Greenway threatened by shortsighted RTA development plans
by Lennie Stover
(Plain Press, April 2019) A rare and vital urban forest on Cleveland’s near west side could soon give way to chainsaws if the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) approves plans being draw up by a Westlake developer to build a project between Columbus Road and the Red Line Greenway. The beautiful forest includes a wetland with native plants that attract butterflies, deer, turkey and other wildlife. It also has four historic steel railroad towers dating from the early 1920s that were part of the New York Central and the Nickel Plate Railroads. The site is part of the Red Line Greenway (RLG), a $7 million multi-purpose greenway that Cleveland Metroparks will begin constructing this summer. Construction of the greenway must be completed by December 2020 to comply with the terms of Federal grants obtained to build it. Development of the site will not only destroy irreplaceable public green space but also squeeze the greenway into a highly undesirable “cattle shoot” design only 12’ wide. A verdant green valley will be turned into a cement alley.
The Red Line Greenway, when completed, will connect Zone Recreation Center at W. 65thand Lorain to the Cleveland Foundation Centennial Lake Link Trail near Columbus Road and Franklin Avenue. The Cleveland Foundation Centennial Trail then links to the Towpath Trail.
A March 26thPlain Dealerarticle titled RTA approves Carnegie Management to make plans for a mixed use complex near Red Line Greenway Trail, bythe Plain Dealer reporter Grant Segall, says, “The Regional Transit Authority approved a non-binding letter of intent today for a Westlake developer to draft a plan for offices, residences, stores and green space on 1.3 acres of RTA property between Columbus Road and the Future Red Line Greenway Trail.” According to the article, “The letter gives Carnegie Management and Development nine months to work with city officials, neighbor, community groups and others on the plan for the steep, mostly wooded site. If RTA’s board approves the plan, construction would begin by October 15, 2020.”
This important site, and an additional two miles of Red Line trackside, have been groomed by volunteers for the past 42 years. It was volunteers, wanting to perpetuate the care of the site, who in 2009 founded the idea of converting the entire trackside into a public green space with a multi-use trail.
The trail will reconnect eight economically and racially diverse neighborhoods that have been separated by highways and train tracks for decades. The RLG will be the only greenway that connects directly to downtown Cleveland and it will do so safely by being at grade and off road. It was volunteers who lobbied RTA for five years to convince them that this greenway could be built safely and was in their best interest. It was volunteers who brought Metroparks in as a partner in 2014. Finally, it was the work of volunteers clearing the trackside that reduced the cost to build the RLG by over $2 million. This was the deciding factor in Metroparks landing an $8 million Federal TIGER grant in 2016, $4 million of which went to the Red Line Greenway.
RTA’s commitment to the Red Line Greenway partnership was to “ensure the maximum width and integrity” of the greenway and to providing Metroparks with an easement to the property. But on August 27, 2017, after Metroparks had retained designers for the project but before an easement had been granted, RTA executives quietly issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) to develop a key section the property along Columbus Road from Abby Avenue to West 25thStreet. The deadline for response was October 11th. At least three proposals were received and those developers were added to a short list for further evaluation that was to begin on Monday, November 12th. But word leaked on November 8ththat the eventual “winner” of the Request for Proposals had already been chosen before RTA’s evaluation meetings had even begun. This troubling development was relayed in an email to an RTA board member on Sunday November 11th. The predetermined winner was confirmed by the same source on December 18thwhen the Chief Executive Officer of the development firm was seen on a tour of the potential development site with RTA executives.
In the Request for Proposals, a Transportation Oriented Development (TOD) study conducted in 2013 through Tremont West Community Development Corporation is cited to justify developing the site. The same study was used by the Cleveland Planning Commission to change the zoning in the area. The Planning Commission has not taken a public position on the proposed development. Red Line Greenway volunteers participated in the planning meetings and objected to the development of Red Line Greenway property in writing in January 2014. This study is now six years old and outdated. In addition, extensive development has taken place since it was drafted with thousands of new homes and apartments being built and many more under construction. This includes two ten-story towers that will be visible from RTA’s site and across the street from the West Side Market that will be under construction soon. In 2013, when the study was conducted the Red Line Greenway was only an idea. Today it is a reality with funding and a construction start date. These three factors; an outdated study whose outcome was contested, massive ongoing development and the funding of the greenway, make the Transportation Oriented Development study RTA relies on obsolete and irrelevant.
Follow the money. This is the phrase most often associated with any development of public land. RTA assures us this potential development is not about the money (despite a post on their web site inferring any money coming from it would be given to transit passengers). Their primary goal, they’ve said, is to increase ridership on public transportation. The tremendous new development that has and is taking place in this area will surely do that on its own.
In fact, RTA will add even more riders by leaving the green space as part of the Red Line Greenway were it will serve as event space. Art, food, dance and music festivals are just a few of the many different events that can be held on a linear park. A 12 foot wide paved trail cannot host events or social gathering spaces of any kind. How many new residents can this property hold that it would make a difference in ridership?
A well designed greenway with connections to major attractions, like the Red Line Greenway, can draw as many as 2 million or more visitors a year. RTA will reap a far greater return adhering to the original plan for the greenway as part of a multi-model transportation infrastructure that reflects the known benefits of a world-class greenway paired with existing transit infrastructure.
It should also be noted that despite the known financial woes of RTA, most of which are no fault of their own, they recently passed a 2019 budget that calls for no further service or personnel cuts. Any revenue derived from leasing this property would be immaterial to their overall operations and would not make a dent in the long-term revenue stream they need to remain a viable and effective public transit system for our region.
There are many valid and significant reasons not to develop this property. We have identified many of these reasons in a list provided to the RTA board but there are far too many to expound upon here. They cover a broad range of categories including protecting the environment, equality and equal access for all including children in underserved neighborhoods such as Clark-Fulton and Stockyards, promoting healthy lifestyles and social interaction, encouraging economic development on private land, safety, alternative transportation through connectivity and outdoor education opportunities, among others.
Perhaps more important than a recital of the many benefits of green space and linear parks are the opinions expressed by local leaders and community advocates who have taken the time and care to write to RTA’s board and to their City Councilman Kerry McCormack, who himself has drafted an excellent letter to the Mayor’s office about the importance of our urban tree canopy. People such as Fred Bidwell, whose wildly successful FRONT Triennial Contemporary Art festival drew over 227,000 people to the City; Sam McNulty, brewery and restaurant founder; Ciara Ahern, developer and business person; Norm Polanski Jr. of Hoopples River Street Café; and Jay Demegall of Forest City Brewery, have each written detailed and heartfelt letters. These people have lived, worked, invested and employed hundreds in this neighborhood for years, if not decades. They, and the many others who have written RTA, value the green space more than they do a handful of new residents.
Keeping our greenway green is not only the right decision, it’s the only decision. There are over 20,000 young people under the age of 19 in these neighborhoods and 52% of them live in poverty. They do not have a voice in this decision, but we are advocating for them and the thousands of volunteers who donated their time and treasure thinking the greenway was a fair and equitable way to benefit everyone in our community. RTA, we convinced you the greenway was in your best interest. Now we ask you to see that keeping it green is also in your best interest as well as those whom you serve.
This is a once-in-a-century opportunity to preserve public green space for centuries to come that will benefit everyone in Northeast Ohio.
Editor’s Note:Lennie Stover is a member of Keep our Greenway Green and a founder and advocate for the Redline Greenway.