Questioning Cleveland's Undying Faith in Development

Cleveland is a real estate town, someone once told me. We’re home to Forest City Enterprises, Developers Diversified. Real estate development is part of the culture here and often seen as the highest form of economic development, probably just sort of by default, without thinking about it.

We’re just emerging from the biggest real estate bust in a generation, but the lust for development doesn’t seem to have abated. Economic development officials have taken to touting how downtown Cleveland, or Cleveland, is currently seeing $5 ($7 $12?) billion — as if that were indisputable evidence the city is rebounding.

A big chunk of that is public money. Cleveland just cut the ribbon on a $500 million new convention center (the last administration’s “save the city” project). That is not something civic boosters typically make a point of. And that’s a project I feel awfully leery about. Was $500 million for a convention center the best use of public money? It’s too late now, I guess, to debate that. The point is, in Cleveland, public officials and economic development professionals are very focused on development. Sometimes I wonder how thoughtful, or wise, that is.

Cleveland is getting ready to make another major public investment in the name of development. This project is called the “Opportunity Corridor” and it’s a 3-1/2 mile road through an area called “the Forgotten Triangle,” an area of Cleveland that has seen more abandonment than any other part of the city. The project — a $350 million project funded in large part by the state — is to spur development. Project proponents are pretty clear about that.

There are 1,000 acres of vacant land around the proposed road, much of it brownfields, and the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the lead advocate for the project, pictures it redeveloped as manufacturing space. Billions of dollars in payroll, they have projected. The fact that the project won’t actually be that useful for city residents, from a transportation perspective, well, that’s sort of a non-issue, or at the least, a less important issue than this prospect of development everyone is so focused on. The fact is, development — developing these abandoned acres — is seen as a top civic priority. Improving transportation options for Clevelanders, just isn’t.

The problem with this is, if Cleveland uses its transportation money to spur development, and not improve transportation, transportation in Cleveland — and in turn quality of life for residents — will suffer. It would be one thing to use transportation money to spur development if Clevelanders’ transportation needs were unquestionably already well met. But that is certainly not the case. So transportation and quality of life is being subverted for development, without really even a discussion taking place about whether this is wise. Why? It is just taken as a matter of faith in Cleveland that development is the most important thing.

I was complaining about this on Twitter recently and one of my followers asked: Is Cleveland growing? To which I replied: Ha! His response was: If Cleveland isn’t growing, it’s not really development, “but a spatial change in active/abandoned land distribution.” Which I thought was a pretty compelling point.

The idea that investing $350 million in new highway infrastructure will create new manufacturing jobs, seems awfully optimistic to me. There are plenty of brownfields that have been cleaned up by the city of Cleveland on the west side and all over the city that are waiting for a buyer. And it makes sense: manufacturing isn’t exactly booming (even though it has rebounded some since the recession).

Transportation projects, I think, will really only “create” jobs to the extent that they result in efficiencies that improve productivity pretty measurably. Now, back in maybe the 1930s, adding a highway in Cleveland probably would have improve efficiencies pretty dramatically, enough to spur a lot of jobs. These days, we have a lot of road connections already. There are places with convenient highway access all over the state and the country.

Frankly, I don’t see what will be so special about this space, that manufacturing businesses will come flocking. This road also will not produce tremendous efficiency gains. I was debating on WCPN recent with the Greater Cleveland Partnership’s Deb Janik how many minutes this would shave off a trip to the Cleveland Clinic from the suburbs. (I said 3 minutes, she said that was low but did not provide a higher figure.)

Anyway, this will be another $350 million the GCP can add to their total development pricetag for the region, even though it’s public money, and borrowed money at that. And that is how we measure progress around here, so Deb Janik and Frank Jackson and John Kasich and all the other political officials that were involved in this can high five each other and consider it a success. After all, shovels will break ground. Construction firms will get contracts.

Will the project improve people’s lives though? That is harder to measure. Other cities — for example I was just in Salt Lake City — are using their transportation dollars to create walkable, livable, urban communities, to improve job access and improve environmental outcomes. They’re doing that by investing in light rail and streetcars and “cultural trails” and a while variety of innovative, forward-looking things. They’re trying to attract talent. Trying to reach, not these illusive unmoored manufacturing firms were so fond of chasing in Ohio, but talented people, knowledge workers, etc. It’s sort of, you might say, a 21st Century strategy.

Cleveland lost 17 percent of its population in the last 10 years. I think it’s time we put a little more focus on meeting residents’ needs, improving quality of life. Somehow there never seems to be enough money for that, but we can always find money for the next big silver-bullet development.

We’ll attach a figure to it and say the city is rebounding. That figure will be a dollar number that sounds good. I wonder how these projects would be different if the numbers were were touting were poverty rates, or infant mortality rates, or job access rates or air quality measures instead. But those kinds of numbers are more important, they’re harder to boost and they don’t tell a very compelling story right now about Cleveland’s “rebound.”

-A.S.

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