My wife and I moved to Little Italy in Cleveland almost a decade ago after living not far away in the same house in Cleveland Heights for nearly forty years. We downsized and sought a more walkable, urban environment, and on balance we really like it here.
Not long after we moved, we noticed a disturbing trend in development in the neighborhood. Powerful developers with the support of even more powerful civic leaders, began filling the neighborhood with swank, expensive to rent apartment complexes.
This was a shock to us because Little Italy has a development Master Plan that expresses a preference for new owner occupied housing, as does an extensive study of Little Italy performed by Cleveland State University in 2015. Both the Master Plan and Cleveland State’s study were pretty clear that a lot more rental would not be a good thing. But that’s exactly what has happened since we moved here. An avalanche of high end rental.
So, we became interested in trying to push back on all this new fancy rental housing that was completely out of character with the neighborhood and was vigorously opposed by most of the people that own homes here. The few people here that lobbied our Councilperson for this type of housing stood to gain financially from its installation.
We actively opposed one of the more hideously gargantuan projects that had a footprint bigger than a football field and was planned to be over five stories tall, grotesquely exceeding the zoning for the area. We were successful in getting the monstrosity scaled back a little, but it sticks out horribly, and as it nears completion is universally despised by its homeowner neighbors.
I’m pretty sure the crafty, positional bargaining developers got exactly what they wanted in the first place. We’ve noticed that developers in this city routinely get what’s highly profitable for them, not what the neighborhoods want or need. Our entire experience of the process left us feeling ignored, dismissed and bullied by a property development system in Cleveland that favors development of almost any kind over the interests and needs of existing neighborhood residents.
We also were shocked to discover that there really is no meaningful public participation in this development system, just lip service to existing residents along a glide path to construction, giving them a perfunctory heads-up as to what is about to happen to their neighborhood. The latest fad for developers is an insatiable appetite to build tony apartments, subsidized by tax abatements that reduce funding to our schools, and residents have absolutely no way to influence that outcome.
The good news is that we got to know a lot more people in the neighborhood with diverse backgrounds who shared a common interest in seeing the neighborhood gain stability and keep its economic vitality here with more owner occupied housing. Some of those neighbors were active in a bigger group that was pushing back on inappropriate neighborhood development, and we got to know some of these activists too.
Interestingly, this group had people in it from all over the city: Little Italy, Hessler Street, University Circle, Ohio City, North Collinwood, Glenville, Brooklyn Center, Buckeye-Shaker and more; a real cross section of Cleveland’s neighborhoods. Just as interesting was the common bond we all seemed to have. We all felt like we had been stomped on by a strong coalition of developers, city planners and officials, civic “leaders” and community development corporations, all desperate it seemed to make development happen without much real interest in what the community wanted.
Being with these people who had been pushed around by the region’s power elite felt like group therapy for trauma survivors, because we all felt that we had no control over the abuse that had been heaped on us.
Yes, there was definitely abuse. When we wouldn’t relent, we were verbally abused by power broker attorneys and other project proponents in the one-sided in their favor public forums. Proponents attempted to manipulate the public participation process with rigged meetings and incomplete information, they stacked the administrative record with testimony of people who would benefit financially from the project and they tried to characterize project opponents as anti-development, anti-Cleveland, xenophobic and NIMBY’s.
The NIMBY label really struck a chord with us. It’s a pejorative acronym standing for Not In My Backyard, denoting someone that opposes any change to the status quo where they lived. None of that was true though with the “NIMBY’s” around Cleveland that we had met in our new adventures in civic activism. There were some things these people did in fact not want in their backyard, though.
By way of example, Cleveland NIMBY’s seem to be pretty dead-set against the crazy proliferation of luxury rental apartments they subsidize with tax dollars flowing to property managers and landlords from outside the community that extract the economic lifeblood from neighborhoods in excessive rent.
These NIMBY’s understand that every dollar spent on excess rent flowing out of their neighborhood to remote landlords is a dollar not spent on goods and services in the neighborhood, and investors and landlords from far-away places facilitate exactly that. No rational person wants that kind of economic extraction to happen in their neighborhoods
There are other projects they would certainly oppose: structures and business operations that are horribly out of character with their neighborhood and would need a slew of zoning variances would probably describe it. And construction contractors that operate in an unsafe manner or with complete disregard for the inevitable nuisances of construction like noise pollution, dust clouds and maintaining a safe right of way aren’t particularly welcome. Other than that, what we found was that these NIMBY’s were easily more defined by what they wanted in their backyards, rather than what they didn’t want.
NIMBY’s we met really like the idea of greenspace and a tree canopy that protects the most vulnerable of us, especially in the urban core neighborhoods. Community gardens come up a lot as desirable, as does vibrant retail services owned and operated by local people. If those people live in the neighborhood, that’s even better.
NIMBY’s we met are all about walkability, so they welcome the opportunity to walk to the grocery store, bank, hardware store, barber and hair salon, drugstore and the drycleaner, among other services that employ local people they would be pleased to have to down the street. And these NIMBY’s really like to see existing homes in their neighborhood maintained and refurbished. Wouldn’t it be cool if a lot more tax abatement money was allocated to that?
NIMBY’s understand that jobs in this city are key, especially living wage jobs, so when living wage jobs are proposed in or close to their neighborhood, they really want to give them a thumbs up, and in the poorest big city in the United States, these NIMBY’s would certainly like to see more living wage jobs for poor people.
Cleveland’s NIMBY’s understand that population density is what the city feels it needs to drive tax revenues and economic activity, and NIMBY’s just want density if it’s in their backyard to be supported by the right infrastructure. Infrastructure like well-maintained roads, sidewalks and crosswalks, traffic management and enforcement, well-designed bike lanes, expansive and inexpensive rapid transit, sufficient parking, broadband availability, clean air and water, access by service and emergency vehicles, outstanding schools and homes that don’t poison children with lead.
So, it turns out that these people labeled NIMBY’s actually want a lot of good stuff in their backyard that would enhance quality of life for Cleveland’s residents. They’re a committed group, and I can tell you they are not likely to go away until they change this development process so they can have an influence on what happens in their backyard.
Maybe we should change that acronym NIMBY by one little letter so it really describes them and they could easily embrace it.
I think they might like Now In My Backyard! I certainly do.