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Data Supports Transit-Oriented Development for Cleveland

Research from the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission found that rezoning transit corridors in and around Cleveland would encourage dense, walkable development, which could add population and rebuild the tax base.

a person rides a bike along a street in Ohio City's Hingetown
The Church and State apartment complex in Ohio City's Hingetown has created a dynamic new presence along Detroit Avenue.
(Steven Litt/
(TNS) — New research by the Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Planning Commission offers fresh evidence that Cleveland and surrounding suburbs would be smart to rezone transit corridors to encourage dense, walkable, transit-oriented development, or TOD.

The research shows that market demand is rising for transit-oriented-development in and around Cleveland. At the same time, county planners say, current zoning in many communities encourages a sprawling, automobile-oriented approach.

Developers interested in transit-oriented development are required to spend time and money seeking variances, which acts as a disincentive.

“You could get approval, you could get a variance, but it’s not automatically permissible,’’ said Mary Cierebiej, executive director of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission.

The new research, which county officials previewed in December in an interview with and The Plain Dealer, is part of a yearlong project to create model zoning codes that localities could adopt or adjust to encourage development along transit lines.

The county launched the project last fall in collaboration with the City of Cleveland and the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. A major report released then outlined the argument in favor of strengthening transit-oriented development across the county and identified the 22 corridors where TOD could be encouraged.

The new data are part of the four-step project, which will include identifying areas that could be targeted for transit-oriented development, drafting model codes, and identifying financial mechanisms and incentives.

Back to the Future

Today, most local zoning codes encourage low-density, automobile-oriented sprawl, an approach that’s looking less environmentally sustainable and more outdated now that the American Dream is shifting to freedom from automobiles rather than dependence on them, county planners say.

“We have an increase in the number of young people; we have an increase in the number of smaller households, multi-generational households, households without children,’’ said Patrick Hewitt, the county’s planning manager for strategy and development. “These are people who want to be able to immediately access things and who might not want to take care of a massive yard and own two cars.”

The new data, which can be viewed at compile a decade’s worth of year-to-year changes in real estate values within a quarter mile “walksheds” flanking 22 transit corridors that fan out from Cleveland.

The corridors reach into 25 suburbs including Euclid, Garfield Heights, Brooklyn, Parma, Parma Heights, Lakewood, and North Olmsted.

The data show that between 2012 and 2021, some 383 new developments added nearly $3 billion in real estate value through new construction or building renovations in the transit corridors.

Of the total, roughly $2.35 billion worth of development, or more than 81 percent, occurred within the City of Cleveland. And of that amount, nearly 88 percent, or almost $2.1 billion, occurred in downtown and University Circle, and in the Ohio City, Fairfax, and Hough neighborhoods.

The new wave of development is reviving a back-to-the-future vision of city life before the advent of automobile-oriented development, Cierebiej said.

“You look at old pictures of streetcars and people on the street...’’ she said. “The more people you have, the more amenities you have. It’s safer and it’s vibrant and people want to be there. It’s going back to what we had before strip malls and using vehicles for everything.”

The county’s study doesn’t claim that all the projects within the 22 corridors represent transit-friendly development. New construction captured in the data could include gas stations, fast food drive-throughs, or parking garages.

But Cierebiej and Hewitt said that the new wave of development shows that to a significant extent, transit-oriented development is already happening in the core of the region because the market is demanding it. The challenge is to encourage it further.

By helping localities to rezone selected corridors for transit-oriented development, the county could jumpstart a virtuous cycle in which transit and real estate development support each other while boosting population and tax-base growth, Cierebiej said.

What TOD Looks Like

Examples of new transit-friendly projects cited by Cierebiej and Hewitt include the $145 million Intro development in Ohio City, located near the RTA West 25th Street rapid transit Red Line station.

Built by Chicago-based Harbor Bay Real Estate Advisors LLC, the project comprises 298 apartments and 35,000 square feet of street-level retail space. It replaced a suburban-style strip shopping center built in the 1980s on the same corner with a one-story, L-shaped group of stores set back behind a large parking lot fronting Detroit Avenue and West 25th Street.

Other transit-friendly projects cited by the county planners include the Church and State apartments in Ohio City, the apartment renovation of the May Company building in downtown Cleveland, and the Axis on Ansel apartments in the Hough neighborhood.

Outside of Cleveland, such projects include the new Van Aken Development in Shaker Heights, and the Top of the Hill project in Cleveland Heights, both of which mix apartments and retail, with structured parking concealed behind active, street-facing uses.

The County’s Role

Nearly half of the county’s 58 Cleveland suburbs are eager to create the right conditions to leverage more development along transit routes, Hewitt said.

The challenge is that current zoning codes often prohibit mixing retail and apartments or require large amounts of parking that gobbles up space and raises costs while discouraging transit use.

Another issue is that zoning along transit routes often varies widely from suburb to suburb, defeating the idea of creating continuous, high-density development connecting one community to another, Hewitt said.

Under Ohio law, local governments control land use and zoning. But for at least a decade, Cuyahoga County’s Planning Commission has aided suburbs lacking the in-house capacity to create their own master plans for future development. The county’s new focus on zoning is an outgrowth of that work, Hewitt said.

Rebuilding the Tax Base

The county is eager to promote transit-oriented development because it represents an opportunity to add population and rebuild the tax base after decades of sprawl sapped its strength.

Research published in 2020 by and The Plain Dealer showed that Cleveland’s tax base declined 66 percent between 1960 and 2018, losing nearly $9.3 billion in inflation-adjusted value as the city lost population and industry.

Cuyahoga County’s tax base fell slightly during the same period. But while Cuyahoga accounted for 69 percent of the tax base in seven Northeast Ohio counties in 1960, it accounted for only 45 percent in 2018, as surrounding counties grew.

Given that most land within Cuyahoga County has already been developed, communities need to think about how to rebuild for growth within their current footprint, Hewitt said.

Another advantage of redeveloping the region’s core is that it could spur equitable investment in low-income minority neighborhoods that have suffered from white flight and decades of disinvestment.

“If we can bring development back, we are talking about more people that can support more goods and services to support more businesses,’’ Hewitt said. “If we can bring more jobs close to where people live, then we’re creating opportunity.”

Support from the Top

Initiated under outgoing County Executive Armond Budish, the county’s project is strongly supported by County Executive Chris Ronayne, who was sworn in on Sunday.

Ronayne’s opponent in the fall election, Republican Lee Weingart, firmly opposed using the county’s clout to nudge municipalities on zoning and transportation planning because he respected local autonomy. He also said other tasks were more important for county government.

Ronayne reiterated in a recent interview that he strongly supports the county’s ongoing effort to encourage transit-oriented development.

“Model zoning codes are exactly the right approach,’’ he said.” You lay out a blueprint for a community in a home rule state that it can adopt, or not,’’ he said.

Ronayne said he’d support the zoning initiative as part of his plan to create a new county division of mobility and infrastructure to promote what he called integrated development. He said that details would be forthcoming after he takes office in January.

Transit officials are also excited about the county’s project and the long-term prospect that future development could boost ridership.

“The data that we saw in the TOD study initiated by the county shows there’s much more room for transit-oriented development,’’ said Maribeth Feke, RTA’s director of planning.

“One of the key barriers to transit-oriented development is zoning, land use, parking, building heights, setbacks — all the stuff that RTA doesn’t control.”

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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