It’s About the Impoverished, Stupid!
My name is Arthur Hargate, I live in Little Italy in Ward 6 of Cleveland and I am writing to provide public comment on the NorthCoast Connector and Master Plan.
Please note I do not stand to benefit economically from this possible development. That’s important, because we have learned through painful experiences in Little Italy, University Circle and its host neighborhoods and throughout the City of Cleveland that development proponents that do stand to gain financially are relentless at injecting themselves into the public involvement process so as to stack the administrative record (and overwhelm neighborhood sentiments) with their self-interested development marketing and boosterism.
My hope is that you will be astute in identifying the self-interest involved in the public comment on these projects. My only interest in providing public comment is to advocate for waterfront development that serves and benefits ALL Clevelanders, not just those that extract economic value from our city and cause it to flow out of the community to the suburbs, other areas of the state, other states or even other countries.
Due to health concerns my wife and I could not attend your recent listening sessions on the Connector. It would have been better had you provided the opportunity to participate electronically to those citizens unable to attend in person due to health and mobility issues. COVID did teach us that technology can make fully inclusive public participation in government meetings quite possible, and effective.
To your credit you provided project information and videos of a listening session on-line, and you have provided the mechanism for the public to weigh-in in writing, yet not all people have the technology or expertise to do so. Getting a deep and broad-based spectrum of public opinion is critical, especially the opinions of those who are disenfranchised or unable or unlikely to easily provide you with their opinion. It would be wise to target and contact those not likely to reach out to you and find out what they think about these projects.
That would require you to be diligent, serious and responsible about actually listening to citizens and promoting public engagement, not making a mockery of it with the lip service typically given to public involvement historically in development projects in this city that give developers exactly what they want to make a financial killing while bullying neighborhood residents into frustrated submission. This public engagement effort for these projects must be real, substantive and not the meaningless “checking of the box” gauzy ephemera that has been the norm with development in Cleveland.
If “racial equity, economic opportunity and climate resiliency” are really the goals of these projects, you have an obligation to assure that that is possible for ALL residents of Cleveland, particularly those that have historically NEVER been able to enjoy the benefits of development that theoretically “trickles down” to the less privileged. As it is, we know that over 50 years of city economic policy and practice have preferentially benefitted the very top of the income and wealth social strata: i.e., the posh, the privileged and the very powerful.
“Trickle down” neo-liberal, market-centric economic methods in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio over the last half century have turned out to be a cruel joke to the majority of our citizenry, especially the poor. It is said that poverty is a policy choice, and it is crystal clear then that “leadership” in this area of Ohio over the last fifty-odd years has chosen to keep Cleveland one of the poorest big cities in the United States. As such, I suggest the optimal framing for these proposed waterfront projects could be:
IT’S ABOUT THE IMPOVERISHED, STUPID!
So it is that with respect to the Connector I’m somewhat late to the public comment party, yet these comments will fulfill a dual purpose and provide my thoughts on the coming lakefront Master Plan, as well.
As regards the Connector, the design basis and protocol for the listening sessions were deeply flawed. The choices provided were either no action or three variations that assumed public support for a complex, gargantuan engineering marvel (i.e., the so-called “land bridge”) to access the lakefront from the existing city mall.
Why is that? Why is the land bridge the only engineering access option provided? Is it because the Haslam’s proposed the idea to enhance their existing economic self-interest? Is it because it best rewards the private sector’s development interests in land ownership, construction, outside consulting and the legal, public accounting and finance communities? How is it that a land bridge is the best access option for residents of the City of Cleveland, who will undoubtedly foot a large portion of the bill through lavish subsidies to private interests? Is there not a less flashy, less complex and less expensive access option to the lakefront?
