Public left out of initial plans for a new west side “relief” high school
by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, September 2004) On Tuesday August 24 th at a meeting with about forty business owners and other stakeholders from the Stockyard neighborhood, the Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD) unveiled plans to build a new west side relief high school at the corner of W. 65 th and Storer Avenue. Stakeholders at the meeting raised many questions about the appropriateness of the 15-acre site, which stretches south along W. 65 th from K-Mart to Storer Avenue . The area around the proposed site contains a mix of industrial and retail properties.
Those attending the meeting asked why the public or even a core team of neighborhood representatives hadn’t been asked to participate in helping to choose a site. They wondered why a traffic study hadn’t been completed before selecting the site and what criterion the Cleveland Municipal School District used to pick the site. With the design for the building already completed and the site already chosen, many wondered if their input would have any meaning.
Lynnette Jackson, Schools Planning Chief for the Office of Mayor Jane Campbell, promised the “community would be involved and engaged” in the planning process and “always have input.”
Paul Flesher, Chief of Facilities Services for the Cleveland Municipal School District, said the need to build a new west side high school rose from overcrowding at John Marshall, Lincoln West and Rhodes, the three comprehensive high schools now on the west side. Cost for the new high school is estimated at $42 million.
Asked why the school is needed now after the public was told in 1995 that there were not enough students to keep West Tech open, Flesher responded that the school system was keeping children in school longer. He said graduation rates are up and dropout rates are down. (Editor’s note: In 1995 community activists warned the district that its student population projections used to justify closing West Tech were based on continued failure to keep kids in school. At the time the graduation rate was less than 30% of the students starting high school; currently it is just over 40%).
According to Flesher, plans were kept under wraps until a site was selected because of concerns about land acquisition for the high school. He said at least 12-14 acres were needed for a high school and such a site was hard to find. Flesher said the architects began working on the technical and educational aspects of the proposed high school while waiting for the site to be determined. Flesher said CMSD has not yet purchased any properties, but is negotiating with property owners to acquire the properties at W. 65 th and Storer. CMSD hopes to complete property acquisition by spring of 2005.
Ward 17 Councilman Matt Zone offered some background on site selection. He said the CMSD wanted a site in either Ward 17 or Ward 18, areas served by the former West Tech High School . When a number of possible sites were presented in the target area, the district decided its preferred location was West 65 th and Storer Avenue .
Zone said he told the school district he would support their decision based on a number of criteria, including meeting with the area business community early in the process, offering fair market value and relocation fees to businesses asked to move to make way for the school, offering help so businesses could relocate in Cleveland, keeping the community involved in the planning process and working with area businesses to resolve concerns about the high school proposed for the neighborhood.
After close questioning of Flesher by those in attendance, it seems that the site at W. 65 th and Storer was chosen largely in a process of elimination, as other sites were rejected for various reasons. A site owned by WIRE-Net behind Zone Rec was deemed inappropriate. A site of abandoned warehouses between W. 63 rd and W. 65 th near Stock Avenue was rejected because the properties had multiple owners. Flesher said the W. 65 th and Storer site was chosen because it had fewer property owners to negotiate with.
The two firms chosen to design the building, OWP/P Architects of Chicago and Cleveland based Richard L. Bowen + Associates, presented their plan for a two-story structure designed to utilize the new “small school” concept. Accomodating a total of 1400 students, the building will be divided into four separate high schools, each with less than 400 students. An area containing the cafeteria, recreational and athletic facilities can be closed off from the academic section of the building for use as a resource for the community, said the architects. The site plan would also leave an area for a future 5,000-seat stadium and football field. Plans call for an agreement with K-Mart for possible overflow parking for events at the stadium. Flesher said while no funds were currently available to build the football field, the CMSD hopes to ask the Cleveland Browns and other local sports teams to contribute to building that new facility.
A local business owner, noting the high volume of morning traffic in the neighborhood, asked if a traffic study had been completed before selecting the site. Flesher replied “no”, but said the district has dealt with worse situations. The owner of a warehouse directly across the street from the proposed entrance on Storer Avenue said he had semi trucks pulling in and out of his facility. In a collision of a semi and a school bus, he warned, the semi would win.
Alex Brazynetz, Executive Director of Stockyard Redevelopment Organization, noted that the local K-Mart already has the largest incidence of reported crime in the neighborhood. He wondered what security measures would be put in place for adding 1200+ kids to that mix after school. Architects said they met with K-Mart and incorporated defensible space into the design, resulting in placement of the school’s entrance on Storer and the football field between the school and K-Mart. Flesher said there have been discussions with K-Mart over security concerns.
Asked if the Regional Transit Authority had been consulted about public transportation to the site, Flesher said RTA had not been consulted but there were buses already going past the site. (Editor’s note: some of those buses have been temporarily rerouted near the site during the rebuilding of the bridge at Ridge and Denison .)
Given the desire to open part of the new school as a community recreational facility, it was asked whether a joint effort with the city of Cleveland to build a joint high school/recreation center at the 18-acre site of Zone Recreation Center was considered.
It was noted that the Zone site was more centrally located for walking students in the target area and was more accessible to public transportation. A request was made for a comparison of the costs and benefits between the Zone Recreation Center site and the W. 65 th Street and Storer site.
Flesher said the Zone Recreation Center had not been considered, but a site directly behind it had been considered and rejected. Councilman Zone initially said that two years of planning for the green space at Zone had just been completed and “abandoning the space didn’t seem like the right thing to do.” After consideration, Zone later said it was the first he heard of the idea of a joint recreation center and school on the Zone Recreation Center site, and felt it is worth considering. He noted the closeness of the new rapid station to the site. The pool at the recreation center, Zone said, needs to be closed for repairs.
The proposal to build a school facility that could be opened as a recreation center is one that has been tried before in Cleveland at the Martin Luther King building at E. 71 st Street and Hough Avenue . Built in the 1970s, the facility has never been opened as a community recreation center largely because the school system could not afford to do so, and the city of Cleveland Thurgood Marshall Recreation Center was nearby. Two local examples of successful high school/ recreation center combinations are located at John Marshall High School and South High School . Both recreation facilities are run by the city of Cleveland , both have pools, and both serve as the recreation center for the neighborhood.
George Cantor of the City Planning Commission admitted that the site at W. 65 th and Storer, “is not the ideal location for a high school.” He said initial plans for the site called for expanded retail in the neighborhood. He said the retail possibilities are softer now that a developer plans to build a regional retail shopping center on land the International Steel Group is selling on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River.
Schools Planning Chief Jackson of the Mayor’s Office promised questions presented in writing by participants would be addressed. Participants were given the opportunity to sign up to participate on the core planning team for the school. Future core planning team meetings and larger public meetings were promised to discuss plans for the new school.
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