Some last words before South Euclid approves the Oakwood rezoning

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In the real world, how often do you get the chance to ask: If we could do anything, what would it be?
That’s the essence of my objection to what’s happening at the former Oakwood golf course today.

While I’m not in favor of the proposed development that is likely to be carried out on the South Euclid portion of the golf course, I am not necessarily against developing the land.

While I have cringed at the demeanor of the developer in confronting those who oppose this project, I have not questioned the company’s capabilities. I’ve stated more than once that I believe his track record is one of keeping commitments.

While I believe it’s realistic that Wal-Mart may be considering a move to the new development from its current location at Severance, I have not acknowledged the rumor that persists about this (first, the rumor’s stated sources don’t strike me as being in the position to have authoritative and current knowledge of such a transaction; and second, whether it’s Wal-Mart v. any other big box strikes me as immaterial).

So what’s my objection to this development on this land at this time? In short, a lack of introspection, which I blame on the elected governments of both South Euclid and Cleveland Heights.

In urbanized, built-out suburbs like these, large parcels of open land simply do not become available very often. To say this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity is probably an understatement.

I’d like to think elected officials in either of the two cities this property straddles would see the potential that it offers. With some real vision and creativity, it might be used to transform the economy of the near-eastern suburbs. It might be used to establish the uniqueness of this part of the region – to make our cities the envy and destination of others.

How? I don’t know. While I like the idea of green space, I don’t believe a park is much more transformational than a parking lot.

Using it to build an educational campus that unites multiple school districts and reinvents our local education system might be meaningful. As would some kind of economic incubator that fosters sustainability-based businesses.

There are probably dozens of transformational and inspiring ways to use 144 acres of open, inner-ring land. But those ideas aren’t just sitting on a list somewhere. They only arise out of a proactive process to generate public consensus. They require vision and a commitment to long-term regional planning. They are borne of open discussion and passion. They demand broad thinking and a frank laying out of localized needs and agendas. Most of all, they take time.

This is the kind of work that could have started years ago, when the country club was first known to be in jeopardy. There are a handful of area residents who did try to get this  discussion started. The end result might even have been that the community decided it needed a value-oriented retail plaza featuring big-box retailers and fast-food outlets (though I doubt it). But public officials in either city seem to have little taste for undertaking and funding this kind of work.

(As an aside, the Heigths Observer was created in part out of frustration that ordinary people have had in getting extraordinary ideas such as this onto the public agenda.)

In the real world, how often do you get the chance to ask: If I could do absolutely anything what would it be?  Though we might have been addressing this question a decade ago, in early 2010 it was put directly in front of both South Euclid and Cleveland Heights.

To her credit, Frean Mentch, an ordinary, unelected Cleveland Heights resident, sought to answer that question. She wants to preserve it permanently as green space. Whether you agree with her or not (it will be a surprise to some that I don’t) misses an important point: She has taken an active interest in trying to do something inspired. And if her style of communication is at times abrasive or hyperbolic, or her interpretations of municipal code ultimately don’t prove correct, she deserves credit for trying to raise the bar higher than either city government seems interested in doing. It’s easy to sit at your computer and anonymously accuse her of misrepresenting the truth – as even newspaper editorial writers have done. But that’s not the same as actually spending your time to stick out your neck and do what you believe is right in the best way you know how.

How did South Euclid’s government take up the best opportunity it may ever have to do something big?

It couldn’t move quickly enough to fritter it away for a banal and ordinary shopping plaza just like dozens of others across the region.

I don’t begrudge South Euclid’s right – or need – to pursue the tax revenue that this will provide. If this is what the community really wants, then the city should follow a measured process to figure that out and allow the development to be built.

But South Euclid officials haven’t tried to find out what the community wants. They’ve done the opposite: They fell in love with the first commercial proposal that came in, started selling it to the community themselves, and closed the door to discussion of other ideas.

Within a day or so of the public’s first learning of this proposed development, South Euclid Councilmember Jane Goodman, on her Facebook page, had already endorsed the project, stressed that it was the best proposal  South Euclid was going to receive, declared it to be Earth-friendly, and attacked those who dared to disagree with her assertions.

Since then, the city has held public hearings as required by law; supported the developer in one-sided surveying designed to show evidence of public approval for the project; and pursued the fastest possible timeline to approve rezoning needed for the development. It has declined to challenge the developer on such meaningful issues as the size of buffer zones from nearby residences, and it has agreed to take on the ownership burden of land the developer can’t monetize.

In theory at least, we elect our representatives to do better than this.