And how is one access point the best approach? That may be good for downtown, as downtown has always gotten favored attention to the detriment of mostly eastside neighborhoods, so how is that good for the people that live in the neighborhoods of Cleveland? How will the people in places like Hough, Glenville, Mount Pleasant or Fairfax easily access the land bridge? Does it make sense to have more access points, but with less glitz, glamour and predictably wasteful spending? These are all questions that must be answered to the residents, tax-payers, homeowners and voters in the City of Cleveland.
Therefore, my preference now is for no land bridge at all until it is made clear how that is the best option for all the people of this city, and the process so far has been opaque in that regard. It’s not at all clear what the access to the lake should look like, and more importantly it’s not clear that the land bridge concept is even affordable, given the massive slate of tax-payer funded spending facing the city and county ahead.
Critical spending choices will need to be made, and those choices must finally benefit people other than the area’s most advantaged, which has been the habit for the last 50 years. There has also been no discussion at all yet about the opportunity cost. If we do this, what won’t get done? And how will fiscal oversight be managed on this project so the bulk of our tax money doesn’t flow up to already wealthy private sector owners, executives, senior managers and high-priced consultants, as has typically been the case in development projects in this city and county?
So, you’ve asked the public to “dream” big with incomplete and jaded information. The scope of this project is artificially constrained as it is being framed as no land bridge, or land bridge, without any idea of the budget or schedule parameters. Apparently you must have an open checkbook of taxpayer money, as you have acted as if you had for the last 50 years, to squander more public money on yet another highly subsidized boondoggle that we are so accustomed to in Cleveland.
Meanwhile, as noted above, Cleveland remains one of the poorest big cities in the United States, and yet we’re being asked (and were admonished by one recently elected official) to “dream big.”
Okay, here’s a big dream for the best use of our tax dollars: safe streets, a high performing public school system, an end to homelessness, ample affordable housing, homes that don’t poison children with lead, affordable and expansive rapid transit, inexpensive broadband access for all, effective community policing, better health outcomes for people of color including reduced infant mortality, abundant LIVING WAGE jobs for residents of Cleveland close to their homes, a restored tree canopy that protects the most vulnerable citizens from the ravages of the climate crisis, non-profit, philanthro-capitalist institutions that pay their fair share in community benefits to justify the taxpayer largesse of their tax-exempt status and perhaps most importantly, a growing resident population of homeowners in Cleveland.
Decades of economic development projects hoping to deliver a sexy downtown to business, young professionals and tourists (seriously?) and a handful of yuppified neighborhoods for the well-to-do have done little to address the very “blocking and tackling” of what residents reasonably expect from their government. And now you want us to subsidize even more massive spending that may or may not help the people that need help the most. Shame on you.
My wife moved to Cleveland in 1966 and the city was talking then about developing the lakefront. Fifty-seven years and countless boondoggles and corporate welfare schemes for billionaires from outside the city later, here we go again. No, sorry, I’m not being cynical, anti-Cleveland, anti-development or a NIMBY. I’m being stone cold realistic and pragmatic.
Yet, when people push back against giddy civic boosterism benefitting only patricians, out come the predictable daggers and offensive name calling. These are the typical reflexive slams against anyone that wants their tax money used for something that benefits ALL the people. It’s nothing but a dodge and a smear by city officials, developers and the complicit press to tamp down talk of unpleasant realities and keep the power elites in this city gorging themselves at the tax-payer funded money trough.
In sum, it’s not clear the land bridge is financially feasible, neither is it obviously the best idea for lakefront access nor will it preferentially benefit the people that live in Cleveland that need help the most.
Turning to the Master Plan that is about to get off the ground, here are my thoughts.
Should we develop the lakefront? Well, that depends. It depends on what is meant by “develop.”
The answer is a resounding “NO” to more swank hotels, a domed stadium, expensive restaurants and bars, gambling parlors, sports facilities, luxury apartments and anything that expands the deep income and wealth chasm that exists in this community. Anything that perpetuates or increases the endemic racism, inequality, inequity and gentrification we have tolerated in this city must not be entertained. Anything that predominantly delivers more cash to the already rich must be ignored. The idea of lavish public subsidies to the private sector must be expunged at the concept stage of this project. We absolutely SHOULD NOT pay for a domed stadium on the lakefront or anywhere else. If the Haslam’s want a domed stadium, they have plenty of money to pay for it themselves.
