Volunteers step up for steering committee to preserve Oakwood as green space
About 90 people crowded an echo-filled rotunda at the Cleveland Heights Community Center on Wednesday evening (Feb. 3) to discuss how the now-closed Oakwood Club might be preserved as some kind of green space.
By the end of the evening, nine people had volunteered to sit on a steering committee to lead the effort; and it had become apparent that the issue is not going to remain limited to Cleveland Heights and South Euclidwhere the property is situated but is likely to become an issue for the county and the region's foundation community as well.
The 105-year-old Oakwood Club, occupying 144 acres just west of Warrensville Center Road between Cedar and Mayfield roads, was merged with the Mayfield Country Club at the end of 2009. The property, which includes a Donald Ross-designed golf course, a clubhouse, swimming pool and tennis facility, is now for sale with an asking price of $5.9 million.
“I’m motivated by the desire to have this wonderful amenity,” said Fran Mentch, who organized the meeting in her role as president of the Severance Neighborhood Organization. “But I’m motivated mostly by fear. Fear of losing this opportunity. This is our generation’s Cain Park; this is our generation’s chance to leave something to future generations.”
Mentch noted that she had invited the property's Realtor, Terry Coyne of Grubb & Ellis Cleveland (Oakwood property listing), to attend the meeting. His response, she said, was a message to call him if she was interested in buying the property.
Others expressed the same concernthat if the community itself doesn’t step in to preserve the property, it will eventually be sold to the highest bidder for commercial development.
“We do not need any more housing, any more shopping, any more parking lots in our community. We have too many vacant homes and storefronts without merchants along our established commercial strips. University Hospital is a stone's throw away, as are many large shopping meccas," said Cleveland Heights resident Wendy Donkin, owner of Small Seeds Deisgn and a volunteer to serve on the new steering committee. “We need a connection to nature to nurture ourselves and our children. We cannot wait any longer in protecting our biodiversity.”
When the question was raised about money to buy the property, Mentch started to list potential sources for funding. Interrupting herself, she said: “Money is not the problem. This is a litmus test. The problem is, do we have the will, the vision and the leadership to make something good happen.”
David Bergholz, a Shaker Heights resident and former executive director of the George Gund Foundation echoed her sentiment. Minutes before volunteering to serve on the steering committee, he told the crowd: “I would bet that the foundation community would come forward with a small amount of money for the advance planning work that needs to be done. The goal is, don’t get too many ideas on the table but present the one that will work.”
To that end, he said, some professional planning would be needed. Then he added:“I wish I were on the Foundation and this would come before me."
Mentch promised to submit grant applications to local foundations within the week for first-stage planning.
Most of the meeting was a stream-of-consciousness sharing of ideas and information moderated by Mentch. Here are some highlights from the discussion:
· A local merchant said she was told by Mayor Susan Infeld that University Heights is interested in supporting a green-space effort as it develops.
· A South Euclid resident said South Euclid Mayor Georgine Welo told her that city would support a grass-roots effort to preserve some kind of park setting on the site, but that its money right now is committed to the redevelopment of Cedar Center.
· The property is currently zoned single-family residential; it can’t be commercially developed unless the zoning is changed by City Council. That, along with the depressed real estate market, means the land is not likely to be sold quickly. Mentch responded that residents should be aggressive about e-mailing and calling city leaders anyway, to express their desire to see the property preserved, “Because they will wait for us to go away.”
· The only public official who was identified at the meeting was Richard Wong, director of planning and development for the City of Cleveland Heights. When Mentch asked if he had any comments to make, Wong responded: “I’ve been told not to speak in this meeting. It’s too early for us to comment. We need to be listening at this point.”
· Naturalists from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History have apparently offered to conduct a biological survey of the property, which will be helpful in deciding a use and identifying funding sources.
Suggestions for using the land included:
· Create a passive park, as Geauga County recently did with the former Orchard Hills Golf Course. That effort was assisted by the Wesern Reserve Land Conservancy, which sent Julia Musson, associate director of conservation funding, to attend the Oakwood meeting. Mussun said the conservancy is not an advocacy organization and that its role – if any – couldn't become clear until a specific proposal was adopted.
· Figure out a way to continue operating the golf courseperhaps cutting it back to its original nine holes to make room for other recreational uses.
· Use the clubhouse as a conference and party facility; or utilize the entire facility as an exhibition center accessible to the institutions in University Circle.
· Organize nature walks and bird walks to help publicize the property’s value as some kind of park.
Bob Rosenbaum is a Cleveland Heights resident and member of the FutureHeights board of trustees.