Sometimes a park isn't just a park

On Nov. 2, Cleveland Heights voters will elect a mayor for the first time in a century. Issue 26, which gave residents the ability to decide whether they wanted to elect a mayor, was the first step in replacing an appointed city manager, accountable only to seven city council members, with a leader who is directly accountable to voters. 

An elected-mayor form of government, on its own, will not guarantee the outcomes we desire. We must continue to erode the power that small networks of privileged stakeholders wield over the rest of us, which they use to impose narrow visions of growth and well-being onto the physical landscape that we inhabit.

A growing association of residents is circulating a petition calling for the creation of a park at the corner of Lee and Meadowbrook, instead of new commercial space and apartments for “professionals . . . looking for a luxury living experience” (as described in the city’s RFQ/RFP for the site). If we gather enough signatures [to put the park on a ballot], voters will decide for themselves whether they want a park.

The park itself is secondary. Above all, we want the same thing that we wanted when we chose an elected mayor: to strengthen our democracy and take more-direct control over our socioeconomic lives.

The entire community—not just a power elite consisting of CH City Council, a developer, a community development corporation, and a handful of business owners accountable only to each other—should determine what kind of development is in its best interest.

City council and its self-selected partners have chosen trickle-down gentrification, hoping to attract residents who could afford to live in Tremont, but might choose to live in Cleveland Heights instead. They have repeatedly made clear that they intend to move forward with or without the blessing of residents. 

To be sure, the city has established channels for community input. There have been at least three public meetings on parking, connectivity, and urban design. However, as public policy analyst Sherry Arnstein famously argued in her article, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation” (1969), the “real objective [of this form of community engagement] is not to enable people to participate in planning . . . but to enable powerholders to ‘educate’ or ‘cure’ the participants. . . . [Citizens] may indeed . . . be heard . . . [but] they lack the power to ensure that their views will be heeded by the powerful.”

[Some of us] are not against development. We are against myopic development models that prioritize the privileged at everyone else’s expense. Our community is more than just taxable tenants and properties with variable dollar values: we are students, teachers, and “essential workers;" we are aging out of our homes; we are living precariously; and we are all important. Neither urban density nor new wealth alone can solve our problems, yet the city made little effort to offer other solutions.

In Minneapolis-Saint Paul, where I spent many of my formative years, municipal governments are accountable to neighborhood councils—groups of residents whose goal is to empower themselves through community awareness and civic engagement, and who do not outsource their visions of growth and well-being to profit-driven developers. Instead, they direct developers as partners whose role is to help build the community. The closest analogue in Cleveland Heights, to my knowledge, are the Special Improvement Districts (SIDs), which the Cedar Lee SID describes as "an alliance between the business community and the [c]ity.” 

The call for a park is hardly about a park. It is about flipping the script on development by making our city accountable to residents, making all residents equal stakeholders, and making profits subordinate to community interests.

Gavin Andersen

Gavin Andersen, a Cleveland Heights resident, has a background in international trade and development policy, and a job in regulatory compliance.

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Volume 14, Issue 11, Posted 10:55 AM, 10.29.2021