Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Toward a Holistic Master Plan for South Euclid

I’m on the Citizens’ Steering Committee for South Euclid’s new Master Plan.

For those who don’t know, a Master Plan is a blueprint for managing a community’s growth and change. Until recently, a Master Plan lasted around 30 years before it needed to be replaced. Now, it lasts about a decade or so. Looking over the 1999 Master Plan, it’s easy to see why – it seems as if it was written on a different planet. Among other things, South Euclid’s 1999 master plan called for the construction of a multi-use ten story building on the corner of Mayfield and Green, and the infill of every square inch of undeveloped land – much of it with cluster housing. It also called for the renovation of Cedar Center North, one of the few parts of the 1999 plan to come to fruition. Although the financing of South Euclid’s portion of CCN has been controversial, few would argue with the notion that today’s Cedar Center is a vast improvement over the dilapidated strip that was torn down in 2008. The high volume of traffic generated by the new CCN attests to the project’s success. (Reading the 1999 plan, I was reminded of a city I lived in for nine years: Haverhill, Massachusetts. Ill conceived “urban renewal” begun in the 1960s demolished a good deal of historic architecture, replacing it with such amenities as parking garages.)

Between 2000-2011, South Euclid lost 5.3% of its population. But it’s worth noting that Cleveland Heights and Cuyahoga County, respectively, lost 7.2% and 7.8% of their population during the same period. Population loss has been the plight of the inner ring suburb since the 1980s. In both the amount of loss and overall demographics, South Euclid is in no way exceptional. Much of the population loss is not due to the economic collapse of 2008, but the result of children growing up and moving elsewhere, while the parents remain in place. That’s exactly why the South Euclid-Lyndhurst school district has been closing schools since 1983.

South Euclid’s location as an inner ring suburb is both a challenge and an opportunity. Housing stock is older and tends to be smaller than what some seek today – although increasing energy costs will likely lead to a revival of smaller housing in the coming decades. We’re not an outer ring suburb where everything is spread out and one needs a car to go anywhere. We’re close to everything, except a highway exit. We’re close enough to downtown that one can easily commute there without needing the highway – again with rising fuel costs that will be a big plus before long, as “telecommuting” is not always a viable option.

I believe the 1999 Master Plan was the result of skewed and short-term priorities – and I’ve seen these types priorities at work elsewhere. The insurance company for which I work changed their growth philosophy several years ago. Previously, their strategy was to simply sign up as many new customers as possible. It mattered not that many of those new customers dropped us after one six month policy term – because we received so many new applicants during that time that we could continue to grow. That is, until we reached a saturation point and new growth no longer offset non-renewals. That’s when we realized a longer term strategy was needed: retention. It was also tied into a new philosophy: we don’t just want business, we want good business – which translates into stable, long term customers.

When it comes to retaining and building a residential base, what constitutes “good” business? Mostly, people who plan to set down roots and remain in their homes for the foreseeable future. It is in the community’s best interest to encourage people to own the homes in which they live. Homeowners have incentive to take pride in ownership and maintain their property, while renters have no incentive to do so. While it may smack of social engineering, it is in the best interest of the community as a whole to ensure that landlords – as well as renters – will be accountable for the actions of tenants, who tend to be more transient.

How do you retain the “good” residents who already live here?  What people want in their community is pretty straightforward:

Walkability and bikeability: Take a look at the few areas in the city of Cleveland that are thriving – Tremont, Ohio City, Gordon Square, University Circle – and they all have something in common: you don’t need a car to get around – and you’ll see plenty of people walking and biking to their destinations. The main drag in South Euclid is Mayfield Road – which contains five lanes, including a dedicated turn lane. Each of those lanes is presently 13 feet wide. If those lanes were reduced in width to the ODOT required 11 feet, that would free up ten feet of space for dedicated bike lanes and wider sidewalks. Width reduction would also help alleviate the issue of speeding – the speed limit on Mayfield Road is 25mph throughout South Euclid and no one observes it. I would propose that every four lane road in South Euclid – including Green, South Belvoir, and the east side of Warrensville Center Road – be retrofitted in the same manner.

Business and Cultural amenities: Visit the Tremont Art Walk, and you’ll see how culture plays an important part in that area. Or visit Tremont on a non-art walk day, and you’ll witness how the restaurants – some of the finest in Cleveland – drive business. The Mayfield-Green intersection (the geographic center of South Euclid) needs a full service, sit down restaurant – of the so-called “White Tablecloth” model. Even a chain restaurant, such as an Outback Steakhouse, would be preferable to what we have now – which is nothing. Such a restaurant would easily fit into the former Blockbuster Video space. Storefronts along the Mayfield Road corridor, from Warrensville Center Road to Dill Road, need to be renovated. (While South Euclid needs to attract business, the city also needs to enforce building codes. On a personal note, it really annoyed me a few years ago when a city inspector cited my porch as needing tuck pointing, while commercial buildings with much greater visibility are allowed to slide.) While some have pooh-poohed the idea, utilization of the Telling Mansion as a Porcelain Art Museum and cultural arts center could be a great boon to South Euclid’s prestige. The location is flexible enough that it doesn’t have to be dedicated to only one use. As I said at the first TeMPO meeting: Why should University Circle have the monopoly on culture on the East Side? Further, the Mansion should be protected by local ordinance.

