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Wimp with tremendous socks talks development

On April 1st, 2014, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel discussion talking about development in downtown Cleveland.  The panel discussion was put together, largely, by the group that is for the sin tax, though the Next Generation Council played a big part in trying to frame the discussion as a place for young professionals to engage with the topic and issues at hand. I was honored to be asked to help add some development context based on my experiences and perhaps a layer of what the young professional community can be doing to participate in the discussion and make a difference moving forward on these topics/issues. (admittedly, I was a late addition to the panel)

I am going to try and represent what I remember talking about last night as accurately as possible, though if you were there, and you heard me say something different, please make a comment here so I can correct it.

At the beginning of the discussion, I took a few minutes to talk about the broader use of public financing on projects to try and connect people with a larger understanding of how public money can be used to help leverage private dollars. It was important for me to highlight examples of when I thought it worked really well so that people can decide for themselves when it might not be working so well.   I was fairly careful (I hope) to not portray myself as an expert in public finance, but someone with a few experiences over the past couple years that might be relevant. For example, my experience working not only the design side of things for the Flats East Bank, but also helping put together many of the finance/marketing documents that were being used to try and attract investors and tenants to the project. The amount of public financing support on that project was incredible, and part of the reason the project moved forward in one of the most difficult development environments in decades. The public investment in roadways, infrastructure, public amenities and portions of a parking garage, which all in all was well over $100 million dollars, was a necessarily public investment that helped complete the financing package that otherwise may not have been possible. I personally believe that investment is going to pay enormous dividends as it relates to not only further development in the Flats, but also in the Warehouse District and (finally) on the Lakefront. These districts are all related and connected.  It is going to help create a predictable investment environment where other developers are going to feel more comfortable investing in Cleveland because they’ve seen successful projects completed. What I like about this development model, is the opportunity to leverage public money to allow private investment to have a much larger impact. In cities like Cleveland, public/private partnerships is probably one of the best ways (many argue the only) to do most of these types of developments. The finances don’t work any other way for a variety of reasons…some of which I understand…some of which I don’t. I probably spoke too much at the beginning about this, but I get excited when I talk about the Flats because it was such a large part of my life for so long and a big part of the reason I initially stayed here in Cleveland. I have worked on a number of projects, in and outside of Cleveland, that have very similar development financing stories.

Later in the discussion, I touched on my thoughts about the Euclid Corridor project as another example of a public investment done right. At first, I honestly hated the idea of the Euclid Corridor. Were we really going to demonstrate as a city how INNOVATIVE we were by building…..a bus lane? It just didn’t sound progressive enough and I thought that the 200+ million dollars was too much to spend for such an uninspiring transportation option. Looking back on that opinion, it is pretty clear I could not have been more wrong. No single public investment here in Cleveland has yielded (in my opinion) as many significant benefits as the Euclid Corridor. While still relatively young, the corridor has leveraged hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, even if you DON’T count the investments made on at the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals (mostly because one could argue that they would happen regardless). Look at what we’re seeing at Uptown, MOCA, almost ALL of midtown, some of CSU’s new residential neighborhood and some of the amazing re-investment downtown is seeing in buildings all up and down the corridor in and around the central business district. If you want to read more about exactly which projects are going on, take a look at this map: http://media.cleveland.com/business_impact/other/CLEVE-2011-DEVELOPMENT-MAP.PDF

Then came my apparently memorable line about my potentially foggy memory of my wife calling me a wimp (I spoke to her about this later that night, and she can’t remember saying it…so it actually may have been someone else:). It came when the discussion turned to the Opportunity Corridor. After a few comments from my fellow panelists about what they believed was the potential for the corridor, I found myself a bit frustrated with the conversation. Not because I didn’t want to get into whether or not the Opportunity Corridor was a good idea, but because I feel like we are doing with the opportunity corridor what we did with the casino skywalk. As a community, we take these opposition stances on things at a point in the process where we have very little chance of affecting the result, and then we get nothing. I personally believe that if we aren’t involved early enough, and aren’t likely to see a change based on our passion for a different solution, we need to re-think our opposition strategy to one of negotiation and common ground. This isn’t a completely thought out idea or fine tuned strategy I have, just something I’ve been thinking about recently. It might actually be a little too “wimpy”, because sometimes you do have to take the opposition stance to try and really change something….I can’t say I’ve come to a conclusion on my thoughts on this quite yet…but certainly something I’m thinking about. I just want to see the community start getting things for the investments/concessions it makes or is forced to make.  Apparently none of my above comments were as memorable as my socks…which was another quote in Scene today. Which I honestly didn’t mind, I think he was complimenting me, I just wish he had also dived a bit deeper into the content in addition to the remarks that were made.

