Over the past several weeks, as I have relayed information about the stalled Wiley plan, I heard a lot of, “What?! I thought Wiley was a done deal?!”
If only, my friends.
Where we’ve been and where we are…the short version
For those late to the information game, the deal to convert Wiley to swing space for the Cleveland Heights High School has been slowly falling apart since early summer, taking trust, relationships and positive momentum down with it.
The Zoning Board on July 9th was a close call, after a particularly heated conversation. It was suggested by one resident that the CHUH students be bussed to a closed high school in Cleveland. Many of my Canterbury neighbors stood in support of our kids and finding common ground between the city and the district.
At the end of the night, a temporary multi-year permit allowing a 3+% increase in land use was granted by the Zoning Board to the CH-UH school district. This makes it possible for the modulars to be placed on the football field and track at Wiley, occupying just over 28% of the parcel, when 25% is what is typically allowed.
In general, the sticking points have come in the Planning Commission meetings. These are alternately boring and stunningly spirited. The Planning Commission is a body of Mayoral appointees, plus the city Law Director and an elected City Council member.
Civics 101: The zoning variance passed by the Zoning Board only applies if the Planning Commission ever decides to vote on the plan. A thumbs up or down from the Planning Commission is merely a recommendation to City Council, who gets the final vote. But after Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, all but Councilwoman Nancy English voted to table the matter. No vote, no movement. Money wasted.
The Planning Commission is responsible for checking a lot of things in the plan. Lighting, traffic flow, parking, building capacity, noise management, neighborhood impact, etc. And yes, safety and security. This is where things have fallen apart. The city says there are serious gaps between the safety and security plan from the district and the needs assessment from the Police Chief. Some wonder if the city’s plan is overkill, and indeed, legal. The city insists it needs 5 more officers and 5 police cruisers to cover the influx of daytime population. The district can only legally pay for services rendered during the school day and year. It’s both an accounting and workload management nightmare…campus only, 180 days of the year, all that.
To relieve the burden on the city of UH, the district approached the County, which has the capacity and is open to providing services at Wiley. But it is not final. There is a meeting among the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s office, UH Police Chief and the district planned for October 21st to try to finalize a security plan.
The city engineer and the fire chief both said their concerns had been satisfied, and they both recommended the plan. Hopefully, once that the safety and security plan is secured, the Planning Commission will bring this matter to a swift vote.
That’s the upshot. As I wait on past meeting minutes to dive deeper into ‘where have we been?’ one word has really struck me. It seems to underpin this entire disconnect: Development.
What are we developing, exactly?
The Mayor has insisted at both Planning and Zoning meetings that the city is “following a normal process.” Speaking about the planning review protocol on October 14th, she said, “this is what happens whenever we are looking at any kind of development. McDonald’s. Dunkin. It’s the same process we have to undertake.” The language of the meeting went as such: Wiley is a development project, the school district is the applicant.
True. All of this, true.
But. Are we debating the merits of buildings that provide mediocre burgers and cavity-inflicting Munchkins within our city boundaries? No. We are talking about our children, and buildings that provide a civic service to our community. Our schools do not exist to turn profits, they exist to turn our children into citizens. This argument might be made: that is why this particular project needs extra attention and stewardship. I would agree, if true stewardship was being provided by the city.
The city has been unwilling or unable to discern the nuance of development here. The correct planning protocol must remain, yes, but conversation and collaboration should be taking place alongside it. Treating proposed development by a profitmaking entity, and proposed development from an organization providing a civic good in *exactly the same way* is alarming and insulting to me, as both a taxpayer and a parent.
Consider an ethics and good neighbor position. McDonald’s and Dunkin do not share a 100 year old partnership with the city of University Heights, like the one shared among UH, the school district and the city of Cleveland Heights. McDonald’s or Dunkin, upon not getting their way, can pull out and make their profits elsewhere. We can’t grow our Heights kids anywhere other than the Heights.
I take the Mayor at her word that what we’ve observed is indeed a “normal process” for development. What alarms me is this is the only process, the only conversation taking place in my city…how to treat the buildings, logistics and safety; what to do with the land before, after and beyond.
Case in point. A Planning Commission member at the June 25th meeting said that it is the district’s job to worry about what happens inside the classrooms, and it’s the city’s job to worry about what happens with the buildings themselves. Fair enough. But that statement sounds both oppositional and incomplete to me. Surely there are overlapping needs and concerns the city could consider, as a good neighbor and civic entity. We can do better than this.
More than that, we should aim to.
How buildings, kids and the economy converge
University Heights will benefit from a wider and longer view of this development. Wiley will house every student in the district at some point over the next several years, reaching all the way down to current 3rd graders. Applying a bare minimum political process to this particular development project—one that affects our city and our community so deeply and for so long—is poor governance.
Continuing this myopic approach has the potential to shape how our children, current residents, potential residents and the broader region view University Heights for a long time. The barely tolerating ‘meh’ attitude toward our own schools is disheartening at the least. Irresponsible at most.
Let’s take a systemic view. Councilman Steve Sims, in an email response to a UH parent concerned about the tenor of Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, did just that.
