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Cleveland Heights residents voice their ideas for a city landmark

Severance Town Center today

Future Heights organized a public forum to discuss the future of Severance

Future Heights organized a public forum to discuss the future of Severance

An aerial view of Severance Mall soon after it opened in 1963

Severance Town Center today

Severance Town Center today

Severance Town Center today

Severance Town Center today

Severance Town Center today

Severance Town Center today

Severance Town Center today

Severance Town Center today

Vacant, boarded up windows and decrepit parking lots are common sightings for Cleveland Heights residents in one part of town -- a continuous eyesore in a city known for its pedestrian friendly streets, one-of-a-kind boutiques and mouthwatering restaurants.
 
After the departure of Walmart in 2013, and later Regal Cinemas, the prominent retail property Severance Town Center went into foreclosure back in July. Since then,  the space has struggled to keep tenants and the patience of residents.
 
But with the $6.5 million sale of the property at a sheriff’s sale last Monday, Nov. 16, according to the court-appointed receiver of Severance Town Center, Colette Gibbons, there is new hope for Severance. CWCapital was the successful bidder.
 
"The city has expressed a lot of interest in this property and is eager to work with the new property owners,” says Gibbons. “They [the city] are excited to create something cool and reflective of Cleveland Heights. It is a very high [value] civic property in Cleveland Heights with a lot of potential."
 
While city residents are eager to collaborate and create potential ideas for the property, the city has its own task in working with the new owner for Severance. Cleveland Heights city manager Tanisha Briley says the city is continuing to work with the lender to assign a new property manager. At this stage, there is a lot of unknown.
 
"The main issue of [the city] is how do you get a new property owner with new ideas to invest in this property?," says Briley. “Of course moving forward with a new plan for the property is beneficial for the community and smart financially for us. It is hard to put it in a box of what it [Severance] will be. Severance is in a better position than other malls in the area because we have great tenants and a space where anything can happen."
 
Before this week’s successful sale, Future Heights, a grassroots organization with the mission to ensure a sustainable Cleveland Heights and University Heights, organized a public forum to discuss the future of Severance. Re-Imagining Severance was held last month to address concerns, future possibilities, and the current status of Severance Town Center.
 
The center was an attraction back in the 60s because it was the first mall in Ohio, explains Mark Chupp, an assistant professor at the CWRU’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences and Future Heights board member. As time went on and the purpose of the space changed, it no longer reflected the culture and landscape of Cleveland Heights.
 
“There were some people interested in the mall when it was in its heyday," says Chupp. "But now a much bigger concern is the changing nature of real estate, the changing nature of demographics and migration within the region, and what it means for Cleveland Heights to have a major piece of land going in free fall. I think people are concerned about what will happen in our community.”
 
Deanna Bremer Fisher, executive director of Future Heights, explains the Severance discussion has been ongoing and residents of Cleveland Heights have voiced a sense of urgency for change. She says even though the space is going through foreclosure, the planning process should start before new ownership begins.
 
“People really want to talk about it,” says Fisher. “So people are very concerned about the vacancies that are there. We need to start thinking about what is the potential future there?”
 
A Collective Voice
 
Eager to voice ideas of what Severance Town Center could become, more than 200 hundred residents who attended the forum on Oct. 21 were given the chance to further collaborate in groups about Severance's future.

Common themes included a space that promoted an active lifestyle, intergenerational housing, and a place that focuses on the values of the community.
 
Although the future of Severance isn't inherently clear, residents can still influence the decisions of future owners of the property. Because residents know what works and doesn't work in their neighborhood, real estate developers are more likely to look at community needs when planning for the space.

Future Heights organized a public forum to discuss the future of Severance
 
“There is a great deal of uncertainty about the future, but it is also a great time to plan because what better time to plan than when you don't know the future,” former Cleveland planning director Bob Brown emphasizes. “It is time to get the community together to think about the future and start the process of the plan. If we just sat back and thought, ‘well it is privately owned, let's see what happens,’ it could be that we may be unpleasantly surprised about something that isn't in the best interest of the community.”
 
After Re-Imagining Severance, Future Heights took the planning process one step further. For residents who attended and others who couldn't be there, Future Heights conducted a survey about Severance that triggered 321 responses.

