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Cleveland Foundation awards $400,000 to help Sewer District realize 'green' potential

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Drilling giant sewer pipes far underground may not sound like a sexy pathway to urban beautification and economic revitalization for Cleveland.
But thanks to a new program approved Friday by the Cleveland Foundation, the city has a far better chance to capitalize on the full potential of a $3 billion, federally mandated program to reduce the flow of untreated waste into Lake Erie.
The Cleveland Foundation announced today that it is launching a $400,000 program that will marry the engineering prowess of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District with the fine-grained skills of veteran neighborhood planners and urban designers.
The goal is to spend relatively small amounts of early money on design and planning so that when the sewer district performs major surgery far underground on the “gray” part of its project, neighborhoods directly above on the surface will benefit big time.
Instead of capping excavation zones with brain-dead areas of turf grass scattered through the city without rhyme or reason, the sewer district project could ultimately leave behind carefully located new parks, streetscapes and public amenities.
Other efforts will involve creating spongy landscapes on the city’s surface to absorb and filter runoff, including green, pedestrian- and bike-friendly boulevards, which could be laced throughout the city. These amenities, in turn, will help spark redevelopment and trigger other big investments.
That’s already happening with a pilot project Cleveland’s Slavic Village. A $1 million sewer district proposal to trap and filter rainwater with new landscaping along Fleet Avenue helped the city win $6 million from the Ohio Department of Transportation to repave the street with bike lanes and “traffic calming” crosswalks and curb extensions.

Without the sewer district’s involvement early on, the road project wouldn’t have scored high enough among a list of competing projects to win funding from ODOT, said Ward 12 Councilman Tony Brancatelli.
“Because of the green infrastructure, it [the Fleet Avenue project] went from zero to making the cut,” Brancatelli said. “The green infrastructure was what put it over.”
Money and talent provided through the foundation’s program will, it is theorized, create numerous repetitions of the Slavic Village example throughout the city by filling the gap between the sewer district’s mission, budget and skill set, and the needs of the city.
“We’re laying the foundation upon which community amenities can be built,” said Kellie Rotunno, the sewer district’s director of engineering and construction. “The amenities need funding, and the Cleveland Foundation partnership is one of the ways we can build the amenities. We can’t do it without partners.”
To bring its new program to life, the foundation will convene the sewer district with partners including LAND Studio, which has expertise in park planning and management and public art, plus Neighborhood Progress Inc., the Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and others.
“This is a really good example of how to spend some strategic dollars early by bringing experts to the table, stepping up one level higher and taking a good look at what can be done,” said Lillian Kuri, the foundation’s program director for architecture, urban design and sustainable development.

Kuri said that without the early investments in design and the help from community partners, the sewer district’s project might not reach its full potential to make Cleveland more beautiful, livable and economically vibrant.
“It’s now or it’s never, because it can’t happen 10 years down the line,” she said. “We’re planning and thinking about it at the right time so we don’t look back and say we missed this opportunity.”
Kuri said the foundation believes it’s critical now to align the sewer district’s project with the needs of the city because a wave of residential foreclosures has left neighborhoods awash in vacant properties that could be used for everything from agriculture to parks and storm-water retention.
The intitial investment by the foundation could be repeated in coming years, Kuri said. 
The sewer district’s massive investment in water quality stems from a 2011 consent decree ordered by U.S. District Judge Donald C. Nugent. The 25-year plan requires the sewer district to spend $3 billion to reduce untreated waste that flows into waterways and Lake Erie, usually during heavy rains.

The judge’s order allows the sewer district to proceed on a plan worked out with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Ohio attorney general’s office to reduce untreated waste from the current level of about 4.5 billion gallons a year to less than 500 million gallons by 2036.
The program will be funded by five years of sewer district rate increases, averaging about 13 percent a year, which continue through 2016.
In addition to boring huge “gray” tunnels into the earth to store sewage for eventual treatment, the program requires the sewer district to spend $42 million over the next eight years on “green” infrastructure on the surface.
Such projects would echo the Fleet Avenue design, or a related $1.9 million early proposal to create a new park off Union Avenue in Slavic Village.
The sewer district last year identified 20 areas across the city that it could use to reduce flooding and the discharge of untreated waste. The foundation’s investment will help the district ramp up its ability to realize the potential of its “green” program.
But Kuri said the foundation also wanted to define and capture the potential benefits of the “gray” program, which accounts for the vast majority of the spending by the sewer district.
The foundation’s alliance with the sewer district echoes its earlier successes in University Circle, where it persuaded big institutions including the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals to pool roughly $1 million in early design money.
The capital proved instrumental in shaping more than $25 million in subsequent investments by the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, including new Red Line rapid stations at Mayfield Road in Little Italy and at the bottom of Cedar Glen.
The foundation’s partnership with the sewer district also contrasts sharply with the methodology of ODOT in designing its $3.5 billion makeover of the Inner Belt, the system of interstate highways that converge on downtown.
In the decade spent planning the massive highway project, urban design came late in the process and accounted for a minor part of the budget. The foundation is taking the opposite approach with the sewer district.
Kuri said she sees a big opportunity with the sewer district investment because the flow of money — based on local taxes — will be far more steady than federal transportation funding, which is hampered by political gridlock at the federal level.
“We think this is one of the most important investments of our lifetimes,” Kuri said of the sewer district’s project. “This $3 billion over the next 25 years is the largest opportunity we’re going to see to do something really transformational.”

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