The Coventry School site: In whose interest?
An impressive group of nonprofit organizations, [many] dedicated to education and the arts, make their homes in the building that was once Coventry Elementary School, which was closed by the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District in 2007.
The first nonprofit to move in was Ensemble Theatre, in 2011; the most recent is Artful Cleveland, which leased space in July 2016, opened its doors in March 2017, and now provides studio space to 18 artists.
Additional occupants include Coventry Children’s Center, Family Connections, FutureHeights, Lake Erie Ink, Reaching Heights, and Urban Oak School. Not only does the space and location suit the needs of these organizations, but, for several, their artistic and educational endeavors are synergistic.
“Creative place-making” is the gold standard of city planning; some communities spend decades trying to achieve it. Here we have it—with 82 employees and 124 independent contractors paying city income taxes out of that building, by the way.
The complex seems to exemplify the aims of the Coventry parents and neighbors who financed and built the Coventry P.E.A.C.E. Park and playground in 1993 and have maintained it since. (P.E.A.C.E. stands for “People Enhancing A Child’s Environment.”)
The organic growth of this cultural hub came to an abrupt halt on May 9, when the Coventry school building tenants were informed that the school district is selling the building and they will all be switched from one-year to month-to-month leases. The district now acknowledges that this matter has been under discussion since December; however, the interests of the tenants and the communities they serve clearly were never considered.
The district’s assumptions about the future of the Coventry building and grounds are evident in the draft RFQ/RFP (Request for Quote/Request for Proposal), which specifies "a residential/mixed-use development integrating the existing area or portion thereof known as P.E.A.C.E. Park.” There has been no thought that an existing community asset can and should be preserved.
Enter the City of Cleveland Heights. On June 5, CH City Council approved a non-binding letter of intent to purchase the Coventry building from the district for $1, as soon as a developer is identified.
So many things are wrong in this scenario that it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s the lack of recognition that a theater, a school, and an after-school arts program must be able to plan a year at a time; they cannot serve their constituencies month-to-month. There’s the disregard for the fundraising and sweat equity required to convert each space to its present use. It is as though the district and the city looked at a building filled with theatergoers, community activists, parents, children and young people, and saw only empty space.
Further, there’s the automatic assumption that housing and commerce are the only way to fill any available site in the city. This disregards the community value of arts and culture, and of education in the broadest sense. It is important to attract new residents to the city, but then why thwart the very kind of place-making that enhances quality of life and makes our community a more desirable place to live?
Finally there is the secrecy, paternalism and lack of accountability with which our elected city and school officials so often operate. Their actions seem to say, “You elected us, therefore we know what is in your best interest.” But true democracy goes beyond counting votes. Democracy means constantly seeking the input of the people who will be affected by the decisions you make. Democracy means that a recommendation from an unelected city manager, school superintendent or consultant is not the inevitable resolution of an issue, but a starting point for discussion involving all who have an interest in the outcome.
It’s easy to understand why the district wants to rid itself of a 1970s building that could need $1 million in repairs and upgrades. But where does this leave the tenants—the Nonprofits of Coventry School, as their Facebook page calls them?
Early in June representatives of several groups went to both CH City Council and the school board to ask for: 12-month leases, a development process that includes consideration of an arts and cultural center, and involvement of the tenants in the development process.
In addition, the groups’ attorney Lee Chilcote recommended a minimum six-months’ notice if the building sells. These are all reasonable demands, given the pace of any major development project, and a good place to start the exchange of ideas. We’ll follow this story.
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, who has lived in Cleveland Heights for most of her life. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.