South Euclid is about to rezone Oakwood after a process that appears unnecessarily hurried and partial. It has acted like an extension of the developer and an adversary to a number of its citizens – which is the opposite of the role it’s supposed to have. It has muddied the waters to the point that nobody really knows what residents truly desire.

It has rushed to make a decision that could and should have been pondered. It’s like winning the lottery and spending all the money on a brief binge of partying. In doing so, it takes away any chance for Cleveland Heights to do much better – though I have doubts my own local government would have risen to the occasion.

The Oakwood property is an opportunity whose greatest potential will never be realized – or even identified. I am, simply, sorry to see it squandered.

Comments

  1. Fran Mentch says

    Bob, I do enjoy your Oakwood essays. My personal favorite, is the http://blogs.heightsobserver.org/2011/02/south-euclids-elected-wrecking-crew/
    an essay everyone should have to read 3 times before talking about Oakwood. This business of sharing money and nested abatements between South Euclid and Cleveland Heights is too much for most of us, and you explained it beautifully in your article about the “Wrecking Crew”.
    But, to the essay above: I must say I am flattered that you give me so much credit and I am very proud to be connected to the civic movement, Citizens for Oakwood. But, it is never one person, and Oakwood has MANY, MANY supporters. We have a core of about 30 people, almost 1500 Facebook fans, and people communicating with us all the time, offering ideas and support. So many people, that I apologize to anyone who feels slighted or unappreciated. We are struggling to keep up with everything and I hope we have not offended anyone by seeming unresponsive. Citizens for Oakwood is an effective civic group created by MANY minds, hearts and hard work. This effort started 18 months ago, when the property first went on the market and we held a public meeting and 75 people showed up, talked and developed a steering committee.
    The steering committee worked with Trust for Public Land, who generously gave money, time and technical support. They purchased an option, and ran out of time on their option, or they would have successfully purchased the land and turned it over to Metroparks.
    When the South Euclid portion of Oakwood was sold 12/31/10, Citizens for Oakwood moved into high gear and we have been gaining momentum ever since. People of all ages are Oakwood supporters, but my generation in particular has seen the effects of intense industrialization and urbanization.
    Its lessons have not been lost on us. We know what is important about life, what creates a community and what destroys it.
    We are committed and we will prevail.
    Thanks for helping us spread the word!

  2. JaneGoodman says

    Bob, you’re right that there should have been a grand vision for Oakwood discussed between the two cities before the place even went on the market. I don’t know whether there were or were not conversations between Mayors Welo and Kelley. If there were, none of the results ever made it to Council’s ears.

    As a journalist you know very well that, just because you may not have knowledge of something, that doesn’t mean the something doesn’t exist. And you also know that nothing just springs into existence the moment you learn about it. I would hope that you also accept that not every conversation of which you’re not a part is necessarily an occasion of nefarious plotting against the public interest.

    On one hand you seem to want to demonize me for being involved in any kind of discussion that might have take place before the public announcement of the sale – thus allowing me to come out with my endorsement “within a day or so” of the public’s learning of the sale – while also criticizing us for not having such discussions earlier in the process. Once the developer had his option and made his offer to leave a third of our space green and in our possession, and to make the built portion a model of green infrastructure and low-impact development practices, that’s when I took my stand. And I am not “South Euclid officials,” I am one of seven members of Council. Don’t accuse my colleagues of taking stands they haven’t taken.

    You say that “South Euclid officials haven’t tried to find out what the community wants. They’ve done the opposite: They fell in love with the first commercial proposal that came in, started selling it to the community themselves, and closed the door to discussion of other ideas.” How can you make such a statement? You don’t know what we do or have done. And you’re wrong. We HAVE challenged the buffer zone, and yes, we would take the burden of twenty acres of greenspace because that’s what the West 5 neighbors want there. But Fran would have us take on the burden of all sixty acres! How does this contradiction make sense to you?

    It’s clear that you’re getting your information from Fran’s emails and not actually investigating anything, which is a darn shame. But you do need to hear the facts, much as you pooh-pooh that approach when the Sun takes it.

    First of all, I have spent five years repeatedly asking my constituents what they wanted in their neighborhoods and in the city, and the answers were “a grocery store I can walk to (with things Whole Foods doesn’t sell), a neighborhood park that’s a natural space and not a bunch of ballfields, nice sit-down restaurants for foodies that we can take Mom to on special occasions, event spaces ‘like they have at Legacy Village’ and jobs, especially for kids, and places for kids to be that isn’t in the middle of the street.” I have spent that time encouraging people to shop locally so their dollars support city services, only to be met with the reply “but we don’t have places to shop to buy what I can buy at (fill in the name of any retailer other than Marc’s.)” So, once the option was bought and the proposal included almost all of these things, so much of what the community said they wanted, and it fit with our city’s green initiatives and our wish to see the Cedar-Warrensville area become the center of a new-urban district that would offer an anti-sprawl drawing-in to the inner ring, planning for our future, then yes, I supported it.

