To: Ms. Joyce Pan Huang, Director, City Planning Commission, City of Cleveland, Ohio
My name is Arthur Hargate, I live in Little Italy and I am writing to express my concerns about the proposed apartment (a more accurate description is “rooming house”) development on Hessler Road, i.e., the “addition” to 1975 Ford Rd. in University Circle. I also wish to share observations about experiences my wife and I have had with the property development process in Cleveland since we moved to Little Italy in 2013, after living in Cleveland Heights for 37 years. Our observations and experiences are directly applicable to the experiences of residents we know on Hessler Road with respect to development there.
Please note that my wife and I routinely pay for goods and services in the University Circle area and are year-around walkers, so we have almost a decade of intimate experience with many if not most neighborhood aspects of the Hessler Road and Hessler Court area. We literally walk in University Circle daily in all types of weather, and those particular streets on at least a weekly basis.
Further, we chose to invest and live in the University Circle area, purchasing a townhome in Little Italy and paying the full slate of taxes levied on homeowners and consumers, and until we retired recently, we paid city income tax in Cleveland.
We preferentially consume goods and services from Cleveland Ward 6 businesses and make donations to certain area non-profit entities because we believe it is important to support the economic vitality of the area. We contribute to the economic well-being of the area as a net positive, meaning we without question, in our opinion, contribute more economic value to the City than we extract in City services. It is not at all clear that the same can be said for many property investment, development and management firms operating in the area, particularly those domiciled outside the City, the State or the Country.
My point is that we are investors, property owners, residents, taxpayers and voters in the City of Cleveland, and much like the residents of Hessler Road and Hessler Court, should minimally be afforded the same respect and deference now afforded by the City in its development processes to investors, property developers, property owners and landlords that do not live here and appear, due to the questionable largesse of tax abatement and Opportunity Zone tax treatment, to pay proportionately less in taxes as a function of income than we do.
In the case of Hessler Road and Hessler Court residents, they have not been afforded proper respect and deference in the property development process. They have no advocate whatsoever inside the development process, which is designed to quickly approve new projects. These residents’ concerns and substantive issues raised, particularly with respect to failing infrastructure that does not support additional neighborhood density, have been routinely and consistently ignored, dismissed, obfuscated and ridiculed by project proponents (including the City) and complicit “development at any cost” boosters in the local media, for at least the last eight years.
Hessler residents have been vilified as NIMBY’s and xenophobes by project proponents, and even now City officials, whose compensation we generously fund with our taxes, continue to communicate with long term residents in combative, dismissive and autocratic ways. Hessler residents have been negatively portrayed publicly as if they were anti-development, anti-Cleveland and opposed to any development in the area, all of which is factually inaccurate and clearly designed to tamp down growing public outrage at the top-down, one-way, autocratic property development processes in this City that pay lip service to and thereby make a mockery of the very idea of public engagement and civic participation in city government processes.
Note: this tactic of hostility to engaged citizenry with legitimate interests is typical of the property development process in Cleveland. We have become acquainted with residents in many City neighborhoods that tell similar stories of being aggressively confronted and sidelined to make room for new development, most often high-end rental housing. We experienced exactly the same heavy-handed bullying in Little Italy as gargantuan projects of high-end rental warehouses, completely out of character with the historic district, were muscled into the neighborhood, despite the overwhelming opposition of the majority of residents and neighbors. Those few residents that supported these projects and strenuously lobbied City officials universally stood to gain financially from their construction.
The Hessler residents are not anti-development, and are anything but anti-Cleveland. It is abundantly clear to even the most casual yet objective observer that they simply want existing and future density to be supported by proper infrastructure. Anyone familiar with the Hessler area understands that the infrastructure is woefully inadequate now and simply will not support new renters in the tightly packed neighborhood. The streets are failing, the sidewalks are crumbling, parking is impossible, stormwater from surrounding development floods the area and greenspace and tree canopy are diminished and severely lacking. Delivery and garbage collection trucks barely can negotiate the incredibly tight space on the streets. Emergency response vehicles would similarly be constrained.
