Oakwood Club to Oakwood Commons

THE CASE FOR OAKWOOD COMMONS – a real win-win situation

…from Jane Goodman, the Councilwoman who represents the South Euclid ward in which most of the commercial uses and some of the natural space involved in this proposed development would reside; who served as outreach and education director for Clean-Land, Ohio/Parkworks for seven years, and who has had the same role for the past four years with the Cuyahoga River watershed and Remedial Action Plan Area of Concern, in which this property sits. In other words, after twenty years as an environmental activist in Northeast Ohio, I’ve earned my stripes and I don’t know of anyone who’d have the chutzpah to accuse me of not being green enough.

So here we are. Lots of people have lots to say about what should be done about the Oakwood Club property, but they don’t own it and neither do the cities they hope can do things cities are unable to do. Neither South Euclid nor Cleveland Heights had the wherewithal to purchase and maintain the property. We can, however, control to some extent the way in which whatever is done there is carried out. We have environmental protection laws, design standards, and, above all, the best interests of our city and our residents’ quality of life guiding us.

I truly believe that we have been given a golden opportunity to have a natural area for park space, hundreds of new jobs and millions in new revenues, all of which we so sorely need. We get to work with a developer who is willing to think outside the “big box” and make this a showcase for green development.

Here is my response to some of the most heard comments, and why I ask for support for this initiative and for the future of South Euclid as a model of innovation and a magnet for a new generation:

1. Zoning: It’s not a choice between commercial and parkland, it’s between commercial and residential.

Many seem to think that Council gets to decide between development or no development on that property, and it’s not the case since the city doesn’t own the land. We can only decide between commercial and residential or a combination thereof. Neither zoning designation would prohibit an owner from applying for a variance to use the land as park, nature center, urban farm or other nature-centered use.

2. Residential development would mean streets, paving, no guarantee of public access or any public park, and higher costs for community services borne by taxpayers.

The developer has to get his investment back and make a profit. Commercial development benefits him AND others (employees, the city) more than would residential property taxes and individual income taxes. So he’d have to jam as many homes as possible on the property.

A residential development, all private property, with roads and driveways and heavily fertilized and pesticide-laden monoculture lawns and exotic species landscaping means NO public access, NO public nature trails or native plantings or reforestation and definitely NOT the same level of improvement to the soil or watershed as is offered here.

Whether we rezone or not, the South Euclid space is NOT going to remain undeveloped. But with this plan, we get to save more than a third of the SE space and, if CH goes along, almost two thirds of the entire property would wind up as higher quality PUBLICLY ACCESSIBLE greenspace.

3. This deal would improve the environmental quality of the property in terms of soil, roots, canopy cover, streambank stabilization, sediment control, stormwater infiltration and management, plant and wildlife habitat and diversity, and water quality in Nine Mile Creek. We’d get a smaller amount of BETTER quality green space, and a net gain of trees over what’s there now.

Golf courses and groomed grassy parks are among the worst possible land uses from an environmental standpoint. They are almost as damaging, in some case more damaging, to the environment, surface water quality, air quality, fuel efficiency and water conservation, as a parking lot:

• The fertilizers used to keep turf and exotic species plantings green, which run off the surface as “non point-source pollution” are a major cause of the high nutrient, especially phosphate, levels that are now the primary pollution problem in Lake Erie.

• The pesticides used to control weeds also enter streams and degrade the population of aquatic micro-invertebrates that are the base of the food chain that supports wildlife in the area and in the lake.

• Vehicles used to mow and apply nutrients are notoriously non-fuel-efficient and are heavy contributors of unregulated emissions that keep us in a state of non-attainment for air quality, contribute to asthma and respiratory illness which has risen to alarming levels in this area. The less mowing the better.

• Surfaces become impermeable as topsoil is seriously degraded. Grass is mowed short, to require less-frequent mowing, but that means the root systems are shallow, so they hold little water. Removing cuttings means organic matter can’t build new topsoil. Water can’t infiltrate the hardpan that underlies the grass, so more water rushes off the surface into streams, adding to erosion and flooding.

• Mowing to the edge of streams causes banks to collapse and erode, sending sediment into streams, raising the base and distorting the stream’s ability to hold water.

• Watering the lawns is inefficient but necessary with turf grass and exotic species plantings.

• Groomed and landscaped areas such as golf courses and formal parklands are too often maintained with cost in mind, meaning limited varieties of exotic species of plants are installed more for ornamental, ease-of-maintenance or “neatness” values rather than a diverse collection of native plants that need less irrigation because deep roots provide water retention, and the natives provide food and shelter for birds and other wildlife.

