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A year in sustainability: Big stories and trends shaping 2011

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/21/11 @ 8:16pm

Foreclosures slowed but continued to batter Cleveland and spread like a cancer across the suburbs of Cuyahoga County. How the region responds will be one of those make or break moments. One idea, the ReImagine plan from '09-10 with pinpointed vacant land reuse strategies-hit a lull in 2011. Large-scale projects are proving to be more of a sticky wicket.

On the bright side, the summer brought more seasoning and reasoning to big vacant lots. Urban farm start ups are out to prove their long term economic value. The six-acre Ohio City Farm and Stanard Farm in Hough flourished, while the city's other large scale urban farm in Central near Kinsman spun its wheels a bit, trying to figure out how to tie all the promise of Will Allen and a holistic approach to neighborhood social improvements together by leveraging $1 million in USDA and city grants.

Ohio City Farm benefited from a marketing bump and development plan from Ohio City, Inc. the nonprofit developer working on a Market District along bustling W. 25th Street. If the group can capitalize on more Capital One small business loans, the local retail cluster taking hold, and their plans to turn the corner and walk more vibrancy up Lorain Avenue, success will be rightfully theirs to declare.

Stanard Farm benefited from its benefactors at the County's Department of Developmental Disabilities and Cleveland Crops who are jumping into urban ag on vacant city land with both feet.

Cleveland Crops is one in a constellation of local food stars who gathered at the city's third annual Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit. The city's organizing force for sustainability continued to chug along-even with the city's Chief of Sustainability resigning- driving the conversation around local food for 2012. We look forward to hearing about how the city will play a significant role in local food: Is Mayor Jackson prepared to put his money where his mouth is and embrace local food through a major commitment of his own?

The 2019 summit will be measured in how it inspires those with more resources to respond, but arguably, it can inspire those to act if it plants a flag as a leader. As the 2019 Council promised three years ago, it needs to carry the ball and invest in good ideas that emerge from the summit, such as the Slow Money investment group (a 2019 group that emerged to work on a slow money economy in Cleveland). 2019 should be focused this year on how to start moving the dial on the 25% shift to local food laid out in the groundbreaking NEO Food Web study, and on ushering the Northeast Ohio Energy Alliance to launch.

It is being driven by the Cleveland Foundation, but the Evergreen Cooperative's literal groundbreaking in 2011 for its Green City Growers dovetails with the 2019 local food efforts. A massive greenhouse will be the center of a vacant land reuse effort near E. 55th Street and Kinsman Road that will produce three million heads of lettuce and a ton of herbs for local customers like Bon Appetite who committed to buy 25% of the worker-owned business' output.

Some of Cleveland's old-line manufacturers made headlines in 2011 for very visible investments in sustainability. Tremco, an energy efficiency and green roof maker, walked the talk with their impressive $5 million green retrofit of its Beachwood headquarters (promising to cut their electric bills in half). Lincoln Electric bought, unloaded from a ship at Cleveland's dock and erected a 443 ft. tall wind turbine capable of producing 2.5-megawatts of clean energy on its property on the far east side of Cleveland. GOJO was recognized by E4S for its sustainability manager and policy (which) "played a key role in our successful launch of the world's first green certified instant hand sanitizer."

It was a tumultuous year for E4S as its director and great sustainability champion, Holly Harlan, resigned. But its 9th annual Champions of Sustainability continued. This year's class included Doug Katz of fire food and drink, confirming what his legion of customers have known for years: "From firewood to flowers, Doug is always interested in localizing his purchases and sourcing the highest quality local products. And he's not afraid to try new things. He was the first chef in town to put local, grass-fed beef on his menu when others are still saying that it just can't be done?"

Another pillar of sustainability, the Northeast Ohio Green Building Council continued to drive an important conversation, from its green building challenges to parsing the data from its survey of attitudes among the local building, finance and development community about the state of green building. They started an inventory and map of LEED-certified, Energy Star and those projects following green building rating systems like Enterprise Green Communities.

Enterprise's green building system, and LEED for Homes, became a performance standard tied to the city of Cleveland tax abatement in 2011, fulfilling one of Mayor Jackson's long-held pledges. In order for developers to earn a residential tax abatement they are now required to follow a green building standard.

We're a little biased, but we think the GreenCityBlueLake Institute and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History knocked it out of the park with the construction of the PNC Smart Home, the first (but not the last) in Northeast Ohio to pursue Passive House standards. Not only did thousands of Clevelanders get to touch and feel how a house uses 90% less heating and cooling energy, they got to put it in perspective of the Science of Climate Change and with help from programs that explored topics like how is Northeast Ohio preparing for climate change? The Smart Home is inspiring the likes of Linda Butler, Carolyn Bentley, and efforts forming in South Euclid and Detroit-Shoreway to try their hand at Passive House construction or at least incorporate some of the innovative green systems like the Energy Recovery Ventilation unit.

