Mayor-elect Brennan sets forth his plans for University Heights
A day after he defeated University Heights' two-term incumbent, Mayor-elect Michael D. Brennan put forward a vision of an innovative entertainment and nightlife scene where the moribund University Square shopping center stands at the intersection of Cedar and Warrensville Center roads.
A lawyer in private practice, for whom the mayoral election was a first step into politics, Brennan will take office on Jan. 2, having won a close election with an unofficial winning margin of less than 60 votes (1,546 to 1,492) in a city of approximately 13,000 residents.
Brennan said he did not see a common thread in the decision by University Heights voters to replace an incumbent (UH Mayor Susan Infeld ran without opposition for reelection four years ago) and the election loss by six-term incumbent Mayor Merle Gordon, in neighboring Beachwood. "I think each city has its unique issues," commented Brennan. "For University Heights, our election was about the power of good ideas and the power of collaboration as a way of going about government."
Proactive economic development to help cut taxes
Brennan said that he expected to take an active, hands-on approach on pitching University Heights to prospective real estate investors and entrepreneurs. University Square, now reduced to three tenants (Macy's and Target, which own their stores, and an Applebee's restaurant) and deep in tax arrears, will be a major initial target, he said.
Brennan rejected suggestions of replacing stores with apartments on the site, saying that what the city needs is a more active entertainment scene to attract both residents and visitors. He observed that he was unable to find a suitable place within the city for his campaign launch party, as he did not want to impinge on the pizzeria used by his opponent, Mayor Infeld.
One of Brennan's consistent themes was the need for the city to be more proactive in solving problems, and especially promoting economic development. He said he thought the city should have an economic development director who, with the mayor, would seek out investors in, for example, new entertainment sites. The city plan and zoning regulations were tools that could be used to attract some investments and discourage others—such as proposed housing units on the site of University Square.
"I do believe University Heights has historically taken too passive a role in economic development. Redevelopment of University Square is a much bigger idea than just renting out spaces that currently exist," he said, noting that some spaces in University Square "have never had stores in them" since the center opened in 2003.
"We heard during this campaign from the incumbent that we don't have a choice as to what developers want to put in commercial districts. I don't agree,” said Brennan. “With a city master plan and zoning, we're in a position not only to approve projects, but to solicit projects.
"The thing about a site like University Square is that we should be taking public comment to see what there's public demand for, to tell a market story to show bond holders and potential developers. We need more attractions for people to move to University Heights. More apartments is not the best way forward."
Among other ideas, Brennan cited "axe throwing" game sites, which he compared to miniature golf venues when that game was new. "It may sound silly, but then people try it and find that it's fun." He also mentioned the newly opened Boss Dog Brewing Co. on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights as an example of the sort of nightspot that could thrive in University Heights.
"We have a college in our borders, with young people who look for things to do," noted Brennan. "University Square could be a place where you have bowling, a winery, a brewpub, even axe throwing—things that promote an active lifestyle. A study should be done."
Brennan cited the success of Cleveland's University Circle neighborhood in being revitalized as a result of a master plan drafted in 1993, perhaps suggesting that reviving University Heights could take several years.
$2 million annual surplus is too much
"One of the chief things I ran on was economic redevelopment, and with that growing our tax base so we can moderate our taxes. There's no reason to tax as much as we do just to generate surpluses,” Brennan said. “I'm looking to give some of that money back, going forward, but also investing in the community to enhance our tax base, building on something to make the city sustainable economically.”
Brennan was critical of the city's $2 million annual revenue surplus—he said the city has about $8 million in cash in the bank—that helped make University Heights’ property tax rate the second highest in Cuyahoga County. High taxes discourage people from moving into the city, or cause them to leave, Brennan said, declaring economic development to be the best means of replacing revenues lost by lowering city property taxes. (Real estate taxes also include separate levies by the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District and Cuyahoga County.)
A “cultural change” at city hall
While Brennan emphasized his belief in a proactive government that attracts real estate investment to revitalize the city's commercial areas, he also said he intended to make city government more user-friendly for citizens. As an example, he cited his intention to accept credit or debit cards for city services such as special trash carting (removing unwanted large objects too big for regular trash collection), rather than insisting that citizens take time off work to bring a check or cash to city hall.
His administration would bring about a "cultural change," he said, "a more user-friendly attitude on how you go about governance. City hall should be a resource for solving problems, trying to resolve the issue without punishing the resident for needing assistance."
Brennan also advocated a more activist role by the city in preserving at least the exteriors of houses that go into foreclosure, citing as an example a house on Tullamore Road that deteriorated while in prolonged foreclosure and eventually had to be demolished. Some owners may need the city's help to maintain outward appearances in order to protect the neighborhood. In the case of the Tullamore house, he said, "Bottom line: a once-beautiful house became irredeemable and unsalvageable. We need a more proactive approach to abandoned and foreclosed houses. That house could have been a valuable home."
Another change, said Brennan, would be a more cooperative attitude toward the city council (six of its seven members endorsed Brennan). He cited the case of the city jail, currently in UH police headquarters. Last February, Brennan said, the state informed the city it would have to upgrade or replace its jail. This notice was not shared with city council until October, when Mayor Infeld asked for approval of a contract negotiated with the city of Solon, a 40-minute, 26-mile roundtrip drive away. Brennan said the state's demand for an improved jail should have been shared with city council much earlier, and vowed to be more collaborative as part of a "cultural change" in city government.
During his campaign, Brennan criticized the city's fire chief, Douglas Zook, who was the target of a no-confidence vote by firefighters. After first saying he would review Zook's contract in his new role as the city's safety director, Brennan then said that he stood by his earlier statements on the fire chief's future. "My position on [the] fire chief to date is well understood and I'm not changing that." When he first announced that he was running for mayor, in September 2016, the Plain Dealer's website quoted Brennan as saying: "I have been open in my intention to replace the fire chief as a first order of business as mayor and safety director."
Brennan said he would also look at two other mayoral appointees, the police chief and building inspector, whose roles touch on his safety director title. "I'm interested in keeping a strong base of institutional knowledge in University Heights,” said Brennan. “One of the problems we've had is difficulty keeping good people. I'm not looking to sweeping people out just for the sake of sweeping people out. There are a lot of great people who work for the city who are interested in the same things I'm interested in. I'm not wishing to be unduly disruptive."
On an issue that roiled the campaign in its closing days—a city laborer’s union flier that accused Mayor Infeld of jeopardizing resident safety by hiring a subcontractor to collect leaves who used jail inmates as workers, which in turn caused Infeld to complain that she was the victim of a "campaign smear"—Brennan said it was "premature for me to say" how a labor grievance filed by a city union should be resolved. He said Infeld was "right to be upset, I didn't blame her for being angry and upset" by the flier, which he described as "very unfair." “As a matter of core belief, all of us should be able to earn a living wage, including people who have made mistakes,” Brennan stated. “There have to be jobs for people who have . . . (been) run through [the] criminal justice system as a matter of bad luck or of the systemic way certain people are targeted for prosecution, and then render[ed] unemployable."
Optimism regarding UH residents on the school board
On the perceived weaknesses of Cleveland Heights-University Heights public schools (attended by only 51 percent of the city's children), Brennan expressed optimism that having University Heights residents on the joint school board, after a prolonged absence, could "lead to programs and things for students within our district where we have students who can still get a great education over the long term, irrespective of some problems." He also observed that within the joint district "we have certain socio-economic issues that not all districts have" that have to be taken into account when analyzing the "overall performance" of public schools.
James Outman is a former journalist for international news organizations and author of volumes on a variety of historical topics including the War on Terror. He has been a resident of University Heights since 2013.