri as chair of the Cleveland Planning Commission, replacing David Bowen

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Mayor Justin Bibb, days after taking office, partially fulfilled a campaign promise to change the way the city approaches urban planning and design by shaking up the city’s planning commission with a new direction.

The new administration announced Wednesday that it had named Lillian Kuri, an architect and executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Cleveland Foundation, as the commission’s new chair.

Kuri, 51, has been an influential advocate for progressive urban design, planning and architecture in Cleveland for more than two decades. She served several years on the commission as vice-president and is now the first woman to hold the position of president. She said sources at city hall confirmed that fact on Thursday.

Kuri described her new role as an opportunity to dramatically increase transparency and public engagement in planning, to focus on improving the public realm to make the city more livable, and to work collaboratively with the new administration. .

She said her priorities will include improving public access to waterfronts and creating streetscapes that are more suitable for cyclists and pedestrians.

With new federal funds available for infrastructure projects, Cleveland could position itself to accelerate delivery of projects that have long gone unrealized, she said.

“I am truly honored to be asked to serve by Mayor Bibb,” she said. “I think this is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Kuri will succeed David Bowen, whose actions as director of a Cleveland architectural firm have raised questions about potential conflicts of interest related to his role on the commission.

August Fluker, another architect from Cleveland, with a long experience as a director of the firm City Architecture, will serve as vice-chairman of the commission.

The changes follow the administration’s announcement Monday that Freddy Collier, Jr., who had served as director of planning since 2014, would join Bibb’s Office of Quality Control.

On Tuesday, the administration posted on the city’s website that it was looking for a new director of planning. The job description states that the director is “appointed by the commission and appointed by the mayor at his discretion”.

Bradford Davy, Bibb’s chief strategy officer, said the administration would appoint Marka Fields, the city planner overseeing development on the city’s southeast side, as interim planning director.

“We thank David Bowen for his service and look forward to working with Lillian, August and Marka to bring inclusive growth to every part of our city,” Davy said.

Bibb wanted the changes made quickly at the planning commission because “development happens every day and we don’t want to hold things up,” Davy said.

The commission is a powerful semi-independent body charged by the city charter with designing and reviewing development plans and making recommendations to the city council, which can overrule the commission by a two-thirds vote.

Kuri received a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Kent State University in 1994 and a master’s degree in architecture and urban design from Harvard in 1996.

After working for the City of Boston, she joined Cleveland’s planning team in 1998 under former Mayor Michael White before becoming director of the nonprofit Cleveland Public Art in 2001.

In this position, Kuri fought for bike lanes to be installed on the Detroit-Superior Bridge, a proposal that was partially realized after strong opposition from truck-dependent industries based in the nearby Flats neighborhood.

Kuri joined the Cleveland Foundation in 2005 to work as a consultant in the development of the Greater University Circle Initiative, which promoted collaborative planning among medical, cultural, and educational nonprofits in the region.

At the foundation, Kuri led initiatives related to the arts and urban planning. More recently, they have included a plan to move the foundation’s headquarters from rented offices in Playhouse Square to a new building in the city’s Midtown area on the south side of Hough.

Among other things, Kuri said she wanted to enhance the stature of the planning commission and planning as an important facet of city government.

Under Jackson and Collier, the planning department developed new visions for Opportunity Corridor, the Cuyahoga Valley, and large swathes of the city’s impoverished east side.

But many critics felt frustrated during Jackson’s 16 years in office that the city failed to follow through on his plans. Jackson also ran City Hall in a low-key manner that often seemed opaque.

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During his six-year tenure as planning commission chairman, Bowen fought vehemently as a West Side resident to block a Cleveland Metroparks proposal to widen a sidewalk on Lake Avenue to help complete a regional cycle route linked to Edgewater Park.

Bowen also raised questions about a potential conflict of interest in June when Richard L. Bowen Associates, founded by his father, accepted an assignment to design the adaptive reuse of a building atop the hill in Irishtown Bend.

Critics interpreted the surrender as conflicting with a vote Bowen took in 2017 to approve plans for a park at the site. Bowen said in October that he saw no conflict, but would recuse himself from future votes on the park “if I had to.”

During his campaign, Bibb said in an interview with and The Plain Dealer that Bowen’s actions felt like a conflict, and he pledged to quickly address this and other scheduling issues.

“Trust and transparency will be cornerstones of our administration and we will work hard from day one to advance both across the company,” Davy said.

To note: This story has been updated to note that Lillian Kuri is the first woman in Cleveland history to chair the city’s planning commission.

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Aurora J. William