This deal would leave more than a third of the SE space natural, restored from the degraded horrendous golf course condition it’s in now. Like the constructed wetland on Green, it would be restored to higher quality greenspace than it is today. AND with our new riparian code and landscaping code and the NPDES stormwater rules in place the developer will have to include considerable amounts of trees and plantings throughout the parking lots.

That would be a net gain in leaf cover, native plantings, soil and water quality and root penetration over the current situation over the South Euclid section of property.

3. Done right (and I plan to be relentless in pushing this) this could be a model for building green shopping centers.

We spend a lot of time talking about how builders can plan, pave and plant developments that reduce stormwater runoff, increase infiltration, improve forest canopy to shade cars, reduce auto emissions, use native plants to store water, and build energy efficient structures. And we have a tough time getting developers to DO these beneficial practices – BMPs, Best Management Practices.

Now, here’s someone who agrees that it would be mutually beneficial to make this a model using a range of these practices. This site sits adjacent to our Green Neighborhoods area, where we’re trying to bring people to see how to revitalize neighborhoods with green buildings. This site could become a model for how to build a green shopping center. And if any developer might possibly pull it off, it would be Schneider.

4. Commercial development would NOT necessarily depress housing values, but new residential development could.

Contrary to popular belief that says a commercial development would depress property values, the way this commercial site is laid out, its location vis a vis surrounding homes, and the fact that this is so close to the main commercial district at Cedar Road, it is more likely to increase the value of surrounding homes.

Development of a whole lot of new homes in this particular area could, however, depress the property values of the older homes in the surrounding neighborhoods just when we’re trying to renew those streets and draw buyers to them.

5. “We don’t need more retail.” Well, maybe not as a region, but as a city we surely do. And as a city with rising costs and diminishing receipts, we need it bad.

Many critics have charged that the developer should “fill the vacant spaces” before building new. There may be too much retail in the wrong place, but in fact in South Euclid there isn’t enough. We ask people to keep their shopping dollars in the community but in most cases that’s impossible. There’s no place in South Euclid to buy shoes or pants or a sweater, unless it’s a closeout at Marc’s. We have none of the chain retailers you shop at…the Target, Joann and Macy’s are in University Heights, the Home Depot and cool restaurants are in Cleveland Heights, the Pet Supplies Plus is in Lyndhurst and the closest book store is the Borders in Beachwood.

People are entitled to improve their quality of life by moving into a bigger, newer home that better suits their needs, and businesses should be able to do the same. AND why, I ask, should the people who live in my ward be forced to drive many miles, use a lot of gas, pollute the air and degrade our infrastructure in order to shop where they like?

And for people who live in Cleveland Heights, jam-packed with retail and rife with parkland – from Shaker Lakes to Forest Hills Park, Cain Park, Cumberland Park, etc., to tell us in South Euclid how much of either kind of land use we need or don’t need is just insulting. The vacant storefronts on Mayfield are the business of those building owners, over whom we exert no control. We wish they could fill them, and believe that Cedar Center and Oakwood Commons can power the magnet to bring small businesses to fill those spaces.

6. THIS TYPE OF DEVELOPMENT, IN THIS PLACE, IS ANTI-SPRAWL.

We decry urban sprawl and measure the shrinking of populations, and commenters would like cities like ours to acknowledge that fact and, presumably, throw up our hands and lie down and die. This project is the perfect solution for our landlocked city – new income and improved greenspace IN AN INNER RING SUBURB. It will draw shoppers and homebuyers back to our community.

This isn’t an exurb, it’s an urban community. Clustering development around the Cedar-Warrensville area is the sane way to provide products and services in walkable or short-trip ways that can reduce dependence on oil.

7. We’re not, as some would say, being “greedy” by attempting to increase revenues.

We, like those critics, have bills to pay. Costs keep rising but income doesn’t, and without raising residents’ taxes we’d be deep in the hole. It would be irresponsible of us not to look for ways to bring our revenue up to meet our expenses. That’s not greed, thats responsible governance. Even if the development produces conservative projected revenues, it would bring more than half a million (NOTE: I HAVE REDUCED THIS NUMBER FROM THE ORIGINAL POST, SO AS NOT TO SEEM OVERLY GIDDY OR NAIVE ABOUT PROJECTIONS.) to the city’s coffers each year in property and income taxes. If it reaches projections, it would put more than a million dollars into the CH-UH school system. And this developer is not even asking for tax abatements or TIF financing. That’s a real investment in our community.

8. YES, there are issues that will have to be addressed:

• Traffic is going to increase. But it’s been decreasing for almost twenty years. Counts show that traffic along Warrensville now is about half the volume it was in the mid-80’s.  Still, current residents have trouble with cut-through traffic, speeding, and lines of idling cars waiting for the light to change. The current light setup was designed for the current low volume. As traffic increases, however, and lights and lanes are reconfigured to accommodate entrance and exit from the Commons, we’ll have a chance to address those concerns.

