Slippery Slope

CMHA tries to revive the Riverview

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Councilman Joe Cimperman fears the Riverview will have too little low-income housing. - Walter  Novak
Councilman Joe Cimperman fears the Riverview will have too little low-income housing.
Sixty-year-old public housing resident Clara Bell is tired of hearing about the promises, the plans, and especially the consultant-created studies to redevelop her Cleveland home -- the Riverview Towers on West 25th Street.

So, when the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) and a design consultant organized a meeting last week to solicit input from Riverview residents and the surrounding Ohio City neighborhood on improving the property, Bell -- better known by her CB handle "Crazy Clara" -- unleashed her contempt.

"All this money is going to study the project, when that money could have been used to get me a new toilet or light bulb!" Bell yelled, declining to use a microphone. "We have been studied to death. I need a tattoo somewhere on my body that says, "This public housing tenant has passed all study criteria.'"

Backed by audience applause, this onetime CMHA employee, who lived in other CMHA housing before moving to Riverview in 1996, said she didn't care whether the housing authority renovated or demolished her home. Rather, she demanded, "Just give us an apartment with air conditioning."

In the near future, CMHA plans to do just that, with the completion this month of long-awaited electrical upgrades that will support air-conditioning units in the towers, which house only low-income senior citizens and people with disabilities.

But it is the long-term future of the towers and adjacent CMHA property that is up in the air. The recent public meeting, held in Lutheran Hospital's auditorium, marked the beginning of another attempt by CMHA to transform the mostly vacant Riverview Towers and surrounding land into an attractive and populated public-housing property. Unlike past efforts, though, which focused exclusively on renovating units for low-income occupancy, CMHA is hoping to add upscale apartments for high-income renters and commercial retail into its revitalization plan, which would capitalize on the rebirth of West 25th between Detroit and Lorain avenues.

CMHA has awarded a $240,000 contract to design consultants Goody Clancy & Associates to study such options as narrowing West 25th Street, adding townhouse-style apartments, and creating more pedestrian traffic. It is also charged with organizing a design "charrette," or a series of public meetings for community input into the design process.

CMHA Executive Director Terri Hamilton-Brown told a gathering of about 60 people at last week's meeting that the housing authority plans to seek a developer by year's end to move on Goody Clancy's final plan. But she acknowledged that many uncertainties -- like the costs and support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) -- make it impossible to predict what those final plans will be and whether the Riverview Towers will ultimately be upgraded or demolished. "We are starting with the assumption that we will keep them," she says.

Riverview Towers were built in the 1960s as part of Riverview Estates, an 11-acre development along West 25th, just north of Detroit Avenue, that overlooks the Flats and downtown. The development also included 15 squat garden apartment buildings that became a source of crime and poverty in Ohio City. With little fanfare, all but a couple of those buildings -- a total of 135 housing units -- were razed in the last three months as part of a 1996 plan to redevelop the area.

In 1996, CMHA received a $29.7 million federal grant to revitalize Riverview and nearby Lakeview Estates, located north of Detroit Avenue. The money, part of the government's HOPE VI housing program, was aimed at lessening the concentrations of public housing, changing the physical shape of buildings, and providing better social services to public housing residents. But CMHA's plans for both housing projects stalled because of the housing authority's bureaucratic inefficiencies and a change of administration in 1998.

Since then, CMHA has sought and won HUD permission to use $12.4 million of the original HOPE VI grant exclusively for redeveloping Riverview Towers and the now vacant surrounding property.

Redeveloping the area, David Dixon of Goody Clancy said at the meeting, is unlikely without such components as high-end apartments and retail, which would generate project income.

According to Cleveland Councilman Joe Cimperman, whose ward includes Riverview Estates, the issue of how much upscale housing to add to the project "will be hotly debated."

Cimperman says he is advocating that 60 percent of the project's housing component be set aside for low-income residents, so they can continue to live in the area.

"I don't know if 60 percent will work, but that's where I want to start," he says. "Part of the magic of West 25th Street is that you have a real cross section of Clevelanders. There needs to be diversity."

According to Hamilton-Brown, CMHA's original grant proposal included only a 10 percent low-income component and a 10 percent moderate-income component.

"Our mission is to do affordable housing, not market-rate. But there are some economic realities here. One, we never got enough money under the grant," Hamilton-Brown said. "I am not saying what percentage it's going to be, because I don't know what the economics of the projects are going to be."

One economic reality that threatens to complicate the project is the instability of the hillside from the Riverview Estates to the Cuyahoga River. According to Dixon, the hillside is slowly sliding into the river and must be shored up before any major development can begin. The cost, he says, is between $10 million and $20 million.

This issue has long concerned potential developers who have been interested in building there, says John Wilbur of the Ohio City Near West Development Corporation. "I don't think CMHA property and hillside [are] marketable right now, because of the things that need to be worked out before it can be built on effectively," says Wilbur. "But there are many [entities] coming together that will contribute to the stabilization of the hillside."

For instance, Wilbur says, the city and county governments are trying to secure funds to create a new truck route that would move the heavy traffic off of West 25th Street and into the Flats below. This truck route calls for stabilizing portions of the hillside below Riverview Estates.

Hamilton-Brown says how much money CMHA will contribute or leverage to the hillside stabilization cannot be determined now. Cimperman is concerned by the design charrette, though, complaining that three meetings will not allow for enough public input. "Three public meetings a plan do not make," he says.

But critics like Riverview resident Clara Bell, who called the last meeting a "sham," plan on attending next month's planning session. She says half-heartedly, "Yes, I'll be there at the charrette -- or charade -- whatever they call it."

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