Heights Libraries decides to give Coventry P.E.A.C.E. Campus a chance

After a nearly nine-month crusade, the nonprofit organizations and the people behind the Coventry P.E.A.C.E. (People Enhancing a Community's Environment) Campus Initiative will be staying put in the former Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District’s Coventry School building at the corner of Coventry Road and Euclid Heights Boulevard in Cleveland Heights.

On Monday night, February 5, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library System board of trustees unanimously voted to buy the former school building and six-acre property from the school district for $1, and keep intact the eight nonprofit organizations that serve 5,000 people annually, a park, and playground.

“This is big news,” says Brady Dindia, board president for Artful, an artists’ community that has been housed in the former Coventry School building since last year. “We’re thrilled we’re going to stay.”

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library System special board meeting to accept Coventry School and property

The library board made its decision in front of about 50 people, library director Nancy Levin says, most of whom were enthusiastic. “There was overwhelmingly positive response with a number of applause outbursts,” she says, adding that only a couple of attendees voiced concern about the school’s structural integrity, maintenance, and the safety of the children.

Levin, who attended various city council and community meetings over the past eight months, says the decision to buy the property was three-fold. “We attended a lot of community meetings and we heard the community saying they care about the park,” she says. “This is public land that should not be put in private hands.”

Levin says the property also provides the only free public parking for the library’s Coventry branch patrons. And lastly, Levin says the decision preserves the park. “It honors the fact that citizens have been maintaining the park for 26 years,” she says.

A few more steps

The library will take title on March 31, says Levin, but there are still a lot of details to work out. “We’re still working on our agreement with the tenants,” she says. “And it’s about doing our due diligence, so we know of any environmental or other issues with the building. We have to have more talks about what people want to do with the park and what the tenants see for the building.”

Levin says they are getting a list of service providers from the school board, and a few more details need to be ironed out before the school board passes a resolution for the sale on Tuesday, Feb. 20. "Once that’s done, we can start with the fun stuff," she says.

“They have an interest in getting the property off the books,” she explains. “I’m glad we have a solution that works for everyone and I’m glad everyone’s talking.”

The current tenants have been on month-to-month leases since last May. Levin says they are working on creating two-year leases with the tenants while the tenants are working on finalizing a formal organization as the Coventry Peace Campus.

“The tenants will all be paying rent, ultimately $3 a square foot,” explains Levin of the logistics. “They will pay their utilities and create a reserve fund for any future repairs. The purchase is good for the library in that it secures us a parking lot and the park is used to support our programs.”

Additionally, Levin says the library will most likely use some of the space on the Peace Campus for its own programming. “We also hope to be a tenant and use the building possibly as a classroom, meeting room space and a number of other ideas are brewing including some culinary programs,” she says, adding that other ideas include building a nature center or doing some sort of “cultural daylighting” project that would “emphasize the cultural history of the area without digging it up. “Greenspace is at the heart of it and we don’t want to see it go away,” she says.

An enchanting community

In the early days of Cleveland Heights, the six-acre site where the Peace Campus sits today were two homes and a carriage house, including the Newberry house on land with natural forest and a section of Dugway Brook, on its way to Lake Erie. In 1917, when property owner Grant Deming deeded the property to the school district, he wrote that the land is to be “used for public educational purposes only.” In 1919 the first Coventry School, designed by architect Frank Warner, was built.

The Euclid Heights Boulevard Newberry residence where the first Coventry Elementary School would eventually be built

At the time, some residents were against the construction, says Cleveland Heights historic preservation planner Kara O’Donnell, because they feared it would have a negative impact on the neighborhood and that children could be hurt in Dugway Brook.

The original school was torn down in 1976 to make way for a new school building, which adopted the motto “Peace, Love, Respect for All.” The school district closed the school in 2006, and the school board soon began leasing the space for nonprofit arts and civic community groups.

Lake Erie InkToday, organizations like Artful are among the groups who call the former school home. Others include Ensemble Theatre, Lake Erie Ink, Future Heights, Family Connections, and Reaching Heights.

Lake Erie Ink moved into the school in September 2011 and had about 40 kids attend camp that first summer. Executive director Amy Rosenbluth says the school district was very welcoming to her group, and the library also has always been a good partner.

“This is absolutely a community, it's a community center, and there’s a lot of creative energy” Rosenbluth says. “People are really interested in finding healthy, positive ways to be in the world.”

A unique concept in a special corner

Rosenbluth points out that what is happening—and always has happened—at Coventry Peace Campus is an exceptional synergy that needs to be celebrated. “The powerful part of being in that kind of space is that it’s shared space, with a shared vision—you share resources and make recommendations,” she explains, adding that the cooperation makes the campus special. “It’s unique here. A lot of other cities are doing this sort of thing, but you’re so much stronger when you’re working together. Everyone’s welcome, and there’s something for everyone to be a part of.”

