High-end and ultra-green: the new face of Duck Island

Nestled between Scranton and Columbus Roads from the Cuyahoga River to Willey Avenue sits Duck Island, the name of which has been attributed to a hidden place in the middle of the city where ne'er-do-wells could "duck in" in order to evade attention. Origin notwithstanding, most Clevelander's will agree that Duck Island does not have the name recognition of neighboring Ohio City and Tremont.
That's about to change, but not with publicly funded projects. This story is about the private development of high-end ultra-green homes ranging from $300,000 to $400,000 (and up), all in humble Duck Island.
"We have 60 projects lined up," says Matt Berges of Berges Home Performance. They are mostly single-family houses and are rolling out on both sides of Abbey Avenue. Some are in the seed stage, with the ink still drying on purchase agreements. Others are nearing move-in dates as burly workers erect and renovate single-family homes amid the West 17th, 18th and 19th Street vicinity.
Berges' sixty parcels represent five years of acquisition.
"We got busy and persisted with any vacant, abandoned, foreclosed, landlord-owned properties," says Berges, adding that he did not pursue owner occupied homes. "The goal was to get landlords that didn't care so much out and fill the neighborhood with owners that do care."
The move came with no small amount of risk. Staunch resistance to development in the area drove a host of other developers to give up. Berges, however, had another reason to persevere. He lives smack dab in the middle of Duck Island with wife Colleen and the couple's three children.
"Initially I was just focused on my street, trying to make it so my kids could walk to the park," says Berges, who lives on West 18th Street. His commitment is also evidenced by the home he's building next to his own for his mother- and father-in-law. He and his family have been in Duck Island for six years.
"It's fun now to actually see a couple of houses going up," says Berges. "We'll be breaking ground on three or four more on 19th this year."
All of his projects are custom and extremely green. Sizes vary by project, but a home he is constructing on West 19th is 3,100 square feet (not including the basement) and has a connected 1,000-square-foot apartment.
Berges portfolio also includes the prominent Butler Nissan home in Ambler Heights. That project provided so much exposure, the houses he's building now are all pre-sold to customers who sought him out.
"I was looking for those sorts of customers," he says of the Ambler Heights home admirers. "Now they're looking for me because they've heard of what I'm doing."
Berges's homes include features such as superior air tightness, energy recovery ventilation systems that pre-treat incoming ventilation air, attention to southern exposure and rigid foam insulation on the outside of walls in addition to the interior insulation.
"It's basically like putting a winter jacket over the entire shell," says Berges.
The whole package adds up to nearly zero -- zero energy load, that is, which means a structure produces almost as much energy as it consumes.
Berges' largest project will unfurl at the corner of West 19th Street and Abbey Avenue, where he's clearing 1.7 acres of land that previously housed what he calls "hard to manage" and troubled rental properties that were beleaguered by crime and vandalism.
"We worked to clear these properties out," says Berges. "They weren't worth saving."
Plans for the centrally-located plot, however, are in the works. He's floating single-family homes, mixed-use, townhouses and apartments.
"The density this could handle is not what a lot of the neighbors would want," says Berges. "Politically, you have to have the neighborhood's support to do anything."
With urban planners pushing for denser populations and neighbors lobbying against it, what's a developer to do?
"There's a balance to be met," says Berges, adding of the large plot at Abbey and West 19th, "It'll be something a little bit more modest than what really should be done with this block."
To help achieve that balance with all of his efforts in Duck Island, Berges formed the Duck Island Development Collaborative. Members include his own Berges Home Performance, Tremont West Development Corporation, Maker, Sam McNulty, Knez Homes, Environmental Health Watch, Forest City Brewery and Howard Hanna.  
Berges estimates there are between 300 and 600 units slated for Duck Island clustered in projects of various sizes and in various stages. Other developers and property owners include Blossom Homes, Brickhaus Partners and the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.
Even so, the resistance to development persists. Berges has faced protestations ranging from heated words to the unacceptable.
"I've had some pretty serious threats," he says, adding that amid the opposition, owner/occupants have approached him about possible future sales.

In the meantime, he's rolling with the punches in order to realize the definitive vision he has for Duck Island.
"When in the history of a Cleveland neighborhood do you have a chance to do redevelopment at this level?" he poses, noting his passion for energy efficient homes. "We could make this the most efficient neighborhood in the country."
To that lofty goal, add Duck Island's central and well-connected location, spectacular views of the city, a new span of the Lake Link Trail and diamonds such as the Velvet Tango Room. All of a sudden, tiny Duck Island inflates with possibility.
"We're perfectly situated for an amazing explosion," says Berges.

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.