Paving the way for the creation of the Van Aken District

Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen had a vision for Shaker Heights, which they methodically translated into a plan: roads laid out in a grid and curving streets connecting to the light rail; houses designed in specific styles built with quality materials and prescribed setbacks from the street; open spaces preserved for carefully chosen institutions. For 50 years, during a time of rapid growth, development in Shaker was based on this plan.

Well-constructed plans have staying power. They convey best practices and creative solutions to complex challenges. They articulate a vision and then anchor it in the reality of how people, places, buildings, and roads influence a city’s growth. The best plans are shaped in partnership with residents who live and work in the city and professionals whose training and expertise provide critical guidance and structure. Good plans are at once practical and visionary, rigid and flexible.

But cities are living entities that must adapt to changing contexts, leading-edge technologies, and shifting priorities to stay relevant. Eventually, the push and pull exceeds the capacity of the plan and a new one takes its place.

In 1967, the City created its second plan, “A Comprehensive Plan, Shaker Heights, Ohio,” known as the Styche-Hisaka Plan.

Building on the Van Sweringen vision, it responded to a growing population and an increased reliance on cars. It sought to position the City for additional development, yet firmly anchored by the original vision and character of the community.

Fifty years past creation of the Styche-Hisaka Plan, we now look back at the City’s progress. The plan addressed the need to remain competitive despite a fully built-out city.

The focus areas and investment priorities outlined in the Strategic Investment Plan in 2000 echoed those identified in the Styche-Hisaka Comprehensive Plan. Together these two plans, and the Van Sweringen Plan before them, paved the way for the creation of the Van Aken District.

When we gather there in the years ahead, we can raise a glass to Leonard Styche and Don Hisaka for leading us to downtown Shaker. We can affirm that well-constructed plans lead to well-constructed cities.

Men with a Plan

Learn about the architects behind the Styche-Hisaka Plan.

DON HISAKA: When Leonard Styche and Don Hisaka submitted their city plan for Shaker Heights in 1967, Hisaka was already a well-known Cleveland-based architect. His company headquarters were here in the 1960s and ‘70s, and he designed just about every sort of building that humans put to use — government and university buildings, cultural institutions, office centers, schools, even parking lots.

While working on the plan, Hisaka fell in love with Shaker. In 1968, he and his family moved into a house he designed to fit among the trees on a corner lot on Drexmore Road. The house cost $37,000 in 1968 – roughly $260,000 today. The house is still contemporary and progressive by Shaker standards, and it’s the only house in Northeast Ohio to have an Honors Award from the American Institute of Architects, where Hisaka was a fellow.

The Hisakas lived in Shaker until the mid-1980s, when they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hisaka died in 2013 at age 85 in Berkeley, California. He visited the Shaker house in 2011. “He did a walk-through and spent a little time. It was fun to talk to him,” the home’s current owner, Dan Mansoor, told Shaker Life in 2012.

Hisaka built, or renovated, homes for notable Clevelanders including arts patron and philanthropist Agnes Gund and Dr. Delos (Toby) Cosgrove, retired president and CEO of the Cleveland Clinic. Gund lives in New York, but her Hisaka home is in Peninsula. “He was a wonderfully gentle and very thoughtful man,” she told after Hisaka’s death. “We wanted something like a treehouse. It’s surrounded by light and up in the air. It lives with the frogs and the birds and the red foxes and everything.”

Hisaka was born and raised in California on his family’s potato farm on Bacon Island, near Stockton. During World War II, the family was sent to an internment camp in Arkansas. He met his future wife, Michiko Oga, in the camp. Hisaka was familiar with Cleveland well before the 1960s. He lived here for a brief time in 1945, working at a defense plant. After the war, he earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of California at Berkeley. He later got a master’s at Harvard University.

He returned to Cleveland in 1960 to join one of the city’s top architectural firms, Dalton and Dalton, which built their headquarters in Shaker Heights. The building is now the home of University Hospitals Management Services Center on Warrensville Center Road. In 1961, Hisaka started Hisaka and Associates. He returned to Berkeley in the 1990s to teach and practice before retiring.

LEONARD STYCHE: Leonard Styche does not share Don Hisaka’s renown, and not much is known about him; he was a city planner, a modest Midwesterner from Milwaukee, and active in the Board of National Missions, the governing body of the Presbyterian Church.

He later widened his career horizon by becoming a developer and builder, and was recognized as an expert on urban renewal. He began his career as a planner for the City of Milwaukee in the late 1940s, and in 1959 started a company called Horizon Renewal Corporation. He expanded his operation to New York City in the 1960s, where he began consulting religious institutions on urban affairs.

Styche’s approach to urban renewal seems to have been motivated in part by the desire to avoid “leapfrog” development (aka urban sprawl) by better planning for already-established communities. He expressed these sentiments in a 1971 speech titled “Alternatives to Chaos: New Horizons in Human Environment” at the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City.

He also appears in a number of academic journals around that time for his work on a “Checking System for Program Evaluation” – a systematic means of evaluating housing availability for low-income families.

Karl Toth, an intern in the Shaker Heights Planning Department, contributed to the research for this article.

Originally published in Shaker Life, Winter 2018.