Gentrify This!

December 20, 2021

To: Mayor-Elect Justin Bibb and the Bibb Transition Team

From: Cleveland Residents Joan and Arthur Hargate

We were unaware of the Mayor-Elect’s virtual listening sessions on December 13th and 16th and could not attend. We now wish to provide our ideas for neighborhood priorities for the First 100 days of the new administration.

Our ideas revolve around our experiences with the recent surge of real estate development in Little Italy and the Greater University Circle neighborhoods. We believe our experiences are not unusual and others in our neighborhood and in certain neighborhoods targeted for development in Cleveland have had similar experiences.

Our main idea for a neighborhood priority is for the new City of Cleveland (City) administration to level the playing field for Cleveland’s residents in the real estate development process.

We steadfastly assert that neighborhood residents are not properly brought into and thereby engaged in the property development process and need to be. They do not believe their voice is heard, and they believe that their concerns about the very real quality-of-life impacts of the tsunami of new development in targeted neighborhoods are being ignored.

Many residents feel as if the economic priorities of the City and the profit motives of property development proponents are the paramount priorities of the property development process in targeted neighborhoods. The practical effects of development on existing residents do not seem to matter.

What follows are the impressions we have formed of the property development process in Cleveland that are shared by other Cleveland residents we know in neighborhoods targeted for development, and we have proposed what we think the Bibb administration can do to help neighborhood residents to more effectively participate in this process.

We have laid out first what we see an issue to be, and have then made a suggestion as to how it might be addressed.

Issue: It is not clear to what degree the City has followed its own Cleveland 2020 property development plan. The City’s equity property development plan promulgated in 2007 is still found on the City’s website: https://planning.clevelandohio.gov/cwp/cpc.html).

Suggestion: The City should prepare and publish a detailed assessment of its progress against this plan from 2007. It appears to us that more attention has been paid to certain neighborhoods where gentrification seems to have been forced on them, while neighborhoods that desperately needed affordable housing have not gotten the intense degree of attention they deserve.

Issue: It is not clear that all Cleveland neighborhoods have a Development Master Plan and, if so, that CDCs are actually following it.

Suggestion: City Planning should facilitate master planning at the neighborhood level with robust public involvement and require that CDCs thoroughly and publicly report progress against their plans.

Issue: Property development seems to be a top-down process imposed on residents. When a project is developed, residents typically find out about it only after all the wheels seem to be in motion and lip service will then and only then be paid to letting the community know what is about to happen to them. It feels like the City and developers are simply checking a box and that there is precious little residents can do to alter or if need be prevent new development that is inconsistent with the existing neighborhood and unsupported by existing infrastructure.

Suggestion: The City should follow its own plans for property development and engage the community as soon as a developer approaches City Planning or a CDC with an idea for a project, not after conceptual designs have already been developed and business arrangements have been put in place with a construction team.

Issue: Developers appear to be encouraged to propose the densest and largest possible scope for site use. Then when the residents object, developers can appear reasonable by backing off to something that still is what they originally wanted. It’s called positional bargaining and it is deceptive and inappropriate.

Suggestion: City Planning must assure that development projects are reasonably consistent in scope and use with existing neighborhood conditions and that existing or planned infrastructure is capable of handling the density proposed.

Issue: Many residents believe that CDCs do not necessarily represent the will of all the residents and tend to be boosters for economic development projects per se without addressing in detail the practical effects of increased density on existing residents.

Suggestion: The City should routinely get input from residents directly and independent of the economic development bias of CDCs.

Issue: Neighborhood residents are not on a level playing field with developers and project proponents. Developers and proponents have abundant resources available to them such as legal counsel, marketing budgets, public relations and press relations experts and may be making political and philanthropic donations to help influence a civic agenda that brings them work.

Suggestion: Neighborhood associations should be given access to money and resources to engage legal counsel and appropriate experts to fully participate in the property development process on an equal footing with developers, the City, CDCs and influencers like large employers, foundations and non-profit institutions.

Issue: The administrative record developed for property development cases (Planning, Landmarks, Zoning Appeals) can be unreasonably biased to project proponents. Project proponents are given unlimited opportunities to stack the record with testimony and documentation from those that will economically benefit from the project, while opponents are restricted in the time and scope of what they may present. Proponent attorneys are allowed to rebut opponent testimony, while opponents have no such opportunity. Civic “leaders” are allowed to provide testimony that attacks and vilifies opponents both in character and by name.

Suggestion: The City must assure that the property development administrative processes are fair and balanced for all involved.

