Residents and stakeholders offer feedback on plans for Lincoln Heights neighborhood
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, November 2019) David Jurca arrived twenty minutes late to the Reaching Lincoln Heights community meeting, shuffled into the conference room at the Cleveland Public Library South Branch on October 15th, and set up his computer. The darkly dressed Jurca, with close cropped hair and neatly trimmed beard, began by explaining exactly why he had been late to the 6 p.m. meeting.
“I appreciate you all waiting,” he said. “We had a focus meeting this afternoon before this, and we had revisions and updates, so I ran home and did that. We’ll get into initial parking and design recommendations that will make their way into the final report.”
About twenty-five people from the Lincoln Heights neighborhood showed up to listen to the recommendations presented by his consulting firm Seventh Hill, an urban design company that specializes in city-wide redevelopment plans and tactical urbanism events.
Jurca is former associate director at Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collective, and founder/principal at Seventh Hill, the urban design firm hired by Tremont West Development Corporation (TWDC) to conduct the Lincoln Heights Land Use Study. Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack provided TWDC with a $10,000 grant from casino revenues for the study.
Robert Brown, an independent City Planning Consultant and former Director of the Cleveland City Planning Commission, along with Clifford B. Herring, a former economist and practicing architect, are assisting Jurca as part of the Seventh Hill design team.
Following an overview on the geographical boundaries of the Lincoln Heights study including West 25th Street on the west, Train Avenue on the northwest, Fairfield Avenue on the north, and I-71on the east, Jurca explained that Lincoln Heights is part of Tremont. But neighborhoods have sub-parts, he suggested, that lend a distinct flavor for that area. That’s what makes Lincoln Heights interesting and different, according to him.
Based on previous focus steering and community meetings, Seventh Hill created a schematic of high-level project goals and strategies. Their plan structures inquiry paths into how to achieve goals and develop tactics, with specific executions that can be measured to chart achievements. The purpose of the process was to listen to what residents want for their neighborhood when it comes to urban development like retail and housing options, according to Jurca. Parking needs ranked high on the list given the future of real estate development in the area.
Community feedback on high level themes included proximity of the neighborhood to local attraction and the social life of the neighborhood. Identity, mobility, and demand for development sites topped the list of positive themes. Negative themes include significant visible blight, unaffordability and equity, safety, and development challenges. A desire to have more retail that cater to different price points with a call for ‘greasy spoon’ diners over higher end bars and restaurants. Property taxes and developer challenges were the most often repeated concerns.
Dog parks, increased city services, parking and green spaces were also listed. Lack of affordability, vacancy and traffic are constant challenges to overcome, according to the Seventh Hill consultants.
“Can we reduce the needs for cars and get people to walk or ride their bikes?” asked Jurca.
An interactive, anonymous response, website browser was provided so that community participants could add their comments and questions to the survey. Their responses appeared on a large screen in front of the meeting room.
Land use and vacant land topographical maps were shown. With 40% of roads in Lincoln Heights terminated in a dead end, highways and valleys have cut off the neighborhood from Tremont, Duck Island, and Ohio City. What to do with that information is both a challenge and opportunity, according to Seventh Hill.
Jurca asked the community to envision what might happen along the Scranton/Willey intersection, a ‘jump start to imagination’, and what could contribute to the well-being of the neighborhood. He admitted that he didn’t know what developers had in mind for the intersection, that he didn’t know their plans, but during the steering committee meeting that afternoon, several developers present apparently expressed interest in building apartments and/or condominiums.
This caused a heated spark in the room. Jurca had admittedly removed the footprint of a large residential building at Willey Ave and Scranton Rd from his earlier presentation to the steering committee. When asked why the building was removed from the drawing, he indicated that the steering committee had requested the change be made before the presentation at the community meeting.
“It’s not like I have information that I don’t want to give to you,” said Jurca in defense of altering his presentation and referring to changes which made him late for the meeting.
“There is a developer who has bought that site and has put plans together, but they are all schematic,” said Herring.
“But wasn’t there a box on that site there earlier during the steering committee meeting?” asked Adam Waldbaum. “Why was that taken away?”
“The steering committee specifically asked us to show that as a blank slate,” added Herring, further explaining that changes in the presentation were requested to gather ideas from the community on how the site might be used to enhance the community experience. Sustainability Community Associates currently owns the land and plans to build a multilevel apartment complex on the site, which may require additional parking variances, according to sources present at the meeting.
Waldbaum pressed the question further, suggesting that Seventh Hill should show the site with the building footprint, much as it was presented to the steering committee.
“I don’t remember asking to remove that from the drawings,” he said. “And I’m on the steering committee and was at that meeting this afternoon.”
With potentially four projects slated for the Willey/Scranton intersection including the Sustainability Community Associates plan, developers for the remaining three sites have not been public on their intentions. Dave Ferrante, owner of Visible Voice and Crust Pizza, and the newly acquired property at the site of the former Lolita restaurant in Tremont, recently purchased property on the NE corner of Scranton Rd and Kenilworth Ave.
Cory Riordan, Executive Director of Tremont West Development Corporation, explained. “Dave Ferrante is the developer. If he has future plans for those sites, he hasn’t told us at TWDC.”
Speculation on the size of the apartment buildings, number of rental units, construction of an underground parking garage, a land swap deal with the Animal Protective League for more parking options and other issues appear to some community residents that the deal was already done.
“You guys are blowing smoke about what you know,” said Jane Knoublock. “I’m nobody and I know all this stuff about it. People come to this meeting, talking about these sites and what’s going on, and you feel like you’re getting lied to. That’s ridiculous. Please don’t insult our intelligence.”
“When we get real plans that need variances, they go the community,” said Riordan, visibly upset. “Once we have the presentation from developers, I’ll throw the whole damn thing up for everyone to see.”
To further complicate matters, Tremont West Development Corporation won’t recognize the Lincoln Heights Block Club as a TWDC block club. Riordan expressed his confidence that their disagreement wouldn’t alter any variance outcomes, stating that the City of Cleveland will listen to any individual seeking approval or dissent. The City of Cleveland is the decision-making authority, according to him. “We at TWDC write a letter of opinion.”
Robert Brown addressed the Lincoln Heights Block Club issue from his 30-year career perspective as a City Planning specialist including as former Director of the Cleveland City Planning Commission. “We listened to people that come to our meetings,” he said. “We didn’t really care about Block Clubs.”