Without a Plan, Sprawl Will Continue to Hollow Out Cleveland Region

Photo: Angie Schmitt
Places like Woodlawn Avenue in East Cleveland are languishing while investment in the region flows to car-based exurbs. Photo: Angie Schmitt

If you want to get a sense of how devastating sprawl has been to the urban areas of northeast Ohio, head over to Woodlawn Avenue in East Cleveland. Between the rows of boarded up buildings, a house collapses onto itself. Graffiti pays homage to dead loved ones — “R.I.P. Fife.” Nearby, stuffed animals have been stapled to a telephone pole in a memorial, presumably, to a dead child.

Travel thirty miles west to Lorain County, and they’re laying sewer pipe for a new housing development. The housing market is strong in exurban Avon, where a new highway interchange has spurred a rush in commercial real estate development on what was once forests. Here residents can commute an easy 35 minutes by highway to downtown Cleveland, while avoiding the higher taxes that come with closer-set communities, burdened by old infrastructure and the cost of providing social services to less affluent residents.

It’s a pattern that can’t be reversed without the type of comprehensive planning that the Obama administration has encouraged through its Sustainable Communities Initiative, which would receive a substantial boost with the passage of the Livable Communities Act.

For decades, residents of greater Cleveland have been moving up and moving out. In fact, long ago, East Cleveland itself was founded by industrialists, including John Rockefeller, who were seeking shelter from what they thought were exorbitant city tax rates.

But that’s not what makes this region a special example of the destructive impacts of laissez-faire development. Housing works this way in many, if not most, mid-sized American cities, with less disastrous results. The difference in metro Cleveland is that, roughly since the 1970s, the regional population has been stagnant. That means, in essence, for every house built in Avon, a house in East Cleveland — or the city of Cleveland, or, increasingly, one of the inner-ring suburbs — is abandoned.

The result has been devastating for the central city and the smaller residential communities that encircle it.

Blighted, vacant homes discourage investment, weakening the already depressed urban housing market. Residential demolition costs anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 per house, and that’s if there are no complications, such as asbestos or auxiliary structures. This cost becomes an additional burden for the urban municipality, even as it hemorrhages property tax revenues. As a result, city services suffer, and the downward spiral continues, carrying middle-class families further outward, isolating the poor in the center.

Meanwhile, metro Cleveland’s regional planning agency, NOACA, has maintained a neutral policy regarding sprawl — which is to say, it has no policy. Regional land use planning has been a political non-starter for the agency, which is governed by a board of roughly three dozen politicians, representing urban, suburban and exurban interests in approximately equal measure.

A few weeks ago, however, NOACA’s governing board quietly took a small step forward — one that could have big ramifications for the region. Board members passed a resolution agreeing to apply for a federal grant to conduct regional land use planning through the Obama administration’s Sustainable Communities Initiative. With support from the local philanthropic community, the Cleveland area will be pursuing a planning grant, in coordination with the regional governing bodies in nearby Youngstown and Akron.

The grant would provide up to $5 million to conduct regional planning related to land use, economic development, environmental quality, housing and transportation for the Cleveland area. Supported by the budding partnership between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Transportation, the grant would require the Cleveland region to determine which areas are appropriate for future development and which are not. This document would, for the first time, guide transportation and planning decisions with an eye toward sustainability.

Regionalism has been a buzzword in northeast Ohio for years. Urban and suburban leaders alike have been repeatedly exposed to the message that they should be cooperating, coordinating, even consolidating. And the urgency of the message is undeniable. Within Cuyahoga County, home to the city of Cleveland, there are 59 municipalities — each with its own council clerk, streets department and safety forces. The cost of maintaining often duplicative services makes the local tax burden in northeast Ohio relatively high, a fact that is off-putting to businesses the region desperately needs to attract.