Why hasn’t a parking study been done? Why do City officials rely on anecdotal “evidence” of sufficient parking in the area from the very entities that benefit substantially from not doing a parking study? How have assertions of adequate parking been independently and objectively verified? They haven’t been and won’t be, unless actual data is gathered and verified in a formal parking study.
All of these conditions must be closely evaluated and remedied before additional development is added in the area, and a detailed infrastructure assessment must be conducted to evaluate the sufficiency of these elements of infrastructure as well as sufficient crosswalks and marking, traffic signals, bike lanes, access by service and emergency vehicles, street lighting, adequate policing and resident access to affordable rapid transit, among other things.
The offensive ”missing tooth” analogy used by project proponents in the past to describe the lone open space on Hessler Road is insulting and conjures up dismissive images of people that cannot afford proper health care, as if adding a tooth would somehow cure poverty or more unaffordable housing would fill in all the missing infrastructure attributes in this area. A more apt analogy is that the City seeks to “fill to the brim” every available cubic foot of open space with revenue and profit potential for itself and developers.
A proper use of this valuable space could benefit existing residents with possible greenspace, stormwater retention, a community garden, additional parking, a dog park, a playground and picnic area, an outside exercise area, storage for a reinvigorated Hessler Street Fair, additional tree canopy or other healthy and caring uses that would benefit existing residents, rather than again putting developer profits and City revenues ahead of the health and welfare of neighborhood residents.
Unfortunately, the City’s development modus operandi appears to many residents in many neighborhoods to be near panic for new investment. One need only take a walk through and around downtown’s Public Square, eerily reminiscent of the nightmarish Potterville in the classic holiday film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” to understand the grim concessions the City is willing to make to attract development money from who knows where. “Profits before people” is a recurring theme that many city residents believe aptly describes the City’s approach to development in the “special” neighborhoods the City has chosen to target, while woefully ignoring so many neighborhoods where segregation, discrimination, joblessness and endemic poverty have proliferated for decades.
It is said that poverty is a policy choice, and it is pretty clear that the City of Cleveland has chosen by its decades-long development preferences to keep a large segment of its population poor. If the City’s “trickle down” approach to economic development and throwing lavish tax subsidies at out-of-town developers and billionaire sports franchise owners had worked, Cleveland wouldn’t still be one of the poorest big cities in the United States, our schools would be well-funded and wouldn’t underperform, our streets would be safer, we wouldn’t have lost population year after year and decade after decade and more city residents of color would have ample access to living wage jobs, affordable housing and affordable rapid transit.
The City’s economic development choices for decades have served to deliver staggering income and wealth inequality in and around the city. The rich have gotten richer, the middle class can’t catch an even break and the poor have stayed that way. The design model for economic development in Cleveland forces massive capital flows up to the very top of income earners and wealth aggregators, and away from everyone else.
As it is, the many nice promises and hopeful plans for residents in neighborhoods over time just don’t get executed, and in the case of the Hessler area, promises to assess and address the failing infrastructure have been broken for years. What work the City has done in the area on the streets recently and now plans to do has come only as a result of the residents being successful in getting the press to highlight the area’s historically iconic yet blighted infrastructure and put public pressure on the City. Tragically, there is no preservation plan for the Hessler Historic District, and there has been no preservation at all.
Particularly in doubt are project proponent promises to support neighborhood infrastructure like parking. Daily my wife and I walk through Little Italy and remind ourselves of the flimflam marketing promises developers made to provide public amenities like a “piazza” (now a parking lot housing a blue dumpster) or renovated century homes (still unrestored) or ample for-sale housing (now mostly high-end rental.) Unless the community is made a party to these gauzy promises through a legally enforceable Community Benefits Agreement, project proponent assertions of future promises will remain unreliable and ephemeral, and it is entirely unclear if anyone at the City is tracking and enforcing those commitments. So, to say that there is an agreement for certain parking accommodations is meaningless unless it is legally enforceable by the Hessler residents.