• Access to the greenspace behind E. Antisdale needs to connect to the larger greenspace north of the stores and through a generous buffer strip behind the homes that actually back up to the parking area.

• Locally-owned businesses will lose some business to new retailers. We as a city need to make sure that these business owners get help promoting their businesses and marketing their services, and we need to continue to support them. It’s our responsibility to do so.

• Kids will hang out there rather than on residential street corners. (Some of the neighbors in surrounding streets will welcome this wholeheartedly.) The developer/management firm has an excellent track record for keeping its properties clean and safe. It provides its own security, with no tolerance for misbehavior. The demand for police and, to a lesser extent fire services, will still increase, even if it’s for traffic stops and other matters. Much of the new income will go to pay for more services.

• Walkability means foot traffic will also increase along side streets, and that’s where litter control will be an even bigger problem than it already is. Our block clubs and neighborhood organizations can help work on this.

• Yes, many of the jobs could wind up merely being transferred from one location to another if a store closes one facility to move here. And yes, this isn’t a medical office building, these are relatively low-to-moderate-wage jobs. So we have to be conservative when we talk about the net job gain for the area, and realistic when creating expectations about average salaries of new jobs.

• Finally we have to be diligent at every step along the design and approval and permitting process. Homes nearby need to be protected from noise, night lights, all the changes in quality of life that can come with changes like this.

• Stormwater regulations must be followed. We must have a working agreement as to the use of the “natural” space as a stormwater management BMP. It must be done in such a way as to give us REAL access.

I believe that the developer’s planning staff shares my passion about this and about the value of this asset as a demonstration and environmental education tool.

One of my favorite sentiments is this: If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got. I’m not crazy about what we have, so I think we should grab this chance to do something different.

Another philosophy I ask you to join me in making real is from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

This is our time to kickstart the revitalization of South Euclid. Either we go for broke or we go broke. Let’s just go.

I invite thoughtful comments to this post. If you just want to repeat the “it should be a park” or “we don’t need more retail” arguments, please resist.

About Jane

Jane Goodman is Executive Director of Cuyahoga River Restoration, and a twenty-year veteran environmental educator and "green coach" for businesses and individuals. She also serves as City Council President in South Euclid, Ohio, an inner ring suburb of Cleveland.
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One Response to Oakwood Club to Oakwood Commons

  1. Jane says:

    Dear jondoe,
    I am, in fact, an environmental educator by profession, work for the Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan, and have written two books on the subject of land use and watersheds, and so I come to this with some understanding of the situation. I’m also a former golfer. I am sure that there are golf course managers out there who try to use good practices, but the fact is that a major and very serious cause of organic pollution in Lake Erie is nonpoint source runoff of nutrients (fertilizers) from grass. Rain runs off because it doesn’t filter down, carrying with it fertilizers and pesticides, and that’s what makes it comparable to a parking lot.
    1. Turf grass, whether the varieties used for fairways or greens, is not native to North America, so no resident wildlife benefits from its presence and it requires irrigation since its roots are shallow and it neither stores more water than is evaporated daily through its blades nor directs water down into the soil where it can infiltrate and be stored;
    2. In order to keep the ways green you have to fertilize the grass. We both know that most courses save money by feeding the blades and not by spreading and combing in acres’ worth of organic compost to feed the roots. There’s just no way to get that rich, green turf that country clubs require without heavy doses of nitrogen, or strong plant tissue without phosphorus, and those are the two biggest nutrient problems in Lake Erie at the moment. Much of that nutrient pollution is coming from excess fertilizers running off the surface into streams. Look at the edges of Oakwood’s stream segments of Nine Mile Creek and you see that’s the case.
    3. Fairways and greens are monocultures, and there’s just no way to keep those weed-free without using herbicides. I don’t know about your course or your practices, but here, and at Oakwood, that is the case. We know this by sampling the water flowing off the property and through Nine Mile Creek. New, eco-conscious practices are gaining ground but progress is slow and habits die hard.
    4. For various reasons (making it easier to get the ball out of the stream?) managers mow grass to the edge of streams, which promotes erosion and sedimentation, which is absolutely the worst thing you can do for stream health and is also a serious ecological problem in this watershed. This is why riparian setbacks and plantings are required in most communities’ building codes (including ours, now) as non-structural Best Management Practices (BMPs) for stormwater management and water quality.
    5. Finally, the infiltration rate of golf course turf is only slightly higher than that of concrete. Both absorb small amounts of precipitation but do not allow much infiltration. Frequent shallow watering makes shallow roots and hard subsoils. Period.

    I wish it weren’t the case, and I know that many many golf course owners and clubs do their best to modernize their practices and to make their courses healthy pieces of the environment. But not enough are able to do so, either because of the additional expense or the American love of perfect turf.

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