Did a Hundred Homeowners Just Change the Great Lakes Forever? – Next City

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Did a Hundred Homeowners Just Change the Great Lakes Forever?

For decades, Great Lakes property owners have stubbornly refused to sell their waterfront land to the public. Then one city got them to part with it for free.

Story by Daniel J. McGrawTwitter

Photography by Bob Perkoski

Published on Mar 19, 2018

Judi and Ron Zivic’s home in Euclid, Ohio, was built in 1920, probably as a summer cottage for an Industrial Age magnate in Cleveland 10 miles east. It’s a 1,400 square-foot beauty with an enclosed front porch and two dormer-style bedrooms. They bought it for $77,000 in 1993 and don’t expect it’s worth much more than that today.

About 250 feet down the street lies Lake Erie, and it’s easy to imagine how much more a water-adjacent house like this would cost in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, or Shorewood, Wisconsin. But in Euclid, proximity to the water isn’t all that valuable. Judi and Ron’s street ends abruptly at the lake’s edge, where a cliff drops down to a beach that’s impossible to access. Their neighborhood — and indeed, most of the city of Euclid — is effectively designed as if the lake were an unfortunate obstacle, something to be ignored as best as possible.

“We had people visiting from California who were amazed you could buy a decent house right on the lake for less than $100,000,” says Ron, a 63-year-old engineer. “People around the country think living so close to a lake like this, with boating and fishing and beaches, would make neighborhoods like this among the most valuable in the area. But they aren’t in Euclid, Ohio.”

Judi agrees. “I think that many cities in the Midwest have had trouble balancing out what their lakes are really for,” she adds. “[It] used to be cities saw their lakes as a place to dump their industrial trash and people didn’t want to live near that. I think that’s changing. People are finally seeing there is some value in living near Lake Erie.”

She’s right about that. Euclid is waking up to the inherent value of its waterfront, as evidenced by a deceptively complex project the city is building at the end of the Zivic’s street. The project is effectively a short boardwalk that will connect two parks with a paved, multi-purpose trail. It’s been in the planning stages for years and is marked by the type of land acquisition issues common in Great Lakes cities.

Now, it’s finally moving forward — construction will likely begin this summer — and urban planners across the United States and Canada are paying close attention, but not to what is being built, exactly. Instead, their attention is on how the city plans to put the pieces together to build it. With this small, inconspicuous waterfront trail, Euclid is doing what many Great Lakes cities thought would never be possible to do along their lakeshores.

In short, Euclid got 100-odd homeowners to voluntarily give the city their private lakefront properties so the public could ride their bikes and spread out their picnics there. Instead of monetary compensation, the property owners will receive in return what they’re betting is even more valuable: a new piece of infrastructure that will stabilize the bluff that their houses sit on above the lake, and a public park near their properties — something that might have once been seen as a drawback. The public, in turn, will finally get access to a prime swathe of their city’s waterfront.

“Having [almost] five miles of shoreline in a city with [nearly] 50,000 people, and those people having little access to the lake, never made much sense to me,” says Euclid Mayor Kirsten Holzheimer Gail, who grew up in a house with a backyard beach on Lake Erie. “What the residents of Euclid are seeing now is that we have an asset in our city and it is Lake Erie. It is an amenity that for years we took for granted — and quite frankly didn’t use much — but now see as an asset that draws people here. Euclid is coming back, and we know that the lakefront is a big part of that now and will be a big part of that in the future.”

Ronald Zivic

How Euclid Lost Its Waterfront

Of Euclid’s nearly five miles of shoreline, only about 5 percent could be considered public parkland. That’s because, like in most Great Lakes cities, rich industrialists bought up most of the waterfront long ago. Those properties are privately owned to this day, often by the original families. For this reason, parks are difficult to create along the Great Lakes. The best option, cities have often found, is to wait for the owner to die and hope that he or she wills the property to the municipality — a distinctly passive approach.

