With the Van Aken District in motion, Shaker Heights is setting its sights on the future

In some ways, the Van Aken District may seem like it was built overnight, but everyone involved in the intricate planning and construction of the shopping destination that is touted as Shaker Heights’ new downtown will be quick to assert that the planning began 18 years before the first brick was even laid.

Now, in a unique collaboration between the City of Shaker Heights, the Shaker Heights City School District, and Shaker Heights Public Library, officials are once again developing a strategic long-term plan for community facilities.

Those facilities include city government and administration buildings, public schools, and the swimming pools, ice skating rink, and tennis courts at Thornton Park, along with many parks and playgrounds around the city.

The long-term strategy planning, called Forward Together, will commence this Tuesday, March 26, with a speaker panel of various thought leaders discussing the future of cities, libraries, and education.

The idea is to bring the community together to start talking about what the future holds for the city’s current and proposed assets, according to Shaker Heights mayor David Weiss. “I’ve always been a supporter of long-range planning and creating a robust plan that involved the community,” says Weiss. “Shaker has this incredible tradition and history as a planned community—planned to last and not follow the latest trends.”

Weiss says part of the idea behind Forward Together is to look at the community assets owned each of the three city entities and identify gaps or redundancies. “Rather than look at things in siloed ways, we should look at it like community buildings,” he says, citing the city's soccer fields as one example: “Some are the city’s, some are the schools’—but they’re all fields."

Another example Weiss uses is the tennis courts both at Thornton Park and near the high school. He says the city-owned tennis courts at Thornton were due for renovation this year, but officials decided to hold off until the community decided how many courts it actually needs.

“Rather than silo all of our civic assets that we all use as a community, rather than just move forward and repair things at the end of their useful life, we should have those discussions,” Weiss explains. He says residents constantly ask him how the city can be more efficient with their tax dollars. Forward Together is his answer.

“We need a well-thought-out capital plan,” he says. “These things won’t happen overnight. But five years from now, if you don’t have that plan, you’ll never get there.”

While Weiss admits that it may take years of planning, the first step is to start talking—and Tuesday’s meeting is meant to get the conversation started. “It’s important to get input and have people stretch their ideas,” he says. “We will try to get people thinking outside of what their normal thinking might be.”

To help get the thought process started, Felton Thomas Jr. (executive director of the Cleveland Public Library) will moderate the discussion with Terry Schwarz (director of Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative), Evan Struble (associate state librarian for library development with the State Library of Ohio), and Michele Pomerantz (director of regional collaboration with Cuyahoga County).

The discussion will be held at Shaker Heights High School’s large auditorium (15911 Aldersyde Drive) from 7 to 9 p.m.

“Let’s dream big,” urges Weiss of the first meeting. “What do we want [the city] to look like a decade from now? This first meeting is to get people thinking creatively. There will clearly be tough choices we ultimately have to make, which is all the more reason to have this process. We have to look at what we want in our community—and what we do not need or want. Ultimately, it’s about how we best allocate our resources.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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