The survey asked open-ended questions such as “What do you believe are the most promising ideas for all or part of Severance,” “What is the most immediate thing that could be done with the property?” and “What are the strengths and values of Cleveland Heights that should be expressed in the future design of Severance?”
 
While residents want change, they also want to maintain the character and physical landscape of Cleveland Heights.
 
As a Cleveland Heights resident for a little over three years, attorney John Davis says every time he drives past Severance, it sparks strong opinions of poor city planning and a list of ideas for the center.
 
“It is pretty disappointing at its current state,” Davis says. “When we moved to Cleveland from a well-organized city like Portland, there was a Bally's and a movie theater [at Severance]. Frankly, that setup is impractical. My whole idea, and my wife who works in real estate echoes this, is to have a store like Trader Joe's.”
 
Davis argues that the right retail tenant could save the mall. “We need revenue like nobody's business,” he says. “Let's have something there that people want to go to. There is a market here for it. What concerns me is the self-editing and lack of leadership from city officials on vacant properties such as Severance Town Center.”
 
Jennifer Arshenovitz, a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident, says going to Severance Town Center used to be a frequent pastime.
 
“I think they need to figure out a plan that will bring the life back into it,” says Arshenovitz. “It [Severance] was thriving for a while, but now it seems to be dying. The best idea I heard was to make it resemble the Coventry area with eclectic shops and a place to hang out -- either as a park or another anchor store.”
 
When asked about the strengths and values of Cleveland Heights, 83 people wanted the space to reflect diversity, with the next value being arts and culture. As an immediate fix, 37 people wanted to recruit new retail, while 29 people wanted to develop a long-term master plan for the space. Other responses included finding a new developer for the land and even tearing it down to start over.
 
Reinventing a community
 
Cleveland Heights isn't alone when it comes to being in a position of repurposing vacant buildings and unused land. As Cleveland has shown in the past few years, neighborhoods such as Tremont and Ohio City can emerge from the rubble as prosperous, inviting places to live and work.
 
As a former planning director, Brown has seen buildings -- and even cities -- go from being a trend-by-night to a place no longer meeting the needs of a community. Severance is no exception.


 
“Every community, every neighborhood needs to continually reinvent itself if it is going to stay prosperous and we certainly see this in Cleveland,” says Brown. “This happened in neighborhoods like the classic ones we all talk about such as the Ohio City, Tremont and Gordon Square neighborhoods that were on the decline and began to find ways to be attractive to younger people who were moving in.”
 
Cleveland Heights has to do the same, explains Brown. “It isn't just the older cities in Cleveland that have to do this,” he says. “The inner suburbs of Cleveland have been in similar situations, losing population, losing jobs and having to figure out ways to adjust to the new times.”
 
With the property in a financial limbo, solid strategies are a long way off. But that doesn't mean residents and city leaders should halt the city planning process. Rather, the opposite is true.
 
“It [our forum] was not a planning process, not the beginning of a planning process yet, although I think there would be some value in doing that,” explains Chupp. “But it was to say we know this is a problem, there are going to be changes and we need to pay attention to it and to begin a dialogue between concerned residents and city leaders.”
 
Looking to the future, organizations like Future Heights continue to push through the window of opportunity. Despite not knowing what the future holds for Severance Town Center, the community of Cleveland Heights is determined to share their voices. The passion is not only just in Cleveland Heights, but in Cleveland as a city to ensure that neighborhoods create discussion to spark change, while also innovating themselves as another destination.
 
“There are some neighborhoods and communities where the residents don't have a great sense of attachment to the area and as change happens, people just move on,” Brown says. “But there are other communities like Cleveland Heights where people have a passion, a pride for, and a love for their community. They are committed to make it work. There are some challenges here [in Cleveland Heights] so the mindset of 'let's make it work' is a way of life here.”

Read more articles by Kaylyn Hlavaty.

Kaylyn Hlavaty is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio. Prior to relocating back to the states, Kaylyn reported about humanitarian, social, cultural, and refugee-related issues in the Middle East. Her work has appeared in The Washington Times, The Plain Dealer, Cleveland Magazine, Al MonitorBELT Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, MIT Tech Review, among others.
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