Cleveland’s struggling Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Eager For Rebirth as Arts District

From the Plain Dealer 8/26/12

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Cleveland’s struggling Mount Pleasant neighborhood eager for rebirth as arts district (photo gallery)

Published: Saturday, August 25, 2012, 6:00 PM     Updated: Saturday, August 25, 2012, 6:58 PM
Leila Atassi, The Plain Dealer 
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cleveland City Councilman Zack Reed says his Mount Pleasant neighborhood is ready for its Renaissance.

And with a $75,000 grant from the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency to study traffic patterns and retail development potential near the intersection of Kinsman Road and Union Avenue, Reed said the stage is set.

That is, if investors are willing to take a chance.

Driving through the embattled East Side community on a sunny, August morning, Reed looked past the scars of the foreclosure crisis and decades of disinvestment and extolled the neighborhood’s virtues.

Key areas along Kinsman are ripe for redevelopment, he pointed out.

Demolition is clearing the way for potential parks and, he hopes, a new library. And vacant storefronts are practically inviting entrepreneurs to set up shop, he said.

“There is no reason why someone can’t put a coffee shop right there,” Reed said, pointing to a small abandoned storefront on Kinsman Road, just west of East 130th Street. “Investors need to realize that folks in this neighborhood drink coffee, too. We’re just not going to pay $5 a cup.”

Reed said he’s tired of fighting the perception that Mount Pleasant is a crime-ridden urban wasteland. It is, rather, a neighborhood rich in African-American history. Once a mecca for middle-class blacks, it was home to a litany of Cleveland celebrities, including Jim Brown, Arsenio Hall and legendary politicians Carl and Louis Stokes.

Reed envisions an arts and entertainment district in Mount Pleasant that capitalizes on that folklore and could serve as a destination for visitors seeking Cleveland’s “African-American experience.”

Galleries could feature African American art, he says. A cultural museum and murals on buildings along the corridor could tell the story of Mount Pleasant. Restaurants, coffee shops and live entertainment venues would round out the neighborhood’s offerings. 

Revisiting a decade-old revitalization plan

As bold as it is, Reed’s vision is nothing new.

At one time the area was taking baby steps toward a comeback, said Thomas Stone director of the community development corporation Mt. Pleasant NOW, which will administer the NOACA grant.

About a decade ago, the agency commissioned a similar retail market study that revealed that the neighborhood could draw as much as $60 million a year in business if it found a way to capitalize on its 150,000-square feet of available commercial space. The CDC developed an ambitious revitalization strategy that broke a longer stretch of Kinsman into five districts, each with its own theme and flavor — maximizing its existing assets.

One end of the expanse would offer intergenerational housing and opportunities for youth and seniors to interact, just west of the intersection of Kinsman and Union Avenue, an area that would serve as the town square and the central hub of activity.

A retail district and an educational campus anchored by the relatively new Andrew J. Rickoff Elementary School would unfold farther East on Kinsman, followed by a commercial-residential zone serving as a gateway between Mt. Pleasant and neighboring Shaker Heights.

Stone said the CDC began investing in commercial space for renovation and in 2007 had persuaded Key Bank to relocate its local branch to a planned commercial strip. But with the recession, the CDC had trouble enticing retailers to fill the other storefronts, and the deal derailed.

Today, the agency owns about 30,000 square-feet of commercial space, nearly half of which Stone said is move-in ready, including a 5,000-square foot former auto parts store that the CDC renovated into “the perfect location for a nice sit-down restaurant.”

But so far, there are no takers. 

What it takes to save a neighborhood 

Terry Schwarz, director of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, which designed the original Kinsman plan 10 years ago and is on the team revisiting it now, said the success of any urban revitalization effort hinges on several factors — some of which might be out of the neighborhood’s control.

Successful neighborhoods have a critical mass of population to support businesses, strong political leaders willing to champion projects and fight for investments in streets and other infrastructure, she said. Just as important, is a neighborhood’s location and existing assets.

For example, University Circle boasts a variety of museums, Severance Hall and proximity to the hospitals. The West Side neighborhoods of Ohio City and Tremont encircle the popular Westside Market. And historic theaters anchor the Gordon Square district in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

Mount Pleasant, on the other hand, is an out-of-the-way enclave, its population hit hard by the foreclosure crisis and middle-class flight to the suburbs.

A map prepared in April by the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University shows the area surrounding that key stretch of Kinsman, bleeding with red, indicating properties in active foreclosure. Dozens of parcels are marked with stars, noting vacant structures, a handful set for demolition.

With a weakened private market, Schwarz said, struggling neighborhoods would be wise to seek investment from non-profits, such as Neighborhood Progress Inc., which supports community development and serves as a funnel for grant money from philanthropic foundations and area banks.

Schwarz said NPI’s involvement in any revitalization plan also serves as a seal of approval that could encourage private investors to take a chance.

But resources are limited for the philanthropic community, too, and must be strategically disbursed. Often the process of determining which neighborhoods get funding looks a lot like triage, she said.

Last year, NPI announced it would divide $1.8 million from the Mandel, Cleveland and George Gund foundations, Enterprise Community Partners and local banks among nine Cleveland community development corporations that have proven histories of improving their neighborhoods and stirring potential growth.

Mt. Pleasant NOW was not among them.

But NPI President Joel Ratner said in an interview Friday that his organization is committed to helping Mt. Pleasant NOW identify resources and develop a unified vision. And he encourages planners and leaders of the movement to “think big.”

“I applaud the ambition,” Ratner said. “Look at Detroit-Shoreway. If years ago you had said, ‘We can raise $25 million dollars for an arts and entertainment district in that neighborhood,’ everyone would have laughed in your face. The vision will never be too ambitious, as long as it’s a shared vision.”

Mt. Pleasant NOW and its team of planners will invite residents to offer input at a public meeting held at the agency’s Kinsman Road office Sept. 22, during a neighborhood arts festival.

In the meantime, Stone said, his organization will continue working toward stabilizing the neighborhood, one block at a time.

The CDC chose a residential area consisting of six streets north of Kinsman and developed a plan for each parcel, whether it be demolition, community gardens on vacant lots, renovation for sale or rebates to homeowners who give their properties a facelift.

The agency also has secured grant money to develop plans for the Mt. Pleasant Loop — a network of green spaces encircling the neighborhood that could be traveled by foot or bicycle. The agency is in the process of taking inventory of properties it needs to acquire and structures that must be razed.

Stone said he hopes those efforts to breathe life into Mount Pleasant will embolden investors poised to take a chance on the neighborhood.

“All neighborhoods can be saved,” Stone said. “Perhaps not all parts of the neighborhood. But if we can just gather momentum, one business owner might see another embrace Mount Pleasant. And we can thrive on those success stories.”

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