“I couldn’t help but think what a tragedy and shame it was that such strong undertones exist in our community that Heights High students are hoodlums, thugs, threats and menaces to society. Such perceptions and unfounded attitudes are shortsighted and insulting. What is especially sad, yet almost funny at the same time, is that likely we will have to look to the same students to anchor OUR community and local economy in a few years, as they complete their educations, join the workforce, and hopefully consider CH-UH as a place to live and start families as homeowners and consumers. [emphasis mine]
Not only is Councilman Sims introducing the tied-with-a-burning-wick tinder box of safety, security and perception that kicked off this series, he makes a stunningly simple, absolutely true assertion…our kids are essential to the economic development of this very community.
Ohio natives are commonly known to stay here as lifers or boomerang back. A returned from glamorous places Akron native, it was certainly my experience. And it’s especially true in University Heights. Many of my neighbors have been in their homes for decades upon decades, or purchased their home from an aunt, grandma or friend. Don’t we want to set out the welcome mat for our kids now, that they might remember it as adults, and bring their talents home?
Buildings versus people
But let’s talk about those buildings. We have homes, commercial buildings, religious institutions, schools and vacant land. Given the development obstacles the city of UH has to consider—an aging populace of home owners, barely occupied commercial districts, and what to do with/how to pay for plans for vacant land—I’d posit that ignoring the needs of the district and our children comes at our swift peril.
What’s the unifying factor in our homes, stores, churches, synagogues and schools? The people inside them give them their worth.
I fear that catering to the fears and misperceptions of some of its residents, University Heights may ultimately face an emptying out of some of those very buildings I’ve seen held in such high regard. As I mentioned yesterday, my neighbor’s home will soon empty out when her east-burb bound family leaves the city for a community that supports its schools.
The mayor has repeatedly written and spoken of her goal to attracting and retaining young families in our city. I agree, wholeheartedly. Supporting our schools would help us reach that goal. So what is University Heights prepared to do to better welcome the next family who considers my friend’s emptied house?
Then there’s the commercial side. On Tuesday, the Mayor talked about our city’s “black hole of economic development, University Square.” This shopping complex has never been more than 21% occupied, and some of the units have never been leased.
I hope it’s occurred to the city that hosting the high school—with its students and staff, and intervening construction personnel—might actually be an economic boon to the neighboring businesses. An influx of daytime traffic might spur further development, or at least provide the stability of a cash-influx for a few years, time enough to enact a more effective long term commercial plan for USQ.
What I have observed instead is fear mongering and misperception. There is little about businesses experiencing any sort of gain through increased traffic—a larger lunch crowd and more disposable income—and plenty about theft, loss and crime.
Developing the right things
At the June 25th Planning Commission meeting, Commission member Paul Siemborski took issue with the use of $12.8 million dollars of the construction budget planned for retrofitting Wiley. He specifically balked at the cost of the temporary modular units, calling them ‘throwaway buildings.’ In my later remarks, I pointed out that we would be wise to remember that we are ultimately talking about a plan for a sound space for kids and their education. ‘Our children are not ‘throwaway,’ I said. This was met with, ‘we are just talking about buildings right now.’
Exactly. And that’s the problem.
This focus on buildings has really thrown me. I mean, I get it. There are arms of city government that have to train laser focus on specific parts of this plan. I don’t expect Planning Commission members to comment on how the science modulars will be configured inside for the best educational use. They are concerned with sprinkler systems. Yes. Of course.
However, if the Planning Commission holds that things beyond buildings are outside its purview, it might be careful not to overstep its jurisdiction by mocking line-item costs within the district’s project. Taxpayers already decided this a worthy investment in the passage of Issue 81 last November. Brick and mortar, modular or permanent, the buildings at Wiley need to serve our kids during a transition period for them. Something the city could more careful to remember.
Taking the long view
Laser-like focus is fine. But who in the UH city administration has been taking the wide view, keeping in mind all the residents of UH, as well as the CH students that will use the Wiley site? Who has been the students’ advocate, or even considered the students’ perspective? Who remembers what’s at stake here? An entire generation of children in our cities, who need, deserve, and have a right to become educated in their community.
Do we need well planned buildings, adequate parking, a safe campus and neighborhood? Of course. But I invite the city to look up from the blueprints, and take notice of a few things. As someone on Facebook pointed out, “young men and women of University Heights have been educated in Cleveland Heights high school for…ever.” It pains me as a resident to realize that UH does not appreciate this centuries-long service, or truly, even acknowledge it. Most troubling to me, I have to wonder if my city will ever, willingly and with open arms, reciprocate it.
University Heights has the chance to save the day here, to make this plan the shared-goal collaboration it could have been from the beginning. Will UH choose embrace all our kids, including their own? Will we finally see leadership in supporting public education, with city hall setting an example for skeptical or wrongly informed residents? Or will we continue to see obstacles thrown up, earnest invitations rebuffed, public shaming liberally applied? I hope not. Who wants more of the kind of political ugliness that leaves your mouth tasting like pennies?
University Heights has the opportunity to refocus this rigid view on development. The best kind of development for Wiley will take into account more than the buildings. Surely we can make generous room for people, relationships and shared goals.
There are very real obstacles to overcome, as the open loop of safety and security demonstrates. Things have gotten nastier than they need to be, but change is always hard. I hope we are experiencing now what we might chalk up in 10 years to growing pains. I hope that we are on the verge of a positive, honest course of development…and not a slow, painful dismantling.