Severance is more than big boxes

Severance Place Condominiums

The many commercial districts in Cleveland Heights and University Heights define our communities. They are notable for their numbers—upwards of twenty, depending on how you count them—as well as their variety. Some are large and extensive in their offerings; others are small and specialized.

Many of the districts can claim moderately good pedestrian access and circulation. In some, bicycle access is improving, and public transportation, while not comparable to that found in Ohio City or Lakewood, is viable.

Severance Town Center is one of our two large and imperfect big-box commercial districts (the other is Cedar Center). They don’t always get the consideration they deserve. Unlike our iconic streetcar-era commercial districts, they are rarely thought of as distinguishing assets. They are, however, important economically. Arguably improving over time, they are interesting and unusual examples of their genre.

Severance Town Center opened in the early 1960s on a 160-acre site that had been an estate. Once cleared of trees and habitat, the site provided a clean slate for massive development. Were it to be developed today, Severance would doubtless be different, but its layout was consistent with the thinking of the time.

Severance is a town center in more than name. Besides Cleveland Heights’ city hall, which relocated from the Mayfield Superior commercial district in the mid-1980s, Severance is home to medical facilities, restaurants, owner- and renter-occupied housing (in 2000 its population was 553), a Dave’s Market, chain retail outlets, the post office, banks, a gym, a multi-screen cinema, and, unknown to almost everyone, a small public park.

Though not the city’s architectural high point, Severance is remarkable among Greater Cleveland commercial districts in that it holds not a single example of the region’s relentless Western Reserve architecture: not one cupola or clock tower is found within.

The most jarring characteristic of Severance is its insularity. While earlier parts of Cleveland Heights made use of transitions to separate commercial areas from residential districts, Severance separates itself from the rest of the city with formidable buffers and no-go zones. To the east and south, it is separated from neighboring single-family districts by a 150-foot-wide buffer zone that has remained nearly sacrosanct for fifty years. Only the post office, unbound by local land-use regulations, violates this buffer. Though there are some informal pedestrian cut-throughs, the buffer stands as a giant L-shaped barrier that makes neighboring places seem farther from each other than they really are. It has succeeded in preventing the pre-Severance residential districts on the perimeter from becoming undesirable zones in transition.

Along Mayfield and Taylor roads, mounded buffers of unusable green space separate Severance from the streets. While these buffers provide a campus-like appearance, they are formidable challenges to pedestrians. One city hall staffer told a story of running across the buffer in front of city hall with bags full of groceries in the hope of catching a bus on Mayfield Road. On the downward slope, she lost her footing, which sent both her and her groceries sprawling. Luckily, this caught the attention of the bus driver.

The strict controls that govern the S-1 zoning district, created specifically for Severance, are examples of the fierce regulations for which Cleveland Heights is both famous and infamous. Though Severance may seem like a standard suburban shopping center, a closer look reveals that it is not. It is governed by a land use plan that permits pure retailing only on the inside of Severance Circle, the private-road-turned-public-street that surrounds the retail core. The result of this is a big-box containment zone that allows for retail businesses we’d otherwise have to head east to find, without allowing these businesses to spread endlessly. Outside Severance Circle, only residential and office uses are permitted to stand on their own. Retail and restaurant uses are permitted only as part of mixed-use developments.

There have been changes at Severance in recent years, most for the better. New residential development has added to the district’s mix. The Heights Arts installations, especially the Brinsley Tyrrell sculptures above the retention basin, signal that Severance is a place, however imperfect, that is worthy of our attention. When Severance Circle and the access roads were rebuilt by the city as public streets, pedestrian and bicycle access improved. But more work is needed. Severance is not home to the local businesses and one-of-a-kind establishments that we are known for. On the other hand, Severance is a legitimate part of our community, and not merely a utilitarian necessity that is in—but not really in—the Heights.

Vince Reddy, an urban planner employed by Cleveland Public Art, has lived in Cleveland Heights for just under a dozen years. A resident of the Greater Randolph neighborhood, he previously served as zoning administrator for the city of Cleveland Heights.
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Volume 1, Issue 3, Posted 11:35 AM, 06.03.2008