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 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.