Residents and stakeholders speak out about their concerns at TWDC membership meeting
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, June 2019) “There is a very real threat that the Tremont Montessori School will be removed,” said City Councilman Kerry McCormack at the opening of Tremont West Development Corporation (TWDC) annual meeting held at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on West 14thStreet on May 16th.
“We have to be sure not to leave central Tremont with zero public school presence. I’m going to get in trouble for this, but I don’t care,” McCormack continued, rattling off an email contact for Eric Gordon, Chief Executive Officer of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
“We have to put pressure on our public officials to invest in public schools in our neighborhood. Public officials work for us,” McCormack reminded over 100 Tremont residents that came out for the annual meeting which included a buffet dinner followed by a meeting, election and neighborhood awards.
Tremont Montessori is one of the schools the Cleveland school district promised to replace with a new school in a 2014 tax campaign. With only 11 percent of students from within a mile of the school and 45 percent from the East Side, CMSD officials believe the move enable the district to continue the Montessori program in a newer building elsewhere in the school district. In February 2010, the former Tremont Elementary School narrowly avoided closure when then Cleveland Metropolitan School District Superintendent Eugene Sanders vetoed a cost-cutting plan that targeted under-capacity schools, according to the website clevelandhistorical.org.
The current Tremont school, built in the 1917, is made of brick, with oak floors, oak rails and a gymnasium, according to the Cleveland Historical website.
In 2005, Tremont Elementary was converted to a Montessori school. This attracted more students, including many from outside the Tremont neighborhood. The threatened shutdown in 2010 brought about a swell of concerned Tremont residents including many without school-age children to successfully protest. The Friends of Tremont School was also founded the same year according to Cleveland Historical.
With increased demand and rising prices for real estate in Tremont, the approximately 2.2- acre property could bring in new housing and retail development to the neighborhood at a premium price.
Market Plaza shopping center in nearby Ohio City sold earlier this year for $5.58 million to Harbor Bay Real Estate Advisors, a Chicago-area developer. Proposed plans for the 3-acre site include as many as 260 new apartments with 75,000 square feet of retail space and 560 underground parking spaces.
In 2016, Sustainable Community Associates converted Tremont’s historic Wagner Avenue Building built in 1895 into 12,000 sq. ft. of office space and 59 one-bedroom apartments. The 1.75 -acre property includes parking for tenants, with rents from $900 – $1500 month for apartments 650 to 1250 square feet. The Tappan project across the street from the Wagner Avenue Building, scheduled to break ground this summer, will erect a four-story building that will include 95 apartments and a first-floor bakery.
Dozens of other real estate projects in Tremont and Ohio City are currently in development.
Given the opportunity to increase density population in Tremont, real estate investors and developers’ eager for new projects could add as many as 150 to 190 new apartments and condominiums to the Montessori School site depending on size while increasing the commercial footprint with newly constructed retail space.
Long-time Tremont resident and artist Christopher Pekoc believes TWDC acts in the best interest of its constituents, at least most of the time.
“They do wonderful work. They’re honest and not all Cleveland CDC’s are that way. We’re truly lucky to have TWDC as our CDC,” he said. “But I would like to see them take a closer look at the architecture that gets approved for development. Sometimes, it’s just abysmal.”
“I’m very impressed with the block clubs and attendance at the meetings,” said Robert Heiss, a Tremont resident new to the neighborhood. “People are encouraged to speak up and that’s really great.”
“I have a real concern about Tremont West Development not really attending to the needs of long-term residents, especially when it comes to property tax assessments. They’re not as aggressive as they should be,” said a woman from the Lincoln Heights Block Club that wished to remain anonymous.
“We were recently dropped by TWDC,” she said referring to a decision last April by the board of directors at TWDC to severe ties with the longstanding block club over voting issues and inclusive rights for non-property owners. “We continue to have a difference of opinion.”
Cynthia Chiplis thinks the neighborhood development corporation keeps the block clubs grounded but she’s tired of new construction projects popping up everywhere. “It’s getting out of hand and overgrown. Over developed and we’re over taxed. Where are the property tax rebates for long-time residents? What tax relief do we have?”
“I think we need more trash containers around the neighborhood,” said Randi Zubin an organizer for the Cuyahoga RiverSweep cleanups. “The trash containers are always filled. No one empties them. Where’s the enforcement for trash pickup?”