But change doesn’t come easily in this part of the country. Where governmental consolidation has taken place across the state, it’s been fraught with costly litigation. In some cases, consolidation efforts have been outright rejected by the voting public. To northeast Ohio government employees, regionalism carries the threat of job loss. This is a frightening discussion in a metro area where dependable jobs are becoming increasingly scarce and where a relatively large proportion of the population depends on the public purse for a paycheck.

As each community pursues development separately, businesses and homeowners overwhelmingly pick the newer, farther flung communities, which are considered safer and often times offer lower development costs. In an effort to cope, urban leaders are working to convert vacant lots in the city of Cleveland back into agricultural use. Meanwhile, in Avon and in exurban areas throughout the region, more and more ready agricultural land is consumed for housing. All the while, the gap between the quality of life in the city and the suburbs — in terms of city services, public education and safety — continues to widen.

City interests have looked fruitlessly to the state and the federal government for policy reforms that would make Ohio cities competitive again. The state has responded with a series of nonbinding development recommendations, which so far seem to have had little effect on regional building patterns. Then along comes the Sustainable Communities Initiative, with the promise of $5 million for planning, which regional leaders — both suburban and urban — cannot ignore. Will that provide the push that Cleveland leaders have been praying for?

It’s too soon to celebrate a new chapter in northeast Ohio. After all, there’s no guarantee that the region will win the grant money. Even then, it is difficult to say how faithful local leaders would be to this guiding document. But if the act of planning brings Cleveland area leaders together to talk about collectively shaping a more sustainable community, that, in itself, is a huge victory for the region.

25 thoughts on Without a Plan, Sprawl Will Continue to Hollow Out Cleveland Region

  1. Have a look at “Taking the High Road” by Robert Puentes, it profiles Ohio in detail as a typical case of how transportation funding disbursed at the state level flows disproportionately to rural/exurban areas, further encouraging the pattern you describe

  2. This is an excellent analysis, capturing the basic city/suburb dynamic that is at work in all developed regions nationwide.

  3. Hello –
    Google’s Blog Search sent me to this/your project because of the keywords “regional community.” This should be useful to subscribers of Regional Community Development News, so I’ve Tweeted the post and will include a link to it in the September 27 issue. The newsletter will be found at http://regional-communities.blogspot.com/ Please visit, check the tools and consider a link.

    For a greater understanding of the roots of suburbia, I suggest people read “The Reduction of Urban Vulnerability: Revisiting 1950s American Suburbanization as Civil Defence” by Kathleen A Tobin, Purdue University, Cold War History, Vol.2, No.2, January,2002. This is an unrecognized if not forgotten history of the roots of sprawl in the U.S. as a defensive measure. The outcome of the defense was similar to that of the attack it was meant to survive – a cratering of the cities.


  4. This really sums up what has happened to Cleveland. I went to college at Oberlin which is about an hour out. Cleveland really has been gutted and so many areas of it are completely abandoned. This article is very well written and really brings to light some of the more complex issues that have brought this about. I think a large part of the problem though is the stagnant population. I mean a similar trend of people moving to further and further exurbs has been happening on the east coast too. The difference though is that people especially new immigrants are constantly moving to the east coast. They move into these areas that those moving to the suburbs are deserting. So the overall population continues to go up and the cities population remains more or less stable.

  5. The premise here is if new construction for a home or business is not permitted by regional planning, that somehow that building will occur in E. Cleveland. This meme for “smart growth” confuses cause and effect. The collapsing home in the inner city is not caused by the new growth in the exurbs. You assume the commute from Avon still runs to downtown Cleveland. Maybe in 1965…not now. They could just as easily be working in Avon or N. Olmsted. As much as planning “experts” pine for the golden days of the city, the jobs are not there anymore, because they don’t need to be. Better to adjust to the realities and the future of where people want to live and work than to try to recreate some old days. You can’t force people or businesses into a model because you think it is somehow better. If they can’t find the right location to build, they will look elsewhere. A person who wants to live in Avon is not going to settle for Westpark just because it is more “sustainable.”Do we forget about the E. Clevelands? No. But to waste time trying to make reshape them to where they were 50 or 60 years ago is counterproductive for the whole region.

