Reported ArticlePlanning

Does Cleveland’s Plan for Public Green Space Pave the Way for Gentrification?

Who gets to benefit from neighborhood revitalization efforts, and at what cost?


After decades of decline, Cleveland officials and community stakeholders have been making strides to rehabilitate the city’s image as the “mistake on the lake.” They’re aiming to rebrand Cleveland as a sustainable “green city on a blue lake,” and the Lake Erie waterfront is expected to be the pillar of the city’s revitalization efforts.

These efforts include a controversial plan to redevelop an almost 30-acre manufactured home community into green space to unite city parks that adjoin it on either side and expand public lakefront access.

The plan—the Euclid Beach Neighborhood Plan—aims to create an asset for community use for generations to come, an indisputable public good were it not for one caveat: roughly 100 households will be displaced from the Euclid Beach Mobile Home Community, many of whom have lived in the park for decades and are on fixed incomes. These residents may not be among the beneficiaries of this new green space, a fact that has ignited fierce debate on who gets to enjoy this public good, and at what cost.

“Most people feel disconnected from the lake right in their own backyard,” says Andrew Sargeant, director of open space and planning at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, an organization that led a two-year communitywide land-use planning process to decide the fate of the site. “This is part of a larger discussion about what it means for Clevelanders to have access to the lake and making those lands available where we can.”

The city’s more affluent West Side has a sprawling public green space of its own along the lake called Edgewater Park. The prospect of bringing a comparable asset to the city’s East Side excited city officials, the Western Reserve Land Conservancy (WRLC), which currently owns the land on which the manufactured housing community sits, and partners involved in the neighborhood plan. After all, the East Side has been historically neglected by the city’s major development projects, and it also has been largely cut off from waterfront access by the Interstate 90 Shoreway.

Cleveland’s more affluent West Side has a sprawling public green space along the lake called Edgewater Park. City officials and community stakeholders are planning to bring a similar asset to the East Side. But that means closing a manufactured housing community to build a park. Photo by Maxwell Pearl via flickr CC BY 2.0 DEED

“We’re talking about commercial activity on Lakeshore Boulevard,” says Sargeant. “Can we use that open space improvement as an economic benefit or catalyst for further commercial development along the corridor?”

Housing advocates, however, suspect this redevelopment project will trigger “green gentrification,” defined by CUNY sociology scholars Kenneth Gould and Tammy Lewis as “physical and socio-cultural exclusion and displacement of underprivileged residents originated from environmental planning strategies and the incorporation of new environmental amenities.”

“We don’t know exactly what all of this is going to look like, but things are very much ripe for something like that to occur with this application at Euclid Beach,” says Josiah Quarles, director of organizing and advocacy with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.

That’s why a resident group of manufactured housing residents and advocates like the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless have joined in a campaign to save the community. They are pursuing alternatives to displacement, months away from the community’s closure date on Aug. 31. “We can’t present a false choice of, ‘If you want to have breathable air, we have to put these parks in and that means all the affordable housing that you have access to evaporates,” says Quarles. “It’s not going to be perfect, but it didn’t have to be this.”

Once the community is closed and WRLC converts it into green space, the land trust will give the property to the Cleveland Metroparks park system, which owns the land surrounding the site.

The prospect of gentrification certainly troubles Isaac Robb, WRLC’s vice president of planning and urban projects. “Those concerns are absolutely real,” Robb says. “But what’s the bigger concern, existing homeowners not being able to keep up with maintenance because their values have dropped, and they haven’t been able to refinance their house to put on new siding? Or is people seeing an opportunity based on the low value and taking advantage, increasing prices, and then making communities unaffordable the greater threat? I don’t know. But both have really negative consequences.”

Green gentrification isn’t Robb’s primary concern, he says, citing a study that shows there are no clear patterns of green gentrification in Cleveland, and a city housing plan that shows displacement occurs primarily because of limited economy opportunity and persistence poverty.

Nishani Frazier, director of public history at North Carolina State University, has studied the very land where the property sits for her book, Harambee City: The Congress of Racial Equality in Cleveland and the Rise of Black Power Populism, which explores the tides of racial tension in the city during the Civil Rights era.

She thinks the potential benefits to low-income homeowners are a bit of a stretch. “How does their green space help people put siding on their homes?” says Frazier. “This whole thing is answering a question with a question to obfuscate the grotesqueness of their own participation in removal.”

A perennial problem for Cleveland is the difficulty of revitalizing struggling areas of the city without displacing longtime residents living on fixed incomes. 