Occasionally, more proactive measures are available. Sims Park is a 30-acre waterfront space in downtown Euclid. In 1923, a rich machine-tool industrialist built a 23-room, 9,200 square-foot mansion on this property. When he lost his fortune during the Great Depression and couldn’t pay his taxes, he turned the house and property over to Euclid on the condition that he be allowed to live there until his death, which came in 1947. The city has owned it ever since, and has invested in a pier and a public beach there.

Sims Park forms the terminus of one end of the waterfront trail Euclid wants to build. The other is an eight-acre property about a mile away that is currently vacant. A while back, city leaders started talking about linking the two spaces with a path along the lake. Over time, the path idea became a concept for a 20-foot-wide paved trail that would stabilize the bluff.

Along that trail will be some small pebble beaches created naturally from the lake flow, and perhaps some tiny parks and paddleboard areas. It will all cost about $11.5 million, and about $4 million of that will come from Cuyahoga County’s casino tax fund. The trail is expected to open in 2019.

The trail project would not have been possible without every one of the property owners involved agreeing to give up their land to accommodate the public space. “We are seeing an evolution in how people are now looking at projects like this,” says Jason Stangland, principal landscape architect for SmithGroupJJR, the lead planning company on the project. “Used to be, people thought parks near their houses would lead to their TV or backyard barbecue smoker getting stolen. But they are now seeing that use of the land this way has benefits for both them individually and the community at large.”

SmithGroupJJR, a more than century-old company with 1,250 employees, has worked on numerous Great Lakes waterfront planning projects, particularly in the Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee areas. But, it sees the Euclid project as unprecedented for Ohio and the Great Lakes. “The partnership with property owners in this project is different than most everything we’ve worked on in our history,” says Stangland.

Getting to this point was even trickier than it first appears. For instance, even though there are only seven properties along that one-mile stretch of lakefront land, the city had to get permissions from more than a hundred property owners in total. That’s because Euclid has a number of private “beach clubs” on its lakefront that are cooperatively owned by households nearby.

On the Zivics’ street, which has a private beach club, the city needed to persuade not only those living directly on the lake, but also those living in about 20 other houses, as well. After years of discussions, every one of the homeowners granted permission for the city to claim the beach club property. They decided that a city-maintained public amenity was better than private access that they had to maintain themselves.

Sims Park Pier

A Fair Deal

“At the beginning, we were thinking about lakefront development and we thought having a boating marina would be a good investment,” says longtime Euclid councilman Daryl Langman. “This was in the late ‘90s, I think. But over time, the cost of the marina and the funding of it was difficult to come up with, especially with the loss of population and jobs in our city.”

During this time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as the state and federal EPA, started looking more closely at Great Lakes environmental and stabilization issues. Along the southern shore of Lake Erie, property owners in cities like Euclid were losing a few feet of their land each year as their lakefront cliffs eroded into the water.

“We had a meeting in 2002 and the U.S. Corps of Engineers were talking about how to make the marina project more fundable, and they thought linking the two parks with a trail on the lake might make the funding available,” says Langman. The trail would function not just as a public amenity, but also as structural support for the cliffs. “They focused on how to fix the erosion problem as how the fund could come about.”

Bill Cervenik, who was mayor back then, knew about the erosion problem. He was a member of a beach club with lakefront property and his club lost 30 feet of land on a single stormy night in 1986. Shoring up the cliffs themselves would have been prohibitively expensive for the lakefront property owners — as much as $1,000 per foot.

“When all this started coming together, we saw that we could link a couple things together,” says Cervenik. “The marina has a good economic benefit element, and the lakefront property owners needed help in shoring up their backyards because the costs were getting outrageous. And doing that would help clean up the lake in many ways, too.”

However, the question of how to get the property owners on board remained unanswered. In the past, cities might have acquired the properties through eminent domain. But the courts have limited the power of eminent domain over the past 20 years, and even in the best of circumstances, the process is often highly adversarial.

To complicate all of this further, there was the question of who owns what. In many Eastern Seaboard states, for example, laws imported from 16th century Britain stipulate that the public owns the beach between the high and low tides. But even though the Great Lakes have high- and low-water marks, it was determined in the late 1700s that since their shorelines are considered to be essentially non-tidal, their beaches are not owned by the public.

