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Ohio City park plan, at Irishtown Bend, gets legs with Clean Ohio grant to buy, clear land

A $1.4 million conservation grant awarded Wednesday afternoon will make the first land assembly possible for a planned transformation of a crumbling Ohio City hillside into a 17-acre park with a postcard-ready view of the downtown skyline. The grant, through the Clean Ohio Conservation Program, will pay for acquisition of 6.9 acres along the east side of West 25th Street, just south of Detroit Avenue. Flowing to nonprofit group LAND Studio, the money also will cover the cost of razing empty Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority buildings and tearing up pitted parking lots that create an air of blight. But the grant does more than ensure cleaning and greening within a few years. It puts permanent restrictions on the land. It won't ever be developed as anything but green space. "What this does is irreversibly change the conversation about the future of Irishtown Bend," Tom McNair, executive director of the Ohio City, Inc., neighborhood nonprofit said of an unstable but economically important stretch of Cuyahoga River frontage that once teemed with Irish immigrants. "We're no longer having a conversation about what should be done with the hillside, but when we will do it." West Creek Conservancy, an organization focused on protecting natural areas, will take temporary possession of the 6.9 acres. Eventually, the property will be joined with surrounding parcels to become a park, owned by the city and potentially managed by Cleveland Metroparks. The land transactions aren't going to happen tomorrow. The grant application predicts property transfers in mid-2018, with demolition and landscaping by May 2019. But the Clean Ohio award is a huge step for a public-private group of partners trying to turn a tremendous liability - a hillside where absent bulkheads and crumbling roads threaten commerce on the Cuyahoga River - into a public asset. "Everyone understands that this is a special and unique opportunity," said McNair, who has been exploring creative approaches to the park idea for more than two years. Last week, the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority's board approved selection of a design team to craft a conceptual plan for the park. Separately, the port is shepherding a $49 million hillside-stabilization effort. If the hillside collapses into the river, it could imperil a $3.5 billion shipping industry and 20,000 jobs, including business at the ArcelorMittal steel mill. The port is talking to riverfront landowners about separate property acquisitions. Jade Davis, vice president of external affairs, said the port hopes to have land deals in place by the end of the year and start bulkhead repairs soon after. It's unclear how the real estate deals will be structured, since it appears that the liabilities - the costs of shoring up the river's edge and the potential impact of a collapse - exceed the value of the land. "First things first," Davis said, "we're going to try to get the hillside stabilized." Meanwhile, LAND Studio, the port and Ohio City, Inc., took advantage of opportune timing - and the once-a-year Clean Ohio opportunity - to gain control of key properties that otherwise might have climbed in value and been snapped up by developers with other ideas. "If we're not able to secure this land at this point, and stabilization begins, then the value of these parcels does change," said Joel Wimbiscus, a project manager at LAND Studio. "With them becoming more stable, it becomes a place that can be developed. ... And if the properties become developable, then they become out of reach of conservation." Or, as McNair put it, the group behind the park push wants to guarantee that a hillside that gets fixed using public money - from sources including the state capital budget, the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District - will be open to everyone from residents of nearby public-housing complexes to renters paying $2,000 a month for new luxury apartments. Appraisals put the value of the CMHA properties at $900,000. The agency, required to sell property at fair market value, must jump through federal hoops before transfers can occur. The agency's parcels span 6.5 acres. The remaining four-tenths of an acre belong to the Snavely Group, a private developer that has agreed to donate the property - valued at $95,000 - to the park project as part of a local matching contribution to secure the Clean Ohio grant. "I believe that this is really the most important thing happening at the intersection of West 25th and Detroit," said Pete Snavely, Jr., elevating the green space above the $60 million, mixed-use apartment project that his family's company is building at the northwest corner of that intersection. "I think that this park is one of the most meaningful things that has happened in the neighborhood and the city for a long time." The park will connect to the 6-acre Ohio City Farm, a growing network of trails, a major public-transportation corridor and residential neighbors ranging from the senior apartments at CMHA's 498-unit Riverview Tower to the new West 25th Street Lofts on Church Avenue. Renters started moving into the lofts, a preservation project a decade in the making, last fall. The 83 apartments are roughly 85 percent leased, at rents starting around $1,000 a month. Developer Rick Foran said the park plan validates the potential that he and co-developer Chris Smythe saw in that long-tired stretch of West 25th years ago. With more residents arriving and an Italian restaurant with a patio set to open on the apartment complex's first floor in June, Foran can't wait to see the empty CMHA buildings demolished across the street. "So many people have come in to inquire about our apartments," he said, "and one of the questions has always been what about that, across the street? It has always been sort of a raw sore, just the fact that it's boarded up and abandoned and all. We feel like this will change that to a more positive place to be. ... If you go to other cities, there are a fair number of urban parks that give relief and outdoor experiences to those who are in densely populated areas." Land-acquisition plans for two other properties along West 25th, which bookend the CMHA buildings, still are evolving. The 17-acre park boundaries include an empty commercial building at the southeast corner of Detroit and West 25th and a 1950s Travelodge motel occupied by a transitional housing complex called Front Steps. On Monday, the Cleveland Board of Zoning Appeals voted to approve variances for a new housing transitional-housing complex south of Lorain Avenue, at West 25th and Queen Avenue. The current Front Steps facility is outdated and imperiled by the hill's gradual slide, said Councilman Kerry McCormack, and the new location will keep an important service in Ohio City while clearing more land overlooking Irishtown Bend. "This dream of a park is becoming a more realistic dream and vision every day," he said. "And this is something that is going to be transformative for the neighborhood and for the city."

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