The answer is “Yes, of course” to development if the lakefront can benefit everyone, and especially those who now cannot access it or the nauseating attempt at glitz of the downtown.
So, what would lakefront development for everyone look like? It could look like a lot of things.
Great cities have an abundance of large parks and gardens, with huge swaths of public land that are solely devoted to public enjoyment, not private profit. Obvious examples jump to mind like Paris, New York and San Diego. Cleveland’s lakefront must be a people’s lakefront, family friendly and natural as much as possible, easily accessible by RTA, FREE transportation from all areas of the city. Expansive PUBLIC land. And perhaps most critical: lakefront amenities and attractions must be AFFORDABLE, and for the most part, ENTIRELY FREE.
The possibilities for the public are endless, energetic and can address your concept of the lakefront being a place for healing.
How about foresting the lakefront? A huge forest. I’m no arborist and not sure if pines would thrive here, but imagine what that would be like and how healing that would be? A beautiful tall pine forest. A massive Park for the People. A bird sanctuary, engineered wetlands, walking and biking paths, fishing piers, more public beach area, fields for sports like soccer and softball, picnic areas, a free music open pavilion, an outdoor theatre for free plays and movies, outdoor nature classrooms, a taboggan run, a cross country ski trail, a downhill ski hill, a skating rink, skateboarding decks, playgrounds, rock climbing areas, a miniature golf course, a fairgrounds area for arts and crafts fairs, a dog park, a sculpture garden, a public vegetable, flower garden and greenhouse, an exercise and fitness course, a Ferris wheel, a kite flying field, tennis, pickleball and squash courts or a roller blading and running course and walking meditation paths, to identify just a handful of people-centric, family-oriented possibilities. Unlike many public areas in the city, public restrooms must be provided in close proximity to all spaces.
The point is the lakefront must not be focused on commercialism and making money for a few. We have plenty of that now in downtown Cleveland, and a lot more is planned and on the way. The lakefront can be FOR THE PEOPLE, ALL THE PEOPLE and as such, we need to find ways for ALL the people to be able to easily access it, use it and be able to AFFORD it.
To the extent commercial ventures are launched at all, they must be affordable to use and THEY MUST PAY LIVING WAGES TO CLEVELAND RESIDENTS. And the massive construction needed to make this all happen must be awarded to preferentially minority and women owned businesses, domiciled in the City of Cleveland. It’s time to bring to an end the obscene economic extraction that outside entities enjoy; plundering the fiscal vitality of our city’s heritage and natural resources to benefit an elite few.
To the extent any housing is contemplated, it must be affordable and workforce, and it must be housing that people can purchase and own. We have more than enough fancy high end rental that is making property owners and managers, developers and landlords fabulously wealthy, feasting on the “can’t lose” backstop of extravagant tax abatements, Opportunity Zone and other tax advantages and sky-high rents driven up by supply side market manipulation.
How do we pay for it all? Easy. Make corporations and the wealthy finally pay their fair share. Raise taxes. Eradicate the lavish public subsidies to the private sector. Negotiate community benefits agreements forcing non-profit and philanthro-capitalist institutions to substantially support their host neighborhoods. Stop spending fortunes on consultants. Make the professional sports franchises open their books and take a much smaller piece of the tasty financial pie they suck out of our city.
The “bottom line” or “net net” is simply this: lakefront development must be as natural as possible, family-oriented and benefit all the people, and especially those that have suffered the insidious indignities in this community of forced segregation, racism and poverty. It’s finally time to put people ahead of profits in Cleveland, Ohio.
Summed up, and channeling the erudite James Carville, I repeat:
IT’S ABOUT THE IMPOVERISHED, STUPID!