The courts have always ruled that Great Lakes’ property owners have ownership up to the lake’s ordinary low-water mark, meaning you are trespassing if one foot is wet and the other dry. This ruling holds for most of the more than 4,500 miles of Great Lakes coastline within the U.S., which is more than double the miles of coast of the Atlantic Ocean states.

For these reasons, it has always been more difficult for cities to acquire waterfront land for public use in the Great Lakes region than it is along the Atlantic coast. Ohio attempted some legal jiu jitsu in the early 2000s when it re-interpreted its lakefront ownership laws to argue that the state could claim the privately-owned beaches for the public. The state’s lakefront property owners responded with a class-action lawsuit in 2004 and eventually won their properties back, plus $2.3 million dollars for their trouble.

With legal maneuvering and eminent domain off the table, Langman says, “We decided to go to the property owners and make an upfront and fair deal. We said, ‘we’ll take care of your erosion problems if you give us the right to the shoreline you own to build a multi-purpose trail for the public.’”

Tony Yankel was the leader of the group that sued the state of Ohio over who owns the lake line back in 2004. As he watched how the Euclid trail project progressed, he was wary at first about a government group trying to acquire private lakefront property for public use. But now, he sees what Euclid has done as aboveboard. “It is an odd concept really,” Yankel says with a laugh. “Instead of going to court and trying to impose their will on property owners, Euclid decided to just make a fair deal for both sides.”

“The property deeds said the people living in that part of Euclid own the land up to the line,” he continues. “But that land has little value if you can’t get to it because your land is eroding into the lake. The property owners needed one thing, and the city another. So they each gave a little bit to the other. Seems fair.”

According to Langman, this was the attitude of most of the approximately 100 owners the city approached. “We didn’t have to do much convincing or threatening people,” he says. “I think local government might take a lesson from this. Treat your residents as equals and offer them a fair deal. Things get done much more quickly that way.”

One of the big players in the process was K&D Group, which owns lakefront apartment complexes with a total of about 1,200 units within the trail design plan. Doug Price, the company’s CEO, agrees that the decision to take the deal was easy. “It was a no brainer for us to sign off on this because it cleans up the back of our property and gives a nice amenity for our residents.”

“But it also speaks to a larger issue,” Price adds. “Euclid has gone through a home sale price problem, and there has to be some rejuvenation in the city to help solve that.” After the mortgage crisis, the average single family home in Euclid dropped in value from $112,000 in 2006 to $32,000 in 2011. Today it’s up to $64,000 — still about half of what it was a decade ago.

Elevating those values further will require broad urban revitalization.

“What makes this project different is that they are seeing the benefits of lakefront access as not just for the few that own the property, but for the entire city. What the city is saying is that we want the whole city to benefit — not just a few — and that is amazing.”

Matt Doss is the policy director for the Great Lakes Commission, the binational public agency that represents, advises and assists its member states and provinces. He thinks what is happening in Euclid is reflective of a larger shift in the way we view public spaces.

“What is happening with this is a change of attitude from the public on the value of public access and the appreciation of amenities on the lakefront,” says Doss. “What you are seeing in Euclid is the change in the structural attitude toward dealing with the Great Lakes access issue, and it is an example of landowners working with government, which has been something hard to overcome.”

Felled trees on the site of the future waterfront trail

The Lake as Economic Stimulus

The Great Lakes actually flow like rivers, especially Lake Erie. The shallowest of the five, it flows in an easterly direction, from Detroit to Niagara Falls. Euclid is situated east of the big industrial polluters near downtown Cleveland, and just five miles east of a big sewage treatment plant that filled the lake with fecal matter for years. It’s also downstream from all sorts of big city beach pollution. In other words, the toxic runoff of bigger cities like Detroit and Cleveland has ended up in cities like Euclid.