    Second of all, I have held design charettes with people from all over the city and those in the neighborhoods close to Cedar Center and Oakwood, gathering their ideas, hopes and wish lists for “what if we had green spaces,” whether one vacant lot or a bank of vacant spaces. As Ward Councilpersons, we have at least two, usually more, ward meetings a year, and Oakwood has been at the center of the last few of those, PLUS the community relations department has held series’ of community conversation sessions asking “what would you want at Oakwood?”

    I had a dream for that land and I explained the “nature-center-green-camp-native-plant-nursery-growing-training” concept in my first post on the matter. I was at the first meeting of Fran’s group, and another meeting on progress long before the land was sole. I also tried to find funders to help purchase the land. At the time the goal was to raise $4 million (the price we thought it would sell for) for the whole thing. Nobody suggested doing it piecemeal, and that’s where we dropped the ball and Mitchell Schneider picked it up and ran with it.

    I work for my constituents in Ward 4 first, and then for the taxpayers, residents and businesses of all of South Euclid. You seem to think that because I don’t agree with Fran, or because we didn’t invite you to the meetings, or because we didn’t try to (and I don’t know that’s the case), or weren’t able to (again, don’t know), get the Club board to hold off the sale until we had the kind of multi-community discussions you’d have liked, that therefore we hurried through, didn’t ask, didn’t listen and fell in love with this. You really need to ask the parties involved before you make such statements, even in a blog that’s your opinion piece.

    We have a lot of “unelected” activists who do what they do out of a passionate interest in doing the right thing as they see it. I have been one and continue to be one on other issues. But it’s easy to be an unelected activist. You don’t have to be responsible for the consequences of your actions. You don’t have to represent anyone else’s wishes or well-being, you can’t lose your job if you don’t do those things, and your city won’t go broke if you manage to stop whatever it is you’re against. It’s so easy to yell “NO” when you’re not the one whose taxes would rise, or the one who’d lose the chance of that grocery store or that neighborhood park or that job, if your “no” won the day. I find it ironic that while you laud Fran for sticking her neck out (with no threat of injury, of course) to stop a Walmart, I’m the bad guy for sticking mine out to get both revenue AND greenspace.

    Oh, wait, this is all about the Heights, right? Sorry, I forgot, we’re not the Heights.

  3. Joe J. Liptow says

    Hello,
    I live in South Euclid and have observed many of SE City Hall’s maneuvers over the last 6 years. I don’t buy Jane’s Goodman’s spin much but at least she keeps talking a nice green story. My experience dealing with these public officials, of whom Jane is indeed only one of, is that they very much set the table before the public really knows what is going on. Then they overpromise and under deliver. They made promises about Cutter Creek that never materialized. One councilman, Moe Romeo, cut me off and diverted the entire conversation when I was question the developer why he was talking about faucets and efficient furnaces while residents wanted to talk about if this was even a good idea. Their idea of green space was open retention basins. Looks like they want to try that bait and switch again for Oakwood. Diverting attention from the matter at hand is pathetic. So what if Fran Mench has some influence on Mr. Rosenbaum’s views. I’m sure Fran Mench stands to make a bundle, NOT! Revenue, pure and simple, is what is influencing SE officials. This is understandable due to the financial mistakes they have made. My gut feeling is that if Schneider gets his way he will offer some assistance for Cedar Center. If I was a councilman, favoring First Interstates Oakwood Commons Proposal, I would demand it. I don’t remember the people of South Euclid being consulted on spending $20 million dollars for Cedar Center. Charettes? More like Self Admiration Society meetings. Seriously, given the track record of Liberty&Dorsh, Cutter Creek, the mess behind Aleci’s – whatever it is called, Cedar Center, StoneRidge, why would people allow this council to push the Oakwood big-box? Well because Mayor Welo and friends are threading to charge for garbage, up the income tax on people working outside of the city, increase fees everywhere, put mobile traffic cameras all over the place, etc………. I must say it is a rather convincing argument, No? But doesn’t pitting SE residents against CH-UH residents really go against regionalism and the muni no-pouching agreements. I salute Citizens for Oakwood and pray for your success. We’ll figure out how to stretch a buck someday. Joe Liptow, P.E., LEED-AP

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