In 2004, the city introduced a program that included a 15-year, 100-percent tax abatement maximum for all new construction and acquisition rehabs. It was intended to increase investment in the city, but in practice, it incentivized market-rate development, as it was used by developers working in already trendy neighborhoods or those that were already experiencing investment aimed at serving the affluent, rather than in struggling neighborhoods. This exacerbated existing inequities, according to an analysis by the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability.

“Used in this way, the tool has provided no benefit to homeowners,” says the report, and instead has “invited new development, which is increasing property taxes.”

Margarita Triguero-Mas, co-coordinator of urban environment, health, and equity at the Barcelona Laboratory, has studied green revitalization efforts in Cleveland specifically, as well as their potential to trigger displacement. In her research, she found that many local stakeholders dismissed the threat of gentrification given that the city has yet to reverse its population decline. “Some say that other parts of the city, like the predominantly Black East Cleveland, are apparently ‘too poor’ or ‘too Black’ to be gentrified.” Consequently, few green revitalization projects have explicit and intentional anti-gentrification interventions embedded within their planning processes.

Robb says he sees a different challenge. “Cleveland proper is one of the poorest cities from a per capita income standpoint in the country. . . . If we can get external resources to pay for public improvements in the city, I think that is part of how we view this from an equity lens standpoint. The hope is [that] the people who benefit are residents who are within proximity to this future, public green space. And this is not coming [from] entrance fees or increased taxes on those people living in direct proximity to this public asset.”

History does not agree with Robb’s assessment, says Frazier.

“What happens when green space comes into an area that is designated as unused and blighted?” she says. “It’s the beginning of a process in which you are changing the whole landscape.”

Many would actually welcome that change, including Polensek. “I would love for that to happen,” he says. “At the end of the day, I want to see this area reinvigorated. I want to see it become a commercial asset to the neighborhood as it once was.”

His viewpoint is echoed across the city, in which greening efforts rarely consider how environmental amenities exacerbate existing social and racial inequities because they’re seen as an inherent public good, one in a suite of much-needed public investments that the city’s most disenfranchised areas do desperately need after decades of decline. But research has shown that when it’s the only investment made in a community, gentrification quickly follows.

Polensek dismissed the concern, pointing to his active pursuit of affordable housing development in the neighborhood as offsetting the threat.

Sargeant isn’t particularly worried, either. “Most of the land that we’re talking about for redevelopment is publicly owned and will be held for infill development,” he says. “They’re not going to be turned over to private developers to do whatever they want with it, so there’s at least that sustainable aspect of it.”

He also pointed to Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb’s “Residents First” housing reform legislation, which he says is intended to protect the area against gentrification after the park is created. Shelterforce reached out to the mayor’s office to clarify what those protections would be, but the office did not respond to requests for comment.

“Again, the land use plan is a recommendation about what is the highest and best use,” Sargeant says, reiterating that the plan produced a vision for the entire area—not just the manufactured housing community.

“I really cannot stand ‘the highest and best use case,’” says Frazier. “It always falls into the category of green space, which, you need to say, is not green space for the surrounding community but green space for people you intend to be there.”

In fact, Frazier refutes the claim that this new public asset is meant to benefit the local community at all.

“This is also another very well-known reality of gentrification: eviction allows easy access for gentrification,” says Frazier. “And then you do it to a group of people who are a vulnerable class by virtue of being renters. These are all tools of gentrification. Everybody knows it. It’s not rocket science, nor is it a secret.”

By its very nature, she said, green space has a direct impact on housing affordability in the surrounding area. “You’re creating a space that is intended to drive up the price of homeownership, which means that you also didn’t take into account that proximity to such a location will drive up the taxes for folks who are butting up against it,” she says. “It’s intellectually dishonest on its face.”

Robb disagrees. “In my mind, it’s a precarious proposition to take the position that communities with low and moderate incomes that may lack the public and private assets of more affluent places should not be invested in because of the risk of increased taxes. This same line of reasoning could extend to a grocery store, a really good elementary school, or essentially anything that could be perceived as positive.

“What is important is to ensure that there is ample participation and dialogue through the planning and design processes of these types of investments, so that the park, or grocery store, or whatever public or private amenity adequately reflects the shared values of the community and is not being used as a tool to attract and replace existing residents,” says Robb.

Ultimately, the debate boils down to how stakeholders value the land. The land-use plan by Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, which included residents of the whole area over a multi-year process, concluded that the best use of the property would be public lakefront green space, where the local community can access the water and which can inspire economic investment to begin pouring back into the area.

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