That’s why the people that moved from the inner city to Euclid — growing its population from about 18,000 in 1940 to 71,000 in 1970 — weren’t all that interested in the lake. City planning in those years disregarded the lake almost entirely, focusing instead on the factories that grew along Interstate 90, which ran through the core of the city.

Today, the city’s population is about 47,000, and the poverty rate is 20 percent — five percentage points higher than the rest of the state. And while foreclosures have throttled many U.S. cities over the last decade, they were really bad in Euclid: 39 percent of the city’s residential properties were in foreclosure between 2006 and 2016.

Euclid now sees its lakefront as a way to counter these economic headwinds. Water cleanup programs are a major part of this effort. A $3 billion federally-mandated program aims to help the Cleveland area fix a century of sewer dysfunction with a 21-mile network of tunnels to treat the runoff that now flows untreated each year into Lake Erie and its tributaries.

At the same time, however, President Trump’s 2019 proposed budget slashes funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative from $298 million to $30 million. Such cuts threaten to undermine Euclid’s waterfront-oriented revitalization strategies, as they ignore what this inner-ring suburb is quickly learning: Its lakeside location is far from a liability. Indeed, it’s one of the best economic development tools the city has.

“Our lakefront does make us different,” says Mayor Holzheimer Gail. “We as a city are starting to realize that more and more. We have a stronger business sector and good retail choices and great neighborhoods, too. But we are seeing the lakefront ties all those things together.”

Can a short waterfront trail running between one existing park and one possible future park really contribute significantly to the city of Euclid’s rebound? It’s not impossible. Amazon is building a distribution center on the site of an abandoned shopping mall that will employ about 1,000 full-time workers a mile-and-a-half from the lake trail. The city is looking to develop new multipurpose trails to link up to the new trail, as well — some of which will connect the new Amazon facility to the lake.

Regional park planning groups are also looking for ways to connect with Euclid, conjoining the city with its adjacent suburbs and the city of Cleveland. “What this project is doing, in some ways, is people are now thinking about connecting people who use the Cuyahoga Valley National Park between Cleveland and Akron with the lakefront in Euclid,” says Bryan Stubbs, executive director of the Cleveland Water Alliance, a nonprofit private and public connector organization that works on water issues. “How they have done this, linking public access with environmental goals, and dealing with private property owners in different ways, is getting lots of attention. Because they are seeing these projects not just one way, but with many positive possibilities that they think their city needs.”

Isaac Robb, manager of urban projects for the Cleveland-based Thriving Communities Institute, a program of Western Reserve Land Conservancy that just completed a property assessment study on Euclid, agrees. “What Euclid is doing is interesting in that they are doing what many residents say government never does, which is working with [private landowners] instead of against them. But they are also looking to use this [project] in different ways. Inner-ring suburbs with financial difficulties need to stitch together one solid neighborhood with another to use their strengths to help fill in the more problems areas in between. That’s what this project can do.”

There’s an irony to this. Originally, Euclid wanted to build a marina to boost its property values. To get the cash for the marina, the city pursued a lakefront trail that came with some government funding attached. Today, however, the city is starting to see that the trail itself could be the prize — maybe a more valuable public amenity than the marina could ever amount to.

The process has opened Judy Zivic’s eyes, as well. “My dream is that Euclid will start advertising itself as being a city with lakefront access and then list all the ways we do that,” she says. “The media writes about young people living in these expensive condo and apartments in downtown areas, and how the urban downtown living is so great. But they don’t realize those living downtown are growing up and having kids, and not all of them are that rich. They will be looking to places like this in Euclid… This need really exists, and every city in the Midwest on the Great Lakes should look to what we are doing here.”

Daniel J. McGraw is a writer living in Lakewood, Ohio.

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Bob Perkoski is a firmly established Cleveland freelance photographer who captures events in real time. The resulting journalistic photos reveal the stories all on their own with visual flair. Since 2010, Perkoski has documented the area's unprecedented renaissance with a unique and personal perspective for more than 100 clients including Fresh Water Cleveland, Belt Magazine, The Guardian and Sun News.