“As an artist for community projects, it’s been great to be able to use Tremont West as a fiscal agent to get grants,” said community activist and nationally recognized ceramic artist Angelica Pozo. Her public art projects can be seen throughout Cleveland. “I support their initiative to provide more affordable housing.”
“Increasing the population of the neighborhood and providing affordable housing sounds like a good idea except their definition is not very affordable,” added Tom Stewart, a Tremont resident for eleven years and homeowner for the last nine years.
“Maybe its affordable for a single young professional but not for a family. Their plan to increase population density, outlined in their ‘Corners and Corridors’ initiative, doesn’t excite me.”
Better public transportation options and more frequent bus service to the neighborhood were among a list of needs residents would like TWDC to address in the coming year.
John Zayac, former co-chair of the Duck Island Block Club and principal of the Project Group, a firm specialized in commercial, residential and industrial development, was blown away by the detail and level of commitment of TWDC staff.
“I’d like to see more cross marketing between Tremont, Detroit Shoreway and Ohio City,” he suggested. “There’s a lot to be said about co-marketing and sharing resources between the various CDC’s”
Service workers swept away the empty plates and glasses from tables while the kitchen staff covered and removed what was left of the main dishes. Carafes of white and red wine, and a tall stainless-steel coffee urn remained in place for anyone interested in an after-dinner drink.
Executive Director Cory Riordan introduced a list of speakers including Kate Carden, President of TWDC and Joe Adler, Ad Hoc Nominating Committee Chair.
Voting ballots were collected from across the room while speakers continued.
Dan Imfeld stood near the back with his arms crossed. Imfeld, a prospective Tremont West Board Member, was on the ballot for election. His qualifications to serve on the board of the active community organization included experience as a Financial Advisor, Certified Public Accountant, homeowner and resident of Tremont.
“I’ve lived here for a while. I want to give back to this diverse neighborhood and help it to prosper and be a place where people want to continue to live and visit,” he said.
When asked about the challenges facing TWDC, he thought about it for a moment before declining to comment.
Riordan read a list of successes for TWDC in the past year including thirteen new businesses, 300 new housing units approved, an overall increase in population with household income above $40,000, and a reduction in crime. Eight new properties were purchased for their Housing Inclusion Plan to provide affordable and low-income housing options increasing their portfolio to 18 units with the goal of purchasing 10 new units per year.
A roll out of the new TWDC website was presented, followed by Neighborhood Leadership Awards, committee reports, new business and announcements, and election results. Community awards were presented to:
Annual Holiday Food Drive – Metro North Block Club
Sammy Catania Developer of the Year Award – Matt Burgess
Business of the Year – affoGATO Cat Café
Gail Long Lifetime Achievement Award – Merrick House
Community Partner Award – Cleveland Public Library Jefferson Branch
Resident of the Year – Dan Lehman
Following a brief interlude by City Councilman McCormack, congratulating Riordan for his hard work and dedication with a round of applause, Adler read the list of voting results. Kate Carden, who ran unchallenged, was reelected with 114 votes. The five elected members of the board included Dan Cotter, Jamie Declet, Lynn McLaughlin Murray, Rich Sosenko, and Josh Wright, the only board member not to have served the previous term.
Carden opened the floor for public discussion.
Claude ‘Larry’ Cornett from West 6thStreet asked about clean-up plans for the soil contamination at Clark Field. An EPA report on efforts at cleanup had apparently been deleted from the EPA website, according to Cornett.
“I found links to the report have disappeared,” he later said. “I’m concerned about the plan for cleanup. I have some expertise in the area. The dirt mounds along the Towpath Trail worry me. Some of the soil associated with Towpath Trail could have come from the contamination under Denison Harvard Bridge. They used to make purified uranium under the Clark Avenue Bridge. I don’t know what happened to that soil. I want to make sure the trail is safe.”
“I used to be more active but I’m recovering from cancer,” he added. “I’m ready to get back into it.”
The meeting came to a close with residents filing out the door onto West 14thStreet. Cornett was about to leave when Riordan handed him a scrap piece of paper with a number written on it.
“Here’s the phone number with the Chicago EPA contact,” Riordan said then quietly disappeared back into the crowd.