Issue: It may be that political pressure is being put on City councilpersons by developers and influencers to support development projects, the implication being that they will be opposed in coming elections if they don’t fall in line.

Suggestion: To the extent such pressure is being applied to councilpersons it should be made public.

Issue: Development proponents tend to promote density and vibrancy as critical aspects of property development and economic prosperity in Cleveland.

Suggestion: No one disputes that density in theory can help economic development and vibrancy can help neighborhood security and safety. That said, it would be wise for the City to acknowledge that additional density without proper infrastructure to support it creates substantial burdens on residents in the neighborhoods where density is being pushed.

(Please note: Cleveland’s ignored neighborhoods for economic development and affordable housing are another matter entirely and a tragedy that must be addressed by this administration as its highest neighborhood priority.)

It would be proper for the City’s property development processes to assure that density is supported by infrastructure: sufficient utility services, parking, law enforcement presence, traffic laws enforcement, green space and tree canopy, high-speed broadband, well-maintained roads and sidewalks, access by fire, EMS and garbage collection vehicles, bike lanes, street lighting, stop signs and stop lights and pedestrian crosswalks.

Further, it would be good for the City to define exactly what vibrancy means. For those that live in the neighborhoods, it’s not just luxury rental space and fast food retail for young people and students. Is $1800 per month rent for an 800 square foot, one bedroom apartment considered vibrant? We don’t think so. At all.

The most vibrant neighborhoods for those of us that actually live in neighborhoods are those that provide ample opportunities for home ownership across the economic spectrum. Individuals and families can then capture the equity value of appreciating housing and over time generate some wealth.

Tax abatements that strip money from our schools and only enrich developers installing high end rentals must be stopped!

Tax abatement is a great incentive for those that wish to own or refurbish a home, however, and homeowners are the people that will assure our schools are properly funded, not developers who live outside the community.

People that own homes in the neighborhood are helping to grow and keep the economic vitality of the neighborhood in place and not allowing it to be siphoned off and invested in yet more high-end rental properties that suck cash out of residents’ hands and into those of out of community or out of the country investors.

Vibrant neighborhoods to us also have great schools, safe streets and are the places families choose to stay in or come to.

Issue: Development proponents assert that market rate (high end and luxury) rental space is in high demand and that market studies show this. They claim they are meeting market demand.

It is not at all clear who is actually behind the funding for such studies, nor is it clear that the market is not being manipulated by self-interested supply side drivers. If high end rental is most of what is being built and refurbished or new homes to purchase are in shorter and shorter supply, people rent that can’t afford to buy homes BECAUSE THEY HAVE TO RENT.

Suggestion: The City needs to focus on affordable housing needs of both renters and those that would prefer to pursue home ownership, if they only had the opportunity.

Issue: Developers appear to have easy access to the press and routinely get favorable coverage for their projects and op-ed space when they desire it.

Issue: Developers and project proponents tend to frame project opponents as uninformed NIMBY’s, xenophobes, anti-density, anti-Cleveland and anti-development. The press tends to take a similar tack without giving opponents the opportunity to explain the basis for their objections, which typically revolve around insufficient infrastructure to support the proposed development project.

Suggestion: While the City cannot do much to counteract biased press coverage, the City can give residents that may oppose development projects an equal voice in City processes such as the Landmarks Commission, the Planning Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals. If that voice is heard clearly and without restriction in those forums, perhaps the press would choose to report on it fairly. It would be hard for them not to.

Issue: Construction nuisances and site safety are often extremely problematic for neighborhoods. Right of way ordinances, by way of example, are routinely ignored, as are even the most basic OSHA requirements for construction workers.

Suggestion: The City can do a better job of monitoring construction activities and be as responsive as possible to neighborhood complaints. Further, the City must assure that promises and assertions made by developers and construction companies to the community in the property development approval process are adhered to.

In sum, real estate development in those Cleveland neighborhoods where gentrification is being aggressively implemented, apparently by design, can be a rough and tumble game. Developers, the City, CDCs, power-broker attorneys, influencers and big employers pursue their economic self-interest assertively and with minimal restraint, are slavishly enabled by boosterism from the local press and at times when challenged are willing to hit their opponents below the belt.

Residents, however, are metaphorically playing tackle football without a helmet or pads at an away field, running uphill and with referees chummy with the home team. The real estate development game appears to residents to be meticulously rigged.

Neighborhood residents must be put on a level playing field.

Thank you,

Arthur and Joan Hargate,

Little Italy, Ward 6

(Original artwork by J.E. Hargate)

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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.

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Arthur Hargate

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.

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