  6. It’s all about water and sewer. Stop building new lines and you halt sprawl in its tracks. No one prefers well water, even Conservatives.

  7. A while back Ned Hill, Dean of the Levin College of Urban Affairs @ Cleveland State University wrote a piece (commisioned by Brookings, I believe) detailing how Ohio is a donor state to the nation for gas tax collections AND Cleveland is a donor region to the rest of Ohio. Not only is NOACA not fighting sprawl, but the policies of the state of Ohio are knowingly encouraging it.
    @Dan, if it’s all about free markets and capitalism; then Cities ought be victorious b/c by definition they reduce distance btwn people and thus services; thereby increasing efficiencies. Alas, the market is skewed.

  8. John,
    Distance has never been the issue, it has been about time. So a walking suburb became a streetcar suburb became the evil automobile suburb. Less time to get ot work, school, stores, services. People don’t like high density, and in general, they don’t like it anywhere, whether that’s London UK or London, OH. Some do like it, and we should make the central cities liveable for those who choose it. But the movement has been always outbound ever since Moses Cleaveland picked the malaria-infested flats to settle his community. Anti-sprawl advocates would like to pick a given time in the movement out (as close as I can tell, they would set the time machine to 1950) and freeze everything there. Move back to your parents row house because the planners like most readers to this blog have decided that’s where you should live. The answer is somewhere between all out “free market capitalism” of build anywhere/everywhere and the Pol Pot like dictat of the new generation of central planners.

  9. Dan, even Pol Pot minded planners are no match for the Soviet-style sprawl subsidy granting politicians that cash in on new development on the periphery of their districts.

    Equating advocates for a livable center city with a Cambodian mass murderer, really? This is the East-Asian corollary to Godwin’s Law. QED, you lose the argument.

  10. I experienced donut-hole sprawl when I lived in Knoxville, TN. The nice, vintage downtown is surrounded by slummy classic neighborhoods (great houses, but rundown). All the strip malls and new development (and jobs) are being pushed farther & farther out on vacant land in West Knoxville. Ended up commuting 21 miles (each way) to work. Did I mention crazy drivers and awful, near non-existent public transport? Shame, it could be a great city…

  11. Great article, I agree with the point that it really sums up what happened here.
    I’m an Akron resident and student at the university of Akron.
    I’m very familiar with the region and the way it is set up. For example, I live in the suburb cuyahoga falls, when I moved here from West Virginia, I first looked for affordable housing in the downtown area, sadly there was none.
    Now I commute to work and school everyday (20min.) and this is not the way I wanted it to be, nor the way it should be.
    Ohio has done a really good job at hollowing out cities and taking up useful land. With all the vacant buildings in the city, housing should be easy to find, but it’s not.
    I did not choose to live in a suburb, yet I had no real choice.

    I’m a political science major and urban development minor, and I can tell you one thing; when we get in office things will be run a little diferently.

    Thanks for this article.
    Any questions about my simple and effective revitalization plans?
    Feel free to email me; teejvalley@gmail.com.

  12. Dan: The premise here is if new construction for a home or business is not permitted by regional planning, that somehow that building will occur in E. Cleveland.

    Your entire argument is based on your own premise that this is the point illustrated in the article. I disagree with your reading of it. The article showed that a stagnant population with an outward moving trend necessarily means the middle gets hollowed out. That is not the same as saying that for every building not built in Avon is a building that can be built in E. Cleveland.

    The point you overlooked is that so many move because of taxes in the city center, though maybe some do indeed hate density–the article’s point was that people generally find it less expensive to live outside the city center where the same services are available at a better quality. The question then becomes how do you incentivize the population to stay where they are? And likewise, how do you create incentives for new people/businesses to move here and stay? The fact that city officials are looking for ways to do that is an important move.

    Cleveland (proper) resident.

