Creative collision can help cure urban decay

More than 50 years ago, the proposed Clark-Lee Freeway rumbled toward the Heights louder than a stampede of lost buffalo. Fortunately, a group of community organizers stopped the proposed highway. Their victory spawned the founding of the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, on the site of what would have been the intersection of crossing highways.

When a communitywide conflict results in a communitywide asset, it’s a creative collision, of sorts, demonstrating the innovation and resourcefulness of our beautiful cities. The Nature Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer, and I'm thankful for its legacy.   

As Cleveland Heights struggles to cure pockets of urban decay, we face a similar crisis. Instead of hearing the rumbling hooves of a misguided highway proposal, our city's urban decay is more like the silent, disease-spreading mosquito. Symptoms of urban decay often appear unrelated, but there is an underlying cause that is much like the inconspicuous insect. Before the cause is revealed, let’s look at a few symptoms. 

We see proposed plans to demolish historic structures along Mayfield Road (namely the Center Mayfield Building) and replace them with a retail design that would damage the neighborhood’s urban fabric. Meanwhile, Lee Road businesses are struggling to solve parking concerns caused by a misinformed public parking approach. In the past, we’ve seen the approval of commercial buildings positioned off the street edge, weakening the city-style shopping experience and risking pedestrian safety. To many, these are symptoms of a city in crisis; one that has lowered original standards for short-term gains.

Cleveland Heights is a garden city—a planned community of leafy neighborhoods laced with greenbelts and public parks. Its plan also includes a collection of urban areas that cluster retail, businesses, apartments and homes. Most environmentalists consider these compact and pedestrian-friendly areas a sustainable development pattern. Millennials and baby boomers are all seeking such places—or to be within walking distance of these mixed-use neighborhoods (and the venti latte that awaits).

The demand for these traditional urban places is so high that outer-ring suburbs are imitating our neighborhoods, but let's not be outdone. In a recent Plain Dealer article, a Cleveland city planner stated, "We cannot let the suburbs beat us at our own game.”

Form-based codes are becoming an increasingly attractive method in enabling municipalities to support mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development. As the City of Cleveland introduces plans for land-use regulation reform, to include form-based codes, Cleveland Heights is encouraged to follow its lead.

Many cities are realizing that the mosquito-like problem at the core of the urban decay epidemic is the arcane, outdated land- and building-use regulations, the most effective and widely used treatment of which is reform.

Cleveland Heights is currently working with the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission on the city’s master plan. The master plan will guide reinvestment toward the acres of under-performing real estate. To make the plan stick, these updated regulations will provide greater flexibility in land and building uses, in exchange for more-stringent regulations controlling urban form.

It's important to know that the process of reform is as valuable as the document that it produces. To support the master plan, the process of reform will include public engagement where design theory and principle are explained, and fine-grain urban design methods are described.

With an informed public, city staff will have the support to make decisions that are best practices in their field and best for our city as a whole, interdependent organism. The not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) attitude is usually not a symptom of an unreasonable neighbor; it could be a symptom of a person with an uninformed citywide vision. Let's refine and communicate this vision. 

Maintaining the health of our city is complex, and progressive land-use regulations will help. They create a practical framework to inform citizens and business owners, empower city staff and leadership, and encourage and clearly direct the reinvestment that strengthens our graceful garden city allure.  

We have an opportunity for innovation before us: to leverage this moment into a legacy of lasting community health. This creative collision will create a refreshed self-image for our citizens and for future generations; anything short of that is as unthinkable as a highway exchange hovering over the Shaker Lakes. I encourage everyone to learn more about this grassroots initiative in an upcoming speaker series, to be announced soon.  

Roger Bliss

Roger Bliss is a developer specializing in infill locations, pedestrian-scale urban design, mixed-use projects, and multifamily project construction. He is a Cleveland Heights resident and member of the Severance Subcommittee of the FutureHeights Civic Engagement Committee.

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Volume 9, Issue 4, Posted 9:44 AM, 03.03.2016