It's been more than three years since the bodies of 11 women were discovered at 12205 Imperial Avenue in Cleveland. The home of convicted serial killer Anthony Sowell has since been demolished, but the empty lot where the property stood is a grim and ugly reminder of the violence that took place there.
Over the past year, the Imperial Coalition, a grassroots task force led by religious, city and community leaders, has been working with residents and relatives of victims on ways to reclaim the neighborhood. Talk has centered around the possibility of designing and building an "exterior space" at the Imperial Avenue parcel, an effort assisted by the Cleveland chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA
AIA past president Kevin Robinette, along with a handful of his fellow Cleveland-area architects, have been going about the delicate process of designing something viable for the plot while also hewing to the desires of community members and families directly impacted by the murders.
Since last fall, Cleveland's creative types have collaborated in developing a number of design solutions they are now readying to present to the neighborhood coalition. The designs are not yet public, but Robinette, 55, hopes to avoid an outcome in which the Imperial Avenue site is neglected and becomes a trash-strewn source of community distress.
spoke with Robinette about the painful but necessary process of healing a neighborhood through a project that both respects the community and provides an awareness to help prevent the tragedy from happening again.
What is the aim of the Imperial Avenue project?
It's less a project than it is a public service. When the Sowell case came to light, we saw the site as a hole that would represent a bad memory for the neighborhood. We have a legitimate opportunity to put something there and take away some of the stigma from what occurred. That's something our organization is uniquely suited to do: to implement something that is good and uplifting.
Is there a general plan based on some of the ideas presented so far?
We've been working on this for over a year now, and throughout the process we haven't had a preconceived notion of what should go up there. We wanted the thorough input of the community and family members, and come up with a genuine consensus from groups involved with the design. We have many nice ideas; the [final design] will be the culmination of a process.
What realistically could be put on the plot that would be respectful to the victims?
We felt it was very important for the community and families to provide input. They want something that offers hope, something that doesn't address the tragedy but looks forward. An active space with an emphasis on the community, where people can reflect and engage in positive activities. We heard loud and clear from people that they don't want anything like a mausoleum or cemetery. We are protecting their ideas very carefully.
Is there a timetable set for completion of the project?
We're scheduled to meet with members of the Mount Pleasant Ministerial Alliance (part of the Imperial Coalition task force group) in the next few weeks. We'll work with the alliance and the community to finalize a design before considering fundraising.
How has the neighborhood responded to the prospect of something going up on the plot?
When we started, there was question about whether anything should happen there at all. As we discussed it the consensus was that [the parcel] shouldn't just be an empty hole. We got dialogue from family members, and wouldn't have proceeded without confirmation from folks in the neighborhood. We've got to the point where local stakeholders want something to be built there. It can be something good, and I'm very positive we can do it.
What is life like on Imperial Avenue today?
Many of the [affected] family members don't live in the community anymore. Otherwise, it seems fairly quiet. But when family members have the opportunity to be heard, it's very emotional. These were women that really mattered to their families, and that comes out when people express themselves. That's why we're trying to do this in as respectful a manner as possible.
What have you learned during this process?
Most of the task force is from outside the Imperial Avenue neighborhood. However, if your intentions are well meaning and sincere, you will be very well received by those affected. We need to maintain integrity of the families first. As soon as we lose sight of that we lose credibility. It's an evolving process and one that I hope continues.
Photos of Kevin Robinette Bob Perkoski
Photos at 12205 Imperial Ave courtesy of Kevin Robinette