Anyways…

Then a question came about why we have such a difficult time developing amazing public spaces. I’m not sure I had a completely comprehensive answer to the question, but there are a couple thoughts I did try to articulate. First, until relatively recently (maybe the last 5 years or so), there really wasn’t much data around that  numerically linked investment in public space to increased surrounding property values. Armed with that data, we are now able to make a much more credible pitch to developers to share ownership (and the expense) of our public spaces. Secondly, we have largely neglected the spaces between our major investments for some time. We put “fences” around investment areas and have never really found a good mechanism for defining the public space between. Recently, this has started to change. The spaces between have become the focus of the conversation, which is going to have a huge impact on the corridors that link our investments.  I personally also believe we don’t aim high enough with our expectations of public space. For example with the pedestrian bridge to the lakefront, we have aimed so low with the design of that structure because of cost constraints, it makes me question whether we should even bother with the investment. Might we get more out of an investment taking West 3rd and East 9th and making them truly remarkable corridors that link to the lakefront than building an uninspired concrete gerbil tube? Check out the results from the 2009 Cleveland Design Competition for plenty of examples of what it means to aim a bit higher (granted, those were in the context of building a new high speed rail transit hub and gateway to the City of Cleveland….but still). http://clevelandcompetition.com/past-competitions/2009-lakefront-station/

(In full disclosure, if you didn’t already know, I co-found the Cleveland Design Competition…Bradley Fink and I have been working with an amazing group of advisors…Steve Rugare, Terry Schwarz, Dan Mansoor and many others…over the years to pull that off in a 100% volunteer capacity)

Considering the funding sources for the pedestrian bridge are just now being solidified, this is one thing I suggested young professionals could get involved in advocating for a better solution that provides more than just a mediocre link to the lakefront. Do we really want the terminus of the incredibly ambitious Group Plan to be uninspired? Don’t we deserve better?

Which brings us to the issue of the sin tax, which I actually don’t think I mentioned once during the debate…mostly because I wasn’t really there to talk about it.  As you can probably tell from my comments above, I am an advocate of public/private partnerships where appropriate public investment yields substantial private returns. I don’t think we would be where we are today as a city if it weren’t for those partnership projects. For example, if you look at Gateway, I can’t imagine anyone would argue that the neighborhood hasn’t been significantly more stable since the development of the arena/ballpark (if you would argue that, please let me know, I’d love to grab coffee and chat about this further). At a development level, stadiums that have been well integrated into downtown neighborhoods DO help to stabilize the restaurant, hospitality and oftentimes surrounding residential environment. It’s probably worth at least noting, at a development level, the Brown’s stadium is a completely different animal because of the lack of integration into downtown…this may change with the development of the new Lakefront neighborhood….so hopefully that development will yield a relationship with the stadium that allows the stadium to have a similar stabilizing impact on the  development.  The real discussion gets a little more heated when people ask is the sin tax really the best way keep these public facilities competitive per our lease obligations. Personally, I can’t say I know a ton about the various options that could be developed.  I have a few friends whom I REALLY respect that truly believe between now and August 2015, a new way of financing our facility obligations can be developed. They may be right. There was one idea in particular referenced to me  about taxing new ad revenue that I thought was interesting. My concern, and what I struggle with, is that right now we are FINALLY see incredibly positive steps…and not just small ones.  The momentum Cleveland is making right now is truly remarkable. We have an environment downtown right now that developers and investors understand. Things are predictable enough that people are investing in new developments (like the Flats, The 9, the Lakefront, etc..) and countless renovation projects that have gotten far less press, but are just as important.  So while I don’t think we have a particularly great model for funding stadium facilities, I think we have a method for funding them that is predictable; which sounds fairly uninspiring, but if it keeps private investors, developers and building owners interested in continuing to transform downtown, it seems worth the investment. The only thing I can say at this point (because I am still personally a bit conflicted on this issue) is that I will be listening to every single interview and reading every single article I can about this issue between now and May so that when the time to vote comes, I can confidently say I am going to cast an informed vote for what I believe in. I hope everyone does the same.