Safe neighborhoods and business districts: One cannot totally eliminate crime. But city leadership, the police, and residents must strategize to lower levels of crime. To that end, I support the broken windows approach.  Residents must report suspicious activity and annoyances (such as loud parties) and enable police to do their jobs. The placement of CCTV cameras would go a long way to securing marginal areas. Meanwhile, the police must take an active role in prosecuting “victimless” crimes such as vandalism and violation of noise ordinances. Community policing, which has had such success in Springfield, Massachusetts, is an option that should be explored.

Smart residential development and the courage to say “no”: South Euclid’s a high density city: we average 4,795 residents per square mile, as compared to 4,602 for Euclid, 3,162 for Lyndhurst, 2,375 for Richmond Heights (the presence of Cuyahoga County Airport depresses the number for the latter). There’s very little land left for development. I believe we should concentrate on redeveloping and enhancing already developed areas. That means setting aside and protecting undeveloped land BEFORE developers purchase it. I don’t hold anything against developers who want to build new housing – it’s their job. But overdevelopment negatively impacts quality of life, which drives down property values. It’s the job of a Master Plan, backed up by an empowered planning commission, to warn developers that we won’t encourage overdevelopment via the use of tax abatements and other giveaways. Thus, our Planning Commission needs to be strengthened so they can resist the whims of developers and politicians – even well-meaning ones. As a result of the foreclosure crisis, many distressed homes in South Euclid were torn down. Some of those lots were purchased by adjacent homeowners, some are for sale. Housing stock that’s out of repair brings down property values in the surrounding area. Likewise, a McMansion on a street filled with bungalows and small colonials sticks out like a sore thumb – as does a row of cluster houses in the middle of a low density development. Housing design standards, including continuity of homes within neighborhoods, maximum house “footprint” and minimum lot space, need to be codified and City planners must find the courage to say “no”.

Safe schools within a district that performs well academically: It’s a cop out to rationalize that property values in South Euclid are so cheap that one can send their kids to private schools and vote down every school levy that comes along – but that’s exactly what I’ve heard from more than one aspiring politician. The school district, not the city, sets policy in the schools. But the city, by enforcing curfews, and noise & nuisance ordinances, can drive home the point that we expect the best of our young people.

Amenities for all ages: Hand in hand with the above, our youths’ time must be filled with productive and healthy activity. It truly takes a village to raise a child, and the phrase “Idle hands are the devil’s playground” is valid whatever one’s own religious preferences. A few days ago, while riding my bike near my home, I spoke with two young men playing basketball in the street. We commiserated that there was no basketball court nearby – even in Bexley Park. Several years ago, South Euclid, Richmond Heights, and University Heights proposed collaborating with Lyndhurst to expand the Hillcrest YMCA into a recreation center. Lyndhurst, on whose land the Y currently sits, shamefully vetoed the idea. Having lived in Lyndhurst and knowing how many think there, I could not help the thought that they didn’t want a rec center that could be a congregating point for minority youth. While we can’t force Lyndhurst to host a center it doesn’t want, I propose an all-ages recreation center be built within South Euclid – either on the parking lot to the rear of Mayfield-Green shopping center, which is never filled; or at the vacant South Lyn Elementary school. Such a center would be open to members of any community which contributed to its construction and maintenance.

For those on the other end of life, we need housing designed for seniors. Modest work has been done retrofitting homes for energy efficiency and single-story living. But the area needs dedicated housing for seniors. The planned work for the Cleveland Heights portion of Oakwood seems to have stalled. If it doesn’t come to pass, the city needs to explore local alternatives.

A Master Plan is more than a collection of zoning maps and blueprints for proposed structures. It’s a vision for the future, a whole derived from many parts. The 2014 Master Plan is South Euclid’s chance to present its vision for holistic growth and change: a green, walkable, and bikeable community; with a thriving business district; with unique cultural amenities; which values its residents of all ages – a community in which you could live you whole life, and would want to do so.


B. Phillips said...

What Mayfield/Green "needs" is for the city or a developer to tear it town and rebuild!

Hank Drake said...

Mayfield-Green needs work, but I don't think a total rebuild is warranted or wise.

First, the buildings are owned by several different parties, and a total rebuild would probably require a purchase of the buildings - which the city can't afford and a developer would probably not be interested in. Even if a developer could be enticed to finance the rebuild, the result would be too expensive for the independent retailers which give city centers their character. While I wouldn't be sad to see Trippy's Smoke Shop leave, there are some worthy locally owned business there, such as Kalie's restaurant and the new photography studio.

I feel the city should research other areas which have been recently revived, study what works, and use that as a template.

Look, for example, at Gordon Square, which was far worse off than Mayfield-Green, but has now become a vibrant hub of the near west side. The streetscape and sidewalks were reimagined, the buildings were renovated, but the spaces remain priced at a level which is agreeable to local merchants like Sweet Moses, Rincon Criollo, and Capitol Theatre. It can be done, but it requires people to see beyond the rebuild or do nothing options.