Is there a chance for PEACE?
At the front door of the Coventry PEACE Campus (CPC) building, outsized, fanciful light fixtures hang from the 18-foot ceiling, hinting at creative doings inside. Since 2011 the former elementary school has housed an eclectic mix of nonprofit organizations, devoted to empowering Heights residents of all ages through arts, education and community development.
CPC is not only a place, but an umbrella organization for the resident groups. In addition to presenting special events, in recent years the nonprofit has managed the premises and the leasing of space. CPC pays $10,000 for utilities and $500 in rent each month to Heights Libraries, which purchased the building from the CH-UH Board of Education in 2018 for $1.
Tenants currently include ARTFUL, Building Bridges Arts Collaborative, Cleveland Heights Teachers Union/American Federation of Teachers Local 795, FutureHeights, Grace Communion Cleveland, Lake Erie Ink, Reaching Heights, Singers Club of Cleveland, and Studio Institute.
Unfortunately, the future of this vibrant community hub is not at all certain. In 2018, Heights Libraries Director Nancy Levin told Patch.com, "Our goal is for the tenants to be independent. . . . [W]e will be acting as a kind of incubator, supporting the tenants until they can take over ownership and management of the property themselves." Four years later relationships are strained, ill will abounds, and the goal of independence seems distant.
The two parties give notably divergent accounts, but seem to agree on this much:
In October 2020, they negotiated a 15-month lease, with the option of a long-term extension, provided CPC could meet specific organizational and financial goals, and establish a reserve fund for future contingencies. Late last year, CPC presented documentation of its progress, but was told it did not meet the library’s minimum criteria.
The library board voted to decline the long-term option, and instead hire a management company to run the building and deal with the tenants. The board also approved a $15,000 “feasibility study” to determine rental rates. The library has since contracted with Cresco Playhouse Square for property management, and will raise rents to cover Cresco’s fees.
CPC tackled a daunting project during a pandemic, without dedicated staff, depending on in-kind labor and pro-bono professional consulting. Its member organizations are small nonprofits, running their own programs on shoestring budgets. The largest tenant, Ensemble Theatre, which had been donating bookkeeping and accounting services to CPC, departed in 2021 for South Euclid.
In comparison, the library might appear to have deep pockets and ample personnel, but Levin noted that she and other staff have put in “more [time] than on any other library project . . . during my 14 years in this position.” The library also fronted nearly $80,000 in HVAC repair costs.
As of mid-June, the tenants await letters of intent specifying their rent increases, to be followed by lease negotiations with Cresco. How many of them will be able to afford the higher rents remains to be seen.
Internal library e-mails reveal that demolition is not off the table.
The situation is painfully complicated and disappointing. We value both our well-managed, award-winning library system, and the creative synergy CPC brings to the Coventry neighborhood.
Levin has called her institution “a facilitator of democracy,” and we agree (Heights Observer, October 2018). CPC, as we have written (Heights Observer, July 2017) represents “the very kind of place-making that enhances quality of life and makes our community a more desirable place to live.”
If CPC tenants are dispersed, some perhaps to neighboring cities, Coventry and Cleveland Heights will be the poorer for it.
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.