If anyone is interested in chatting more about this, I am always up for grabbing coffee to chat!:)

Best,
Mike Christoff

 

 

 

CMSD Board of Ed Eligibility Requirements – Appropriate or excluding important perspective?

A few comments (admissions?:) to start.

1. My wife and I live in Lakewood (yes, sometimes its hard for me to say, and I could probably throw a baseball and hit Cleveland I’m so close, but it is true that we live in Lakewood)
2. I personally believe the success of the City of Cleveland is inseparably linked to the success of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
3. I personally believe the success of Northeast Ohio is inseparably linked to the success of the City of Cleveland.

Since moving to Cleveland in 2003, I have been incredibly fortunate to have crossed paths with a truly remarkable network of passionate people who all care about different things, but are connected by a passion to make their community better. I enjoy finding initiatives that are important to me where I can offer a different perspective and some elbow grease to have a positive impact. Either by getting involved or helping others get involved.

Recently, the CMSD has posted two openings on their Board of Education. These positions are incredibly important as the Board is responsible for helping the district administration create and execute a successful transition of the entire school system from its mediocre at best past to a trajectory capable of instilling faith and support for a different future. The board has always (as far as I know) had the eligibility requirement that its members be residents of the City of Cleveland. On the surface, this seems to make sense. The board is meant to represent the thoughts, passions and interests of those they are representing while trying to steer the district in the right direction. For a very long time the board was representing the kids and families that attend the schools, which were entirely comprised of kids from the City of Cleveland.

Since moving to the portfolio model, the District has found itself in a position where the kids that are attending the CMSD schools are located from MANY different communities in Northeast Ohio; not just the City of Cleveland. Additionally, with the CMSD formal support of Charter Schools, the number of kids that are served by “dollars from the District” are probably a bit higher than most would imagine. I think this is probably a good thing; the more diverse the backgrounds of the kids of the public school system, the better off everyone will be.  With how much has changed over the past few years, it seems insane to me that we wouldn’t re-evaluate the rules regarding board eligibility. While I do think the majority of the board should be comprised of City of Cleveland residents, it seems there might be room for at least one ”at-large” member.

I’m not saying any of this because I am interested in one of the two current open spots on the board. While I might sometime in the future have interest in serving on the board, I wouldn’t be interested right now even if it were an option; I’ve already committed to Campus International School at least one more year as chair and I’ll likely stay involved in other capacities for longer because I love the people I get to work with. I’m just concerned that we might be excluding important ideas and perspectives that could help position the district for success.

So while I am definitely not an education or board composition expert, I did want to open up a discussion to whether or not we need to re-evaluate the board eligibility requirements to better align with the ambitions of the district and composition of those it serves.

If nothing else, I’d love to learn why it doesn’t make sense to re-evaluate. Maybe there is a better way to take in additional ideas and perspective? Thoughts?

Best,

Mike Christoff

p.s. If you are interested in applying for a board position, you can do so here. It would be an exciting opportunity to give back!

http://portal.cleveland-oh.gov/CityofCleveland/Home/Government/MayorsOffice/CMSD_Board_Application

 