Speaking of knocking it out, The Cleveland Indians continued to swing for the fences, announcing their plans to install a wind turbine at Progressive Field. The Indians are participating in MLB's energy reporting program, have introduced recycling to fans and are active participants in Cleveland's Green Venues Partnership which is working on a framework for the city's largest sports and arts venues to go deep with green.

Meanwhile the Browns are composting at their stadium, and the Cavs, well, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is in the midst of a massive downtown reinvestment plan centered on his casino at Tower City. Gilbert irked preservationists by knocking down the historic Columbia Building for a parking garage-a move that punches a hole in the urban fabric he pledged to repair and which does little to connect red hot E. 4th with his casino. Gilbert could make amends as a champion of the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge multi-purpose path-a $6 million investment in multi-modal connectivity. It needs a champion like Gilbert to push the city to finish the connection from where it will turn the corner at Ontario. There is plenty of space on the sidewalk in front of the Q and Progressive Field for a dedicated 'cycle track' that can complete an off-road bike connection from Ohio City to the newly opened downtown bike station by E. 4th Street.

Downtown is seeing an influx of college-educated residents, the Census showed, and that is creating a shortage of housing units, Crain's reported. It's a clear signal that dense, walkable, low-impact, vibrant communities-not isolated cul-de-sacs-are the choice of the young and educated. It even gave Mayor Jackson the confidence to throw his support behind converting Public Square into a car-free zone. It should be interesting to see how the new downtown residential population informs the work of the New Group Plan Commission to revamp the square and downtown's big, empty outdoor Malls.

In a larger sense, downtown's rise as a neighborhood is a sign for suburbs and exurbs considering how to attract development. It begins with outdated, large-lot zoning that will need to be updated to include more mixed-use zoning. Here we need to find consensus among the leaders of the $4 million Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities initiative-it boils down to how the region is zoned for sprawl, and has MPOs that walk in lock step using transportation to support sprawl instead of as a demand side management tool. The NEOSCC must provide the air tight case to city, suburb and township backed by a complete toolkit for change for those who want to update zoning and test pilot complete streets makeovers of overbuilt roads. The Sustainable Communities initiative's first step is getting city and suburb alike to the table to talk about the benefits of attracting new residents with infill, transit-oriented neighborhoods and new town centers.

They can also look to University Circle where development is booming. For the first time in recent memory, a major investment along Euclid in mixed-use retail and residential-anchored by the arts, with the Museum of Contemporary Art's stunning new building-is poised to shake the sleeping giant. All of the pieces are coming together to make this the top destination in the region, including RTA's announced $12 million grant from the Obama Administration's TIGER round three which will pay for a rebuild of a Red Line station at Mayfield Road (on a side note, we celebrated RTA's sustainability initiatives). This may finally be the catalyst for new, dense development in Little Italy and for converting Case's glut of surface parking lots into a mixed use neighborhood complete with a pedestrian only plaza like E. 4th Street.

Supporters of more sustainability in land use and transportation cheered when the city of Cleveland-with a big push from STAT and the city's Office of Sustainability-adopted Complete Streets legislation. More heartening news came from Cleveland Heights who embarked on a complete 'green' makeover of its zoning code, and when the city of Lakewood released its Bike Plan.

It was a big year for cycling advocacy in Cleveland. In 2010, the Access for All campaign started a dialogue across the region about why cycling and walking makes perfect sense on all roads. It started with the eye opening idea to include a multi-use path on the Innerbelt Bridge, which led to a $6 million concession that will pay for bike lanes on Abbey Avenue and a multi-purpose path on the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge. Members of the city's Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Transportation group, aka "STAT", earned a seat at the table, working with ODOT engineers (even taking them on a bike ride to survey) details of the Lorain-Carnegie project, including connections to Tremont and downtown. The behind-the-scenes work by STAT with the city and ODOT was nothing short of extraordinary; and it coincided with a big bike summit and the formation of a new bike advocacy group, Bike Cleveland who, with STAT, are building on their Innerbelt advocacy to address the city's decision to shift funding from a lakefront multi-use path to an interchange in the West Shoreway project.

While most of the world is grappling with rapid urbanization, the Midwest is still struggling with vacancy, a hollowing out of cities on a massive scale as sub-prime loans and flippers fueled an epidemic of foreclosures. The emptying was well underway due to globalization of industry and white flight that started a half a decade earlier and continues unabated today. Cities like Youngstown are trying to turn the corner by building on the strengths that only dense populations of humans can produce; the vibrant flow of information and interactions of living and working close to each other. We mention Youngstown because it deserves recognition as one of the first cities in Ohio to complete a Climate Action Plan (Akron being another). The city inventoried its carbon emissions and is identifying its ECONOMIC plans with aggressive emissions reductions targets.

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