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Ohio City

OCI’s new Executive Director Tom McNair shares insights on neighborhood development

by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, December 2014) Addressing the November 13th meeting of the Randall/Whitman/John/Woodbine Block Club, Ohio City Incorporated’s (OCI) new Executive Director Tom McNair said he was excited about his new role at an “exciting time” with the recent completion of a new strategic plan for the neighborhood.

McNair, who previously served as Director of Economic Development and Planning at OCI, said that over 70 new businesses have opened in the West Side Market District over the past five years reducing the business vacancy rate from 40% down to just 2%.

Praising the inclusiveness of the new OCI strategic plan, McNair said that over 900 responses were gathered from surveys distributed in both English and Spanish. He said the ambitious plan for the neighborhood focuses on people.

McNair praised a new safety audit program that collaborates with the Second District Police as one innovative program. He cited the Near West Recreation program as an example of the people focus of Ohio City Inc. McNair said the organization has grown from serving about eighty kids just two years ago to serving over 750 children this past year.

McNair said, there is demand for an additional 1,500 housing units in the neighborhood. He said apartments in the neighborhood are nearly 100% leased. He talked about a development strategy along Lorain Avenue that included live/work units above storefronts in historical buildings and filling in businesses along the commercial corridor. He said the strategy along Lorain Avenue included a pedestrian retail overlay zone — a two-way bicycle track on the north side of the street.  He cited Indianapolis as an example of having a working two-way bicycle track,

The strategy along Detroit Avenue is different, said McNair. He said Detroit Avenue allows more opportunities for more dense development. He suggested that midrise apartment 4 or 5 stories tall could be placed in the Ohio City area of Detroit Avenue. He cited a development at W. 32nd and Detroit as an example.

McNair talked about the need for more family friendly 3 or 4 bedroom houses on land bank lots in the neighborhood by sharing his own unsuccessful effort to find a house in the neighborhood.

Sharing the business development strategy of Ohio City Inc., McNair said there are over 250 small businesses in the neighborhood and OCI makes an effort to help place the right business in the right spot. He challenged the perception in the neighborhood that the development strategy consists of bringing in bars and restaurants. He said that there are fewer bars in the neighborhood now than when he started as a staff member at OCI.

He said of about 70 new businesses in the neighborhood, OCI was involved in helping about one quarter of them. He noted that it is a private market and OCI didn’t have control over all the spaces in the neighborhood. He said community members have some input on development because they have the right to object to liquor licenses and to object to variances.

McNair then talked about a used car lot at 4157 Lorain Avenue, which it was discovered did not have a certificate of occupancy. McNair said because that section of Lorain Avenue was now in a Pedestrian Retail Overlay zone, the City Planning Department ruled the used car lot was now not an allowed use. McNair said it is not a fun process shutting a business down. However, he said OCI had a responsibility to enforce the Pedestrian Retail Overlay zoning. He said an exception could not be made for the used car lot, “we can’t allow it to establish use without allowing others to establish use.”

McNair noted that six of the sixteen used car lots in the Pedestrian Retail Overlay area on Lorain Avenue did not have proper certificates of occupancy. He said OCI would have to take a stance against them. The other ten are legally operating and can stay, he said.

Defending the Pedestrian Retail Overlay concept, McNair said that adhering to its guidelines would increase the walkability of the neighborhood.

McNair also offered an update on the West Side Market parking lot. He said the City of Cleveland has hired a firm to redesign the parking lot. The firm has come up with a plan to consolidate the lot on the former Hicks school site and the West Side Market lot into one parking lot. McNair said that the consolidation will result in 100 to 150 new parking spaces. He said the total cost of the parking lot refurbishing and consolidation is estimated at $3 million dollars. He said the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and EPA grants are likely to be involved as part of an effort to control storm water runoff through use of permeable pavers and other techniques. McNair said some of the cost of the parking lot includes security measures and new lighting. As far as whether or not the City of Cleveland will charge for parking at the West Side Market parking lot, McNair said the city hasn’t said what it is going to do. He said that the city’s plans should “come more to light” in the Spring of 2015.

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