  13. Cathryn,
    We must “incentivize the population to stay where it is?” Why? You are working against want the people want and need. You don’t have to look at a declining Rust Belt city to witness movement outward. Look at Austin TX. By all measures an economic success, state capital, college town, etc. and central core for the most part preserved. But they still they have widespread sprawl. Those that moved out were found to be mostly families, those that stayed behind mostly empty nesters, singles, young professionals. The biggest reason was room. Austin’s core has smaller homes and apartments, and zoning doesn’t allow additions. Why should anyone be forced to live in a smaller place when alternatives exist. Taylor says it (though the other way) above –its about choices. Too many planners would take away choices, unless the choice you make is the “right one.” Restricting growth drives up housing prices in every locality it is practiced. Higher prices shut out some (many minorities and those starting out) of even having the option of moving — though they are still free to move to another city altogether. The metros/cities that continue to thrive attract new faces to those “hollowing out” areas, which in the US are immigrants. Yet here in Cleveland the effort to attract immigrants is turned into some kind of racial “me first” face down and the idea gets put on the back burner.

  14. Dan:
    Great point, Austin is a beautiful American city that should have set an example for the rest.
    And you’re correct in saying that sprawl has taken place there as well.
    Now to incorporate that kind of thinking into the NEOH region would require better thinkers in office, well like you for instance.
    To bad our political system is corrupt and all about money or these things would be much easier to accomplish.
    Basically your looking at needing more housing in the city itself.
    Here in Akron the downtown is nice, but all the surrounding areas are mostly dangerous. I think the same goes for Cleveland. The downtown is the nicest “looking” part of the city proper, but housing is either unobtainable or to expensive. With both cities having Universities in the center it should be easy enough to fill any new housing projects (take Akron for example, there isn’t enough housing.)

    Well those are my thoughts I just really hope someone gets elected and fixes this area,
    It has so much potential.

  15. The original article is very well written. I have been participating in an effort in the Northeast Ohio area called the Regional Prosperity Initiative and I participated on the steering committee that helped frame the application for the federal Sustainable Communities grant submitted by NOACA. I have been engaged in this conversation at a fairly intense level for several years, and I am still trying to understand the real issues.

    I do not have an opinion on where people should prefer to live. I do think we need to explore in more detail the relationship between public policy and investment of public money as it relates to the evolving use of land and the costs we incur as a society as a result of those patterns of land use. We need to try to do this in an atmosphere where we set aside our assumptions. This includes our assumptions about why people make their choices about where they live. I think those choices have to do with quality of place, safety, schools, fresh air, etc., etc., but I do not want to limit myself to my little imaginary list of assumptions. However, I do know that those preferences are not independent of the policy decisions we make as a society. This is not an either/or proposition, individual choice or public policy. We need to be careful about oversimplifying our characterization of the situation.

    The term sustainability is a bit worn these days, but I think the core idea of sustainable development is not simply to restore the urban core as such, but to recognize (to understand) the growing consequences of our evolving land use patterns.

    I have come to think we need to reconcile traditionally conflicting views and begin to see the areas of our region are connected and interdependent. This would be a more systemic view of our region. If we were to look at the cost of infrastructure, farm land impact, environmental issues (health of the environment), water and air quality, quality of place, etc. on a regional basis we might develop a different view of whether our land use patterns are sustainable and whether our public policy and public investment make sense. I don’t know what such an analysis would tell us because we do not engage in such an analysis.

    Some would object to this idea because it is just a cover for those who want to introduce centralized planning. I appreciate this concern, but I am afraid if we persist in thwarting a comprehensive, rational approach we will be taking the path of avoidance and ingnorance.

  16. Angie, Great article. The Fund for Our Economic Future is proud to have helped convene the region’s MPOs and other governmental entities to make the application for the Sustainable Communities grant. As the Council on Competitiveness noted in its recent report Collaborate, it is the region’s that are able to act like regions that will prosper in the future. The Fund believes that the application itself shows that Northeast Ohio is getting better at acting like a region.