Why is a “highest and best use” of neighborhood property so commonly now in University Circle and other very “select” neighborhoods simply economic extraction from the neighborhood by investors? Does a property owner just get to do whatever they want TO the neighborhood? Will the City do anything to encourage more family owned and occupied residences in University Circle? Why does the neighborhood have no voice? Why has no one from the City addressed the Uptown impacts to neighborhood infrastructure on Hessler Street and Hessler Court after all these years? Eight years later, what happened to the “commitment” the City made to address Hessler infrastructure issues?
The reality is Hessler residents are being outgunned by a strong, coalesced force of City power elite institutions (the City, developers, their investors and power-broker attorneys and philanthro-capitalists) whose sole purpose is new development to produce revenue and profit, yet only the Hessler community has to live with the untoward impacts of increased density that is unsupported by existing infrastructure. Further, the confluence of three major projects (demolition of the Ford Rd. garage, these proposed new “apartments” and Hessler Road and Court road repairs) is a hugely confounding issue. Who exactly is coordinating any of these projects so that there isn’t complete chaos in the Hessler community? Apparently no one.
It is always good to ask this question of development: who benefits and who pays? Well, it’s clear that the City, the property owner, the developer and powerful University Circle institutions will benefit, and the Hessler residents will pay, and pay dearly in substantial reduction of the area’s quality of life. The “trickle down” development model in University Circle has never benefited existing residents in host neighborhoods. What benefits do existing Hessler residents get from this increased density on their street? None. And they alone shoulder the burden of increased density without proper supporting infrastructure.
An intriguing question is: why aren’t more parties with substantial influence paying more attention? We know the mainstream media in Cleveland is complicit in the “trickle down” development mania, but maybe it is time to get other influencers rolled in.
What happened to the Cleveland Foundation’s Greater University Circle Initiative? Maybe they would be interested in providing a grant to the Hessler residents to purchase the property. Why are CWRU students not engaged in pushing back more vigorously on excessive rents? (Every dollar University Circle residents pay in excessive rent that flows out of the community is a dollar not spent on local goods and services. How is that prudent economic development?) Senator Sherrod Brown and Representative Shontel Brown have expressed great interest in the lack of affordable housing and predatory rental practices that pillage communities in Northeast Ohio. University Circle institutions’ trustees especially should also be made well aware of the impacts the growth and development of their institutions are having on residents in their host neighborhoods.
The Hessler community is a civically engaged one that is pushing back on an unsustainable development model that prioritizes profits over people. Every city neighborhood should be this engaged, and rather than dismiss, patronize and vilify their engagement, the City and its civic “leaders” should encourage and support them. This degree of civic activism is growing in neighborhoods around the City, frustrated by the City’s tone deaf approach to its citizen’s desire for active involvement at the very outset of development decisions. People are increasingly sick and tired of being informed late in the development game as to what is about to happen to their neighborhood. It’s about time.
The bottom line is city residents must have an effective voice. CDC’s are too often deeply conflicted by the frenetic property development model and DO NOT necessarily speak for the majority of residents, and City Councilpersons appear to be under great pressure by the City’s finance, investment, business and philanthro-capitalist power elite pushing the economic development model that predominantly serves their self-interest. The net result is Cleveland’s economic development model has truly been at odds with broad-based community development, the development of people that live here and the consensus views of the majority of neighborhood residents.
Block clubs and neighborhood associations in Cleveland more accurately represent residents’ sentiments, but they do not have the substantial resources that property investors and developers have for attorneys, legal actions, marketing, press relations and lobbying of City officials. The Hessler residents especially must be put on a level playing field, and if ever there was a case for the City to provide a competent Ombudsperson to represent its residents inside the property development process, this would be the case.
It is time to step back: evaluate what is best for the Hessler community and what the Hessler community really needs and wants. Perform the requisite studies, in particular formal infrastructure, parking and storm water retention studies. Assure that additional density is supported by proper infrastructure. Listen to the people that reside in the neighborhood and must live with the implications and consequences of this development process, and this development.
Little Italy, Ward 6