CMSD Facilities Workshop for Downtown

This morning reprsentatives from The Cobalt Group were responsible for facilitating a discussion with the Patrick Zohn, Chief Operating Officer of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and those community members and parents concerned and excited about the distrcits potential educational facilitiy offerings in downtown Cleveland. The session started with an introduction by Patrick Zohn to the various responsibilities that fall to the Operations Division of the district. It was interesting to hear him talk about how the Capital Improvements Division is one of many responsibilites they have. They are also responsible for Transportation, Food and Nutrition, Safety and Security and a few others. He spent some time talking about how before the year 2000, the district really did not have a very comprehensive facilities plan. It was the collapse of the roof at East High (which was only 25 years old at the time), that really shook up the community and made people realize that even though the district was failing, it was necessary to pass a capital improvement levy to make sure the kids were at least safe when attending school. In May of 2001 a $335 million dollar bond levy was passed to upgrade the facilities that it was determined at the time were in desperate need of repair. Those projects were part of an overal facilities master plan that was completed in order to access money from the State of Ohio, which provides significant funds to assist districts in the construction of news schools. One interesting fact is that the State of Ohio does its own enrollment projections for any district that is asking to access the State 2:1 matching funds for construction (actually its technically a little better than that, the State will fund 68 cents of every dollar) .  Based on those enrollment projections, the State will put a limit on the ”number of seats” it will help fund within any particular district. The 2018 enrollment projection for Cleveland is about 36,000. Currently, the State of Ohio has contributed funds to build/renovate 24,000 seats. Which means, the district can only go back to the State of Ohio for 2:1 matching funds for 12,000 more seats before the State of Ohio will no longer be able to issue funds for construction. This is the reason the district wanted to go to the community to find out where the priorities are and determine how best to make use of the resources available to them. The first round of capital improvements resulted in 28 new schools, 7 major renovations and 6 more schools that are currently under construction. Current projections suggest that the district can build 4 more buildings before they run out of funds. So what do we do now. That is the question they are asking.

While I do feel like the session was informative, I am concerned about next steps.  I am also concerned that the room wasn’t packed with dozens of representatives from the various schools already in the area of downtown and community members who want to see a more significant and intentional CMSD presence in the center of the city. There was a wonderful group of parents there from Campus International School; largely because the school is doing so well that they have run out of space and as of now the district has not been able to articulate a facilities vision, either short or long term. In less than 9 months the school will grow to sixth grade (the school is growing by one grade per year), and currently has zero additional square footage in the existing building to accomodate three additional classes (typically the school grows by about 80 students per year). Also interesting, while the district can use Capital Funds and get State of Ohio matching funds to pay for both new construction and major renovations, it is somewhat limited in how it can work with buildings it does not own. I understand why this was the case 50 years ago, but most organizations are starting to realize that owning property is not always the best and least expensive real estate strategy.

There is going to be another meeting in March after the district has had time to get through all of the first round of these meetings. I would love to see more participation from downtown residents and commnity members. I will take some of the blame on this. Perhaps I could have done a better job spreading the word and reaching out individually to people I thought should be there. I was just making the assumption that the word would get out through the typical school channels the same way word got out about the meeting at Campus International. It was, however, great to see people like Fred Geis and Dick Pace there expressing their support for a downtown School. They weren’t there for any other reason than to demonstrate that while they are seeing huge success in downtown Cleveland right now, if we can’t provide families a credible public school option downtown, there is a fairly low cap on their success in bringing new residents to the center of the city.

Overall, I think some good comments were made at the meeting about the civic importance of having a credible K-12 public school downtown and the realization that if you don’t continue to build on momentum and positive outcomes, they will in fact go in reverse. We’ve seen this at the Cleveland School for the Arts where there was a TON of community support for the school as momentum began to build, and then things went radio silent for so long I’m not even sure where the project stands today. I can’t bear the thought of that happening with a downtown school. This is an opportunity not only for the district to provide a world-class education within its portfolio, but also an opportunity for the City of Cleveland to give residents another reason to live in the city proper and not leave when their kids reach school age. Its a business attraction opportunity to be able to communicate to potential new area businesses that their employees have multiple public school options in the area. Most importantly its an opportunity to provide kids here in Cleveland and the region with a GREAT education in a stimulating environment.

Just a quick disclaimer, I’ve tried to represent things as authentically as possible and these are my opinions, not anyone else:) Also, for transparencies sake, I should probably note that I am currently volunteering as the chair of the Advisory Board for Campus International School. If you want to talk to me further about any of this, I would certainly love to learn more about your thoughts.