  17. This is an excellent article. Greedy developers and self serving conservatives are what is wrong with this country. Thank God the GOP is getting older by the second and dying off.

    These clowns only care about themselves and their brainwashed families, which is a shame. Because of urban sprawl, we are bankrupting ourselves and our environment into non existence.

  18. Dan:

    You have no idea what you are spewing about regarding Austin, Texas. Austin does have sprawl, but it is minimal. Most of it originates in neighboring Williamson County (Roundrock) where all the double digit IQ conservatives live.

    However, based on population, urban sprawl in and around Austin is minimal.

    Your comment that familes are moving out is nonsense. Young professionals and their families are increasingly being drawn into the cities and into SMALLER habitations.

    Austin has gone to great lenghts to put greedy knuckle dragging developers in check by passing zoning ordinances. Check out Mueller Development (a very popular New Urbanism community on the site of an old airport) if you dont believe me.

    As far as free choice goes (which Republicans only define as anything other than abortion rights, right to get compensated for injuries, etc) people do not have to move into these communities if they do not want to.

  19. Mark,

    I am glad someone from RPI has responded to this blog. The process of RPI makes my case that land use planning has swung from developer-oriented all the way to the opposite pole, urban planning with no input from business or the majority of the community. I have seen this in practice –RPI forces out mayors and those with opposing viewpoints from the committees. They have an urban agenda, and anyone other viewpoint is not welcome.

    Don’t be fooled that a few suburban/rural officials are on board. Most are either so impressed to be asked their opinion, or they buy the nonsense that there are no incompetant school boards, bad mayors, unqualified councils or corrupt officials. (Apparently they don;t follow the local news.)If we can only spread the suburban wealth around and clamp down on non-urban development, the central and inner ring cities would be better off is their theory. And they are ready to wreck our already fragile economy to prove their point.

    I am involved with planning, and I will be swimming upstream to encourage the greater involvement of citizens and businesses already in the suburbs who will be most effected by these plans.

    RPI and other urban groups would only want those voices heard, those people a the table, who confirm their assumptions.

    ODOT and the Ohio Dept of Development have bought into this “transportation sets the pattern” nonsense, and I can only hope that a new admin. will sweep these guys out!

  20. Mark:
    If we can agree that job sprawl reflects a growth pattern, Brookings tells us the following. (1998-2006 figures, released April, 2009)

    % of jobs lost from downtown areas as total of area:
    Austin -3.3%, Minneapolis -2.8%, Cleveland -1.8%

    % of job growth 10+ miles from downtown (sprawl)
    Austin 6.9%, Minneapolis 5.5%, Cleveland 2.5%

    So both Austin, and MSP (which is held up as the gold standard of urban planning next to Portland) sprawl at more than twice the rate of Cleveland, and are losing twice the percentage of area jobs to the suburbs.

    So which areas are really currently sprawling. The anti-sprawl arguments for Cleveland may have been relevant 25 or 35 years ago, but they’ve lost their urgency today. One more boarded up house does not make the case for a grand “plan” for the future.

  21. All of these types of blogs FORGET THE KEY KET ISSUE which noone is willing to talk about.

    THE CLEVELAND MUNICIPAL SCHOOL DISTRICT. I want all of those who oppose ‘Urban Sprall’ to move into part of the City of Cleveland or a near by suburb that is served by the CMSD AND enroll thier children in a public CMSD school.

  22. What killed Cleveland more than anything was the loss of 60,000 middle-class jobs in heavy primary metals manufacturing between the 1950s and today, along with another 30,000 middle-class jobs in the auto industry, another 30,000 middle-class jobs in machine tools, and another 50,000 jobs at suppliers, trucking, railroading, Great Lakes shipping, and in warehousing.

    How many cities do you know of that have lost half their employment and haven’t lost a sizable percentage of their population too? Buffalo? Nope. Detroit? No again, Akron, Youngstown, Flint, Toledo?

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