Development Deja Vu in Little Italy

Arthur Hargate
8 min readMar 12, 2023
Photo by the author.

March 10, 2023

Dear Mr. Marinucci,

I am Arthur Hargate and my wife and I live in one of the Edgehill Townhomes. I am writing to provide public comment on the proposed development at 2183–2185 Cornell Rd., which was presented for the first time to the public at the Little Italy Block Club meeting last night.

We were encouraged at the meeting to provide this public comment to you via email. This public comment is fairly involved as we have witnessed much development since we moved here, so if it is a lot more words than you expected, mea culpa.

By way of background, my wife Joan and I moved to Little Italy ten years ago after living in the same house in Cleveland Heights for 40 years, and on balance we love it here. We especially love our neighbors, those that choose to live here and the many business owners.

We met you last night at the block club meeting and wish you well as the new Executive Director of the Little Italy Redevelopment Corporation (LIRC.) Your background and reputation suggest that LIRC made a very good choice.

While we love living in Little Italy, we do not love the avalanche of tax-abated, high-end rental housing that has been jammed into the neighborhood since we moved here, against the wishes of a great plurality of the homeowners here.

In our decision-making to move here, we relied on the Little Italy Master Plan which expressed a preference for new owner-occupied housing. In addition, a 2015 study conducted by Cleveland State University expressed the same sentiment: to increase stability in a neighborhood with such a high percentage of rental housing, new owner-occupied housing was needed.

Just the opposite has happened since we moved here, and so it should come as no surprise to anyone that when the above referenced Cornell project was presented last night the predominant reaction from the residents present (which I estimate was around 60) was outrage. These residents have seen this movie over and over the last decade and they know exactly how it ends. It does not end well for the people that live in the neighborhood.

As you pointed out when we talked briefly, I understand that this development process is controlled by the Landmarks Commission and that LIRC’s fundamental function at this point is design review. While my remarks will address what we saw last night in terms of design, no one who has experienced recent development in Little Italy or the historical machinations of the Landmarks Commission process can reasonably restrict their comments to design.

Nor should they. There will be a lot more going on here to discuss than design. There are much larger issues in play, which is why I am copying this letter to our Councilperson, the City Planning Director and the LIRC Board Chair. I cannot imagine that anything I say here will surprise anyone, as these issues fester repeatedly, and I am confident my comments here reflect the sentiments of a great many Little Italy residents.

The demolition of the existing structures on the site is a subject best left to those more expert at preservation matters than I. However, I think it is fair to say these homes are in the gateway of the Little Italy Historic District and serve as an anchor to the District coming over the Cornell Bridge. Demolition of these homes will fundamentally alter the historic character of the District from that perspective, and must not be taken lightly.

That said, here are my thoughts on the design and the manner of presentation that was provided last night.

My first reaction to the visual presentation of the proposed structure was extreme disappointment, and as stated above, the outrage from the assembled residents resulted in an audible gasp and outcries of “No!” Personally, I had hoped the developers had more thoroughly done their homework and would be smart enough to avoid the firestorm they were about to endure by presenting more of the same crass, profit-centric development that had enraged the neighborhood over and over. It’s a real shame that the design is just the same old story we have been forced to endure here for the last decade.

Here’s my summary notes of the design and its presentation:

Fills every possible cubic foot with profit potential. Chock-o-block unremarkable massing which can be built cheaply and is completely out of character with the surrounding neighborhood, if you ignore the hideous structural obscenity built recently next to it, which is universally despised by neighbor homeowners.

Insults the community yet again with myopic economic extraction from the neighborhood rather than delivering anything even approaching community wealth-building. Just more higher end rental (the developers posit work-force housing) for transients, rather than proposing homeownership bringing stability and growing economic vitality to Little Italy. Every dollar spent on excessive rent here is a dollar not spent on locally provided goods and services.

More obsequious subservience to gargantuan University Circle institutions. More vague, unreliable promises and marketing hocus-pocus. More cash-grabbing of public subsidies to enhance private fortunes. Zero green space. Insufficient parking. More profits before people. More of the sugar high that new construction and potential resident income tax brings to the City while the community suffers with failing infrastructure and services the City struggles to maintain because long term debt service for glitzy projects sucks up our cash.

More blah, blah, blah civic boosterism benefitting investors, developers and landlords and doing nothing to enhance quality of life for the neighborhood residents, homeowners and taxpayers in Little Italy.

