Cleveland has invested in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, time after time. When I lived there, I happily pulled the lever for a $256 million tax levy, intended to rebuild 20 failing schools and support innovative reform programs. Cleveland has a strong history of supporting tax increases for the challenged school district.
It is time for the school district to show some reciprocal interest in improving Cleveland. Not atypical of embattled school districts, CMSD exudes a distinctly callous vibe toward anything in the community besides its own financial bottom line. Unfortunately even for themselves, this myopic set of priorities will cement the district’s vicious cycle.
The district routinely engages in a practice of demolishing its historic school buildings at any opportunity it gets, for any reason. The most common reason is when a school is no longer necessitated by the district’s shrinking enrollment, and rather than sell surplus buildings with architectural potential to developers (a potentially lucrative source of additional revenue), the school district prefers to demolish to preempt the outside chance that a charter school could come in and compete in the neighborhood. Another equally common scenario is that the school is not located in an obvious hot real estate market, so the district will demolish, citing limited redevelopment potential.
Neither of those common scenarios are claiming the historic Jesse Owens School at Larchmere and MLK. This tudor-style landmark anchors the western edge of the up-and-coming Larchmere neighborhood, where a historically mixed-race community is revitalizing without displacement, and potentially connecting prosperous Shaker to lower-income neighborhoods to the west. These are the types of connections that must be made in order to break down the barriers of segregated prosperity.
Tim Perotti wants to rehab the building, adding high-income apartments to the neighborhood, furthering the happy mix that coexists in Larchmere (and bringing that mix further west). The school district wants it to be open space and parking for a new 1-story school, a $26 million CMSD project, that Perotti argues could still exist on the site. The district’s response:
District officials said they wanted to keep the existing roads on the site to avoid the expense of relocating and rebuilding them and the utilities underground.
Furthermore, they said, the district would not have been at able to sell the Jesse Owens building to a developer without first offering it to a charter school, a course the district did not want to pursue.
In summary, they didn’t want to be bothered to redesign vehicular circulation around the site, and they are terrified of having to first offer the school to any interested charter schools. Shocker. The reality is that CMSD has wanted to demolish this property for over a decade, according to a paper copy of the district’s building survey that I have had since I worked at Cleveland Restoration. For this particular property, they initially cited poor redevelopment potential as the reason to demolish. The most frustrating aspect for preservationists (who want CMSD to succeed) is that once a capable developer steps forward, the district can just easily shift to a different rationale to demolish without missing a beat.
Renovating the school, adding apartments, benefits the school district on two fronts: 1, increased tax revenues; and 2, a rare redevelopment project deep in the residential neighborhoods, further from a revitalized corridor. The school district’s fate will be indelibly linked, whether it likes it or not, to the fate of the city’s residential neighborhoods. Young professionals moving into thousands of renovated dwelling units right on a major corridor are not sending children to the neighborhood schools.
CMSD does this several times a year, all across town. They have torn down a huge chunk of Ohio City’s best buildings, which could easily have made attractive market-rate and affordable housing. They are doing it right now with the John Marshall School, where developers are interested in redeveloping the LAKEFRONT-PROPERTY on Detroit Avenue. CMSD is ensuring the site remain vacant and abandoned.
The community wants this:
The district’s response:
Zohn and Gordon have long said that they did not see any other properties on the West Side that would work for a new high school. Earlier this month, both said that they have rejected all seven of Councilman Zone’s suggestions as not adequate, or as good a site as the Max Hayes property.
So once again, no redevelopment for you.
According to Fresh Water Cleveland, since 2005 the district has closed 35 schools and demolished 14. The only future use that CMSD has in mind for any of these landmark buildings, representing some of Cleveland’s finest building stock, is as swing space while a nearby school is closed for renovations. Our neighborhoods are littered with mothballed schools (if we should be so lucky), so that the district can move kids around while playing musical schools. They don’t know what chairs they have or when their own music stops.
Cleveland has a lot of problems, and fixing the school district is one of its biggest. Everybody in town wants CMSD to improve, and loves to see the district succeed. The schools and the city are part and parcel. The city recognizes this.
The school district does not. CMSD seems to operate under the impression that its fate is hermetically sealed off from that of its community, which is in desperate need of community development. CMSD needs to start showing some interest in its surroundings.
I know that the embattled district has become so insularly-focused that it won’t hear this perspective, but CMSD really should consider doing itself a favor.