New Civil Engineer
As Kirsten Bowen ’96 knows, there’s a special satisfaction that comes from building things that everyone wants to see
By Robert L. Smith
Photos by Roadell Hickman
On a chilly March afternoon, Kirsten (Geraci) Bowen ’96 returned to the scene of her latest act of public engineering. She stood in Edgewater Park on Cleveland’s lakefront and looked across the Memorial Shoreway toward the new housing that had blossomed on the ridge.
Once, the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood was walled off from the park and from Lake Erie by a speedy highway and a busy railroad. Now, that high-way is a 35 mph landscaped boulevard. Coursing beneath the railroad tracks, artfully burrowed, is a dazzling new underpass and restored pedestrian tunnels that invite walkers, runners and baby strollers to go to the beach.
Suddenly, the old neighborhood is waterfront property — and a lot more people want to live and play there. My what a little civil engineering can do.
“None of this was here,” Bowen said, glancing toward the tops of new condominiums. “Once we started working on the road, the developers began to break ground.”
Such ripple effects give her a good deal of satisfaction. It’s part of the quiet pride known to civil engineers, who create structures and landscapes that shape communities.
“It’s a great perk to this job, to see things built,” Bowen said. “And there’s a legacy. You can take people to see your project.”
Bowen stands at the forefront of one of the most exciting and fast-growing disciplines in engineering. Civil engineers are in demand and should be for years to come, experts say. They are being called upon to restore and rebuild aging infrastructures and to redesign transportation systems, often with people foremost in mind. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast that employment of civil engineers would grow by about 6 percent this decade as engineering firms address the new challenges.
As a project manager at a major national civil engineering firm, Bowen is hip deep in the trend. She’s a vice president and the Great Lakes Transportation Lead at Pittsburgh-based Michael Baker International. She’s a layer of railroads and a builder of bridges, but also a designer of trails and greenways meant to accommodate and encourage more active lifestyles.
She’s a petite, confident, well-traveled engineer in tune with the buzzwords of the day, like multimodal and “active transportation,” projects that promote walking, running and biking.
You’ll see her handiwork all around Greater Cleveland. Bowen was on the Michael Baker team that designed two of the final links on the towpath trail, linking the lofty Tremont neighborhood to the Flats near downtown Cleveland. She helped design the Opportunity Corridor — an emerging boulevard meant to bring new jobs and energy to Cleveland’s east side — and managed the structural and track engineering at the new University Circle Rapid Transit station, the first and last stop for many CWRU students.
Most visibly, Bowen was the project manager on the Lakefront West Project — the Ohio Department of Transportation’s $80 million effort to tame the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway and open up access to the lakefront on the city’s west side.
A BALANCING ACT
As project manager, Bowen orchestrated a symphony of designers, planners and engineers. Under her ken fell planning, environmental analysis and final design. So did communication, which was critical on a project with broad stewardship. Partners included ODOT, the City of Cleveland, the Cleveland Metroparks, utility companies, neighborhood groups and community development corporations.
Bowen described an engineering “balancing act” motivated by an uncommon goal.
“It was different,” she said of the project. “Usually, we’re adding capacity, allowing for more cars on the road. This time we were trying to slow people down, and connect the community to the lakefront.”
Much of the results are plain to see. Her team converted a six-lane, limited access highway to a calmer, slower, six-lane boulevard with pedestrian-friendly features. An ugly concrete median came down. New lighting and landscaping went up. A new street and an underpass connected the neighborhood more easily to the lakefront. Wide, landscaped walkways were added, lending an inviting, intermodal touch.
Such feats required some nifty engineering. To bring people and cars into Edgewater Park, West 73rd Street was extended under Norfolk Southern’s Chicago Line and under the highway to an existing park entrance. Much of the work only an engineer might notice. Along with a new bridge to carry trains and a new roadway to carry cars, the project required the relocation of an 84-inch sewer interceptor and nearly a dozen fiberoptic ducts.
Bowen and her team also faced tricky topography, including a sharp 40-foot drop from the railroad to the existing highway. They temporarily relocated the tracks, dug into the hill and constructed the bridge using top-down construction techniques.
Just up the Shoreway, a pedestrian tunnel dating to 1912 was restored and made inviting with a new, ADA-compliant walkway that switchbacks down the hillside. Landscape architects added greenery and public art, including a so-called “glacial wall” that adds a contemporary, art deco touch to the scene.
The project was completed in 2019, capping a 12-year effort from planning through construction.