And many questions arise from the presentation in the minds of the residents:

How did these Cornell properties get this way? Why are the houses in the shape they are in? Just where the heck is the code enforcement in Little Italy? (Same question with the Mayfield Theatre.)

What is the developer’s track record as a landlord? Reports about routine maintenance of their Hessler Rd. properties aren’t encouraging. What code violations do they currently have on their existing properties? We witnessed construction of the Murray Hill structures they built, and OSHA standards during their construction were patently ignored. It took months for the sidewalk right of way to be restored.

What exactly transpired in the meeting with Landmarks staff? Did the Landmarks staff talk with the developer about visiting the homes? Did they talk with the developer about demolition? How many variances are being requested? Where is the developer in the purchase process and what is the nature of their option to purchase the properties if they are unable to preserve them? What is the financing model for this project and who is providing the financing?

What is the long term impact of the many new developers and corporate landlords in the neighborhood vs. homeowners? Who has a vested interest in maintaining and enhancing their property, versus milking every possible cent of profit out of it and then spinning it off to a remote investor in another country or private equity cabal hiding behind an LLC?

So it was no wonder that the community response last night was outrage. Because again, it was just more of the same old story proposing further neighborhood destabilization. The only thing missing (so far, but it’s early) is the flimflam new-urban boosterism, bullying and disrespect accorded the residents of Little Italy from University Circle and City officials, but that will likely be coming, because we’ve seen it over and over.

It was abundantly in evidence in the Landmarks Commission processes we endured in the past. Project proponents loaded the administrative record with purportedly civic-minded testimony from those who stood to gain financially from the project. Proponents were given an unlimited amount of time to state their case with sweeping generalities, while opponents were severely time-limited and restricted to comments that had to meet narrow statutory criteria.

A civic “leader” passionately extolled the project’s supposed virtues incessantly at the hearing, breathlessly chastising opponents for being anti-Cleveland and attacked certain opponent residents by name in the public record. Proponent testimony went unchallenged when it repeatedly used the term NIMBY and clearly implied that opponents were racist. Proponent’s power broker attorney was given unlimited time at the end of the hearing to rebut opponent testimony in detail, often with lies, but opponents were given no opportunity to challenge the baseless accusations.

Our experience with the Landmarks Commission in the past has demonstrated quite clearly that power and influence rule the day, not what is inherently good for neighborhoods.

The reflexive trope then from developers, the City and University Circle institutions is that people that push back on their exclusionary visions of what is “vibrant” are anti-development, xenophobic, racist NIMBY’s or elderly retired hippies that have inordinate free time to come to public meetings and make a fuss. That’s the sell-job project proponents peddle that the complicit press in this town laps up.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Residents we know here universally welcome new and diverse development that retains and enhances the character and economic vitality of our neighborhood. We welcome housing of all types, and because of the history of an overabundance of rental, the neighborhood now desperately needs affordable housing that people can purchase, not ever more high-end rental housing feeding developers’ insatiable appetite for public subsidies.

Every resident should have an opportunity to provide input, every resident should be heard, and our experience the last ten years has been that the posh, the powerful and the privileged in the City’s development process are highly skilled at frustrating the will of the people that live in Little Italy so they can deliver development that is profitable for the City, developers and University Circle institutions.

A great example is the Woodhill Supply site development. When the site was purchased, a big play in the press was made that this site would be developed for affordable purchased housing. Nope. It was a bold-faced, public lie. It ended up being mostly high-end rental and a handful of high-end condos. Classic bait and switch. We’re accustomed to that in Little Italy from certain civic “leaders.”

And we’re well-accustomed to gauzy developer promises laid out to get approvals that never happen. Where is the landscaping, the “piazza,” the renovated homes for sale? Who tracks and enforces these commitments? Anyone? Apparently not. No ephemeral developer promises can be relied upon unless they are codified in a community benefits agreement that is legally enforceable by residents.

I am hopeful that your leadership at LIRC and a new regime at the City will result in a development process that takes into account what is best for the Little Italy community and not just what is good for the profits of developers, University Circle institutions and the City’s tax base.

Thank you,

Arthur Hargate

Edgehill Rd., Little Italy, Ward 6

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Arthur Hargate

Arthur Hargate is retired after a 40-year management career in the environmental services business. He now writes, plays guitar and is a social activist.