Just released data this week looks at the broad impact of Northeast Ohio continuing its pattern of outmigration, and compares it to a new direction: Reinvesting in "legacy cities" while connecting destinations with greener forms of transportation. The Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC) Scenario Planning offers a peek and a chance to speak up about Northeast Ohio's future. It's not so much a prediction as a way of marking down the consequences of, will we focus on where growth occurs?
Representing more than 100 cities, counties and agencies like NOACA, a key funder of infrastructure, the regional planning effort also known as VibrantNEO is producing some eye-opening maps on the consequences of our current development pattern. At the same time VibrantNEO is presenting, it is also building the case for its members to do things differently.
VibrantNEO has a first cut of data from its $1.3 million contract with big Boston planning firm, Sasaki & Associates. It also has the early results of a preference survey where participants—from rural and urban counties — picked the future growth scenario they prefer. Both point to high favorability in the region for reinvesting in existing areas and preserving natural resources.
The survey: From Lorain to Mahoning, 1,000 residents of 12 counties so far have filled out the Imagine MyNEO survey (it is still open). In 10 of the 12 counties, cleaner air, water and land rose to the top of the priorities. For top policy, mixed-use development, a blend of residential and commercial in the same building, was picked. (The benefits to cities of bringing activities closer together include reduced pressure for parking, more space for public use, and making walking and biking more feasible). Under projects, those surveyed picked cleaning up abandoned properties and prep them for redevelopment as their top choice.
Scenario planning: Credit VibrantNEO for showing the region that doing “business as usual” will add up to a big bill for tens of thousands of abandoned properties.
They show exactly where the "abandonment crater” has opened up since the foreclosure crisis began around 2007, and where it will grow to Megalodon proportions by 2040 if we continue to act as if it can’t touch us.
VibrantNEO predicts that abandoned properties will grow to be larger than the Cuyahoga Valley National Park— 38,000 acres. Instead of creating abundance, Northeast Ohio’s communities would all feel the weight of its fiscal drain.
Now in its second round, VibrantNEO scenario planning will continue until a preferred future is selected. The group is supposed to recommend which policies and projects can preserve thousands of acres of prime farmland and forestall regionwide fiscal stress by the time we reach 2040.
It seems fairly certain that this week’s public workshops to pick a direction, a Preferred Scenario, will elevate the call that “business as usual” is unsustainable. But will the data and images of the future galvanize collective action? Will we feel the pressure to move in a new direction is still an open question.
The workshops present four options:
- Grow The Same (add population and jobs with the same policy and development practices in place)
- Trend (follow the same no growth and sprawl pattern)
- Grow Differently (by adopting new policy and practices)
- Do Things Differently (what if we do things differently within the same no growth trend)
The city of Cleveland has been losing population and jobs since the 1970s, while the region as a whole has remained near flat in growth.
The "Trend" means the region will "face a future of intense outward migration away from legacy cities, high rates of abandonment and new development over green spaces," Sasaki has determined.
On the other hand, if we adopt different policies — such as cities updating their zoning to allow mixed-use development — we "can produce radically different development patterns for Northeast Ohio. These patterns have significant implications on abandonment and fiscal stability."
The models and maps show how much these choices will preserve important farmland and open space. If we don't grow but change policy we will see a difference in conservation of 288,500 acres of parks and forested land, an increase from 8% in the Trend line to 16% in Do Things Differently.
Still, faced with overwhelming evidence and concern, what are Northeast Ohio’s leaders preparing to do collectively about it?
The question leaders should be receiving from VibrantNEO is, what collective action is going to result from the three year, $4.5 million regional study? The promise is for NEOSCC to deliver toolkits, policy reform and pilot projects.
The slow motion crisis that is draining the natural and human capital from Northeast Ohio calls for immediate, transformative action. Even if it is a well-aimed “silver bullet” project. In similar regional sustainability consortiums, even with deeply conservative majorities like Salt Lake City, Utah, community preferences translated into a singular, catalytic project—a $300 million streetcar that infused 6-miles of downtown with new life and billions in new development. (How many highway interchanges would it take to do the same?)
Is there a transit project that makes sense?
Cleveland has seen its $300 million investment in the Euclid Corridor return billions in reinvestment in the city's Midtown area. Similar to building the ballparks and the Rock Hall downtown, sometimes its easier to focus on a big ticket item. Does VibrantNEO have the ideas and the collective will to produce a big project like its colleagues in Envision Utah? What transit project would make the most sense here?
Streetcar lines are gaining favor as urban revitalization strategies in many American cities. It seems like streetcars are the new gold standard for expressing collective regional identity and pride in place. In can be argued that streetcars confer more benefits to the visitor than a city resident. Perhaps that's why no serious streetcar proposal like Cincinnati, Kansas City, Charlotte and many others have come up in Cleveland. On the other hand, it is possible to envision a streetcar in a dense (lots of residents living in proximity) suburb like Lakewood, or on the near west side of Cleveland serving the swelling population and local commercial districts.
Build on bus rapid transit?
Building on Cleveland's success with the Euclid Health and Tech Corridor may be more in line with Cleveland's need to spur economic development, and gain new "choice" riders who see BRT as a form of transit that mimics a streetcar. Transit and sustainability advocates have been waiting for the city and RTA to propose an expansion of its bus-rapid transit line.
Expand existing light rail service?
At its recent board meeting, NEOSCC executive director Hunter Morrison stated that focused reinvestment in well-connected transit areas was one conclusion of its fair housing study.
RTA planner Maribeth Feke responded that the transit agency already has plans waiting for investment in transit-oriented development in high volume transit corridors. The agency is seeking funds to expand its Blue Line train from Shaker Heights’ Van Aken ‘town center‘ redevelopment following transit-oriented development principles and creating links to the I-271/I-480 corridor. RTA also has federal funds to study expanding the Red Line from its current end in East Cleveland to the northeastern suburbs. Some discussions of light rail have surfaced that would strengthening the connection between Cleveland and west suburbs of Lakewood and Rocky River.
Where the rail expansion discussion may translate to projects that enhance the region’s walkable communities or add job access options will be up to us and our representatives in government. One thing is for certain: Collective action will be required that calls on the residents of all 50 or so municipalities to recognize that a streetcar or new bus-rapid transit between Cleveland and some of her suburbs or a light rail benefits us all. How? Just keep your mind’s eye fixed on the “abandonment crater”—do you want a smoking ruin the size of a national park, or would we rather see parts of East Cleveland and Cleveland’s east side developed as a vibrant transit corridor—a debt that we can manage and shrink. Think of how the national park creates abundance. Now imagine bringing that sort of thing closer to home.