Critics complained that Lakefront West did not meet its initial ambitions and that the Shoreway remains too fast and barrier-like. But some of the original ideas did not work with facts on the ground, Bowen said. Traffic studies showed that adding intersections with traffic lights, as initially planned, would have created traffic backups on the Shoreway during morning commutes. Meanwhile, the project needed to balance all forms of transportation — walkers and cyclists as well as cars and trucks — while meeting ODOT and industry design standards.
“There’s always a few thing you might have changed,” Bowen said, “but I’m really proud of our effort.”
The project won numerous design and engineering awards — including the 2019 ACEC Outstanding Achievement Award — and spurred the hoped-for ripple effects. The Detroit Shoreway neighborhood has experienced a surge in new housing, restaurants and nightlife.
Bowen, meanwhile, is excited for the next project. She believes it’s a great time to be a civil engineer.
“There’s lot of new infrastructure needs — a lot of rehabilitation and redevelopment of old industrial areas into new, thriving locations,” she said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, especially in Ohio. Many of the (engineering) companies are hiring.”
A BUILDER SHE WILL BE
Her journey into engineering did not follow a straight path. Growing up outside of Pittsburgh, the former Kirsten (Nicole) Geraci excelled at science and math. A summer high school engineering program helped steer her toward the Case School of Engineering, where she initially struggled.
“I’m the first person to admit, I’m not the best student,” she said. “High school subjects were really easy for me so college was a different world.”
She majored in mechanical engineering, thinking she wanted to design cars, but switched to biochemistry, and didn’t like that much, either. A summer internship with the City of Pittsburgh Department of Engineering and Construction convinced her that civil engineering was the career for her. She could use her math skills to build things.
“You don’t have to love math — you have to understand it,” she said. “You’re going to be calculating no matter what you do. Would you rather be looking at concrete and steel or a spreadsheet?”
To her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Case she added a master’s degree in urban planning from Cleveland State University.
Michael Baker International is her third job out of college. The company employs 3,400 people nationwide, nearly 40 in its offices high above downtown Cleveland, including nearly a dozen Case graduates. She has risen steadily since joining the company in 2001, from project engineer to project manager to vice president.
Bowen’s supervisor said she possesses the skills needed of a project engineer, including a deep well of sincerity and an eye for detail.
“She takes a lot of pride in her work, and she runs out all the loose ends,” said Kenton Zinn, the Regional Director for Michael Baker International. “There’s a lot of soft skills that are required on these projects. It’s not just math. She’s coordinating with a lot of stakeholders and interest groups.”
In addition to leading transportation projects in the Great Lakes region, Bowen is the company’s national freight lead, making her a designer of freight yards for Class I railroads and intermodal terminals across the country. She spends about 30 percent of her time traveling.
“It’s been interesting,” she said. “I like meeting new people and working on challenging projects.”
Meanwhile, she’s a busy mom in the Cleveland suburb of Sagamore Hills, where she and her husband, Chris, are raising their 12-year-old son, Charles, who has autism. But she still gives back to her profession and to her alma mater.
Bowen is the founding president of the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS International), which promotes the advancement of women in transportation fields.
She served on the board of the Case Alumni Association for eight years before moving to the Case Alumni Foundation, where she is helping to manage a more than $70 million endowment fund. She also mentors young women at Case who are majoring in engineering — some as excited and unsure as she was.
“She’s super fun to talk to because she’s so passionate about what she does,” said Emma Wyckoff, a third-year civil engineering major.
Wyckoff met Bowen at the Junior Senior Scholarship Reception last spring. They later met for lunch in Tomlinson Hall, and now Bowen guides her toward potential internships and co-ops.
“She just sent me a big list of links,” Wyckoff said. “It’s cool for me as a woman in civil engineering to have another woman as a mentor, someone who has done so much in the field. That means a lot to me.”
Wyckoff said her focus is on environmental engineering, but that Bowen helps her see the wide world of civil engineering — as she does with the other Case students that she mentors.
Bowen tells students that the scope of the trade is vast, encompassing structural, environmental, transportation and construction engineering. She advises them to try and land internships and to learn on the job.
And she shares a benefit of the trade that quickly struck her fancy and still does.
“In addition to the office work, you get to go outside and see your projects built,” she said. “That’s definitely one of the perks.”
Overview of the almost-finished Shoreway project, with condominiums rising in the lower right.
Courtesy of Michael Baker International.
Courtesy of Michael Baker International