Ensemble Theatre was one of the first tenants to move into the school in early 2011. The former gym is now the group’s theater space, while they have also used other parts of the building for administrative offices.

“Over the last seven seasons we have invested even more time and resources to not only maintain the space but to grow operationally and artistically,” says Celeste Cosentino, Ensemble Theatre’s executive artistic director. She calls herself a “Cleveland Heights resident through-and-through,” as she lives in the house next to nearby Cain Park that her parents bought when she was born.

Cosentino recalls feeling panic, then ultimately relief over the organization’s uncertain future when she heard the school board was selling the building. “The news came rather abruptly and we of course, like most people running any business operation, were concerned about the future of Ensemble in the space, which then also grew to include the future use of this special corner of Cleveland Heights,” she recalls. Then, after Monday night’s meeting, she felt “Excitement, relief, validation, hope for an opportunity for something very special to happen.”

Like Rosenbluth, Cosentino sees the Coventry Peace Campus as an extraordinary endeavor that should be celebrated. “I truly think that this corner can help to serve a greater purpose for the City of Cleveland Heights,” she says. “We have some amazing assets here that other suburbs should be jealous of, in my opinion.”

In fact, Cosentino says she believes other cities will want to model what Coventry Peace Campus is becoming. “Other cities around the country are desperate for what is already happening serendipitously at Coventry,” she says. “I think that the library is the right partner to realize that vision. The school district has helped us to get here, but they are not developers, they are educators. This corner can serve as an example of real collaboration and vision and I am excited for what is to come.”

Pulling together

Since last May, the tenant organizations and community members have worked together to save the Coventry Peace Campus and all that it stands for.

Artful’s Dindia is one of many who have worked tirelessly to save the Peace Campus since the Cleveland Heights Board of Education announced it was looking to sell the building and approached Cleveland Heights City Council about development possibilities.

“It’s been a full-time job for me for about eight months,” Dindia admits. “We spent the summer and fall months circulating questionnaires and petitions, asking what the community was thinking. Because, if we didn’t have the support from the community, there was no point.”

Coventry School in 2006

In October, the Peace Campus group presented its vision to Cleveland Heights City Council, Dindia says, and then to more than 100 people at a community meeting two weeks later. “We had an unbelievable amount of support and the positive feedback was overwhelming,” she says. “We have to make sure we’re good stewards of this building, make sure we’re heading in the right direction so it’s here for years to come.”

Dindia says it became obvious very quickly that the organizations at the Peace Campus and Heights Libraries made a good fit. “Nancy has great vision,” she says. “We came to an understanding that we will continue to grow and build on what’s already seen as a community asset.”

Krista Hawthorne, executive director of Reaching Heights, agrees. “Community collaboration makes good sense for every business and organization,” she says. “This feels like a positive step in the right direction in the right location with an amazing group of partners. We are happy to be able to continue to build on the existing relationships and look forward to all the possibilities for the future of the Coventry Peace Campus.”

Residents supportive

Frank and Laura Lewis moved across the street from Coventry Elementary School in 1993, when it was still a school, so that their two sons could attend there. While their oldest son attended Coventry from kindergarten through fourth grade, their younger son only attended for one year before the school closed.

Frank Lewis eagerly got involved in the effort to keep the Peace Campus when other development ideas began to surface.

“Closing Coventry School was a huge mistake,” Lewis argues. “But miraculously, something pretty cool grew in that empty space. So, when I heard that the school district was planning to sell the property, and that the tenants were organizing to preserve and build on what they’d established there, I offered to get involved and to help however I could.”

Lewis says he is pleased with Monday’s outcome.

“We don’t need condos here,” he says. “We need things that make people want to live here and visit here. You can’t just claim a title like “Home of the Arts,” as Cleveland Heights boasts on its web site. You have to earn it and keep earning it. I’m really glad that this time, the Board of Education made the right decision for the future of this site, and that Heights Library stepped up when others wouldn’t.”

Like Lewis, Jack Valancy’s son also went to Coventry Elementary. He then became involved in the fundraising and construction of the playground in 1993.

“Our neighbors actively use the playground year-round,” Valancy says. “Though it was a blow to the neighborhood when the school closed in 2007, the building saw new life a few years later with the additions of Ensemble Theatre, Lake Erie Ink, Family Connections, ARTFUL, and other arts, education and community organizations.”

Valancy says he is pleased that Heights Libraries stepped in. “We appreciate library director Nancy Levin’s leadership and everyone’s hard work bringing us stability, so we can continue serving the community, as well as the opportunity to create an improved arts, education, and community center alongside a reimagined playground and park.”

Valancy is already looking ahead. “Next week, we will start a series of facilitated discussions among the current tenants, our library partners, and our neighbors to learn how they would like to see the Coventry Peace Campus develop,” he says. “Whatever model we choose, it will be financially sustainable.”

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.