Cleveland Municipal School District Commits to Building Downtown School

Tonight is a night in Cleveland’s History that I will remember forever.

While it is a difficult conversation, because there are so many things in the school district deserving of additional funding, the decision by the Board of Education to make EDUCATION our city’s next civic statement is going to have impact for decades to come. What a hard discussion, but so important. Today is a GREAT day for Cleveland as the Board of Ed commits the funds from the sale of the administrative headquarters to building a new school downtown.

Last week, I submitted an Op-Ed piece to the Plain Dealer in support of the pending board resolution (CLICK TO READ) to communicate the various reasons I felt this was an important issue to support. That same Sunday, May 12th, Art and Architecture Critic Steve Litt also wrote a very good article (CLICK TO READ) about what opportunities exist as it relates to building a school downtown. While I would like to be fully transparent as I re-iterate my role as chairman of the advisory board for Campus International School, I first and foremost supported this resolution because its the right thing to do, at the right time, with the right funds. I felt strongly enough to make public comments at the meeting, and am posting the notes I used to speak here. While I didn’t get to say everything I wanted because it was very clear that certain points weren’t valuable to the conversation the board was having, I wanted to post my complete thoughts here, even though they didn’t all come out quite like they are written below:

(START OF MY PUBLIC COMMENTS HERE)
My name is Michael Christoff, and for the past two years I have been fortunate enough to serve as Advisory Board Chair for the Campus International School, one of the CMSDs innovative schools and partnership school to Cleveland State University. I am also a past resident of downtown and a current Cleveland resident living on the west side with my wife Jill.

I’ve been lucky enough to spend my entire time here in Cleveland working on professional design projects and volunteer initiatives that have some part to play in the conversation to make Cleveland better place. In 2011 one of those volunteer engagements brought me into contact with Campus International School and the amazing transformation work being done in the Cleveland Municipal School District.  

Since being infected with the passion of transformation and the personal opinion that there is no greater need in the city than to ensure every single child has access to a great education, I’ve tried to do what little I could to help the educators doing the real work make a difference. Their efforts, if leveraged at the right time, in the right place and in the right way have the potential to make an enormous impact not only on education but also on downtown Cleveland.

Over the past twenty years we – as a city – have made a series of really important, momentum building decisions….we have supported the construction of a gateway to the city with beautiful stadiums, we re-invigorated vacant pieces of downtown with new neighborhoods like Cleveland State University’s north campus district, we’ve reinforced aging neighborhoods and started to dedicate resources to reviving struggling ones, we’ve built important public transportation amenities like the Healthline and as a community we supported the district’s decision to transform education in Cleveland…we’ve done an awful lot to build the momentum and hope for a better future that we’re currently seeing…but we’re not there yet…

We now have a decision about what our next civic statement will be…We have an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to education and the District’s stated desire to get more students into better schools more quickly. There are successful CMSD schools like Campus International School that are bursting at the seams, with waiting lists for all grades and a DIRE facility need just ONE short year away when we will run out of space in our current building because of how quickly the school is growing. And while tonight isn’t specifically about Campus International School, it IS about establishing the opportunity to leverage this one-time resource wisely to create maximum financial, civic and educational impact.

We can decide to spread the 4.5 milllion around across the district to what I can imagine are dozens if not hundreds of worthy and important curriculum and program initiatives and risk diluting the impact of the one-time dollars, or we can leverage the resource in a way that not only compounds the financial investment to potentially 13.5 million, but also compounds its impact.

The Board of Education, CMSD Administrators, the Mayor of Cleveland and the amazing teachers of the district have done some remarkable things with your transformation work to date. As a current and dedicated Cleveland resident, speaking on behalf some of the parents here from CIS, and some of the residents and business owners that showed up here tonight in support, I’m hoping you will consider continuing that transformation work with the passage of the resolution to allocate the funds from the headquarters sale to build a school downtown.

Thank you again for your time.
(END OF MY PUBLIC COMMENT NOTES)

 

 

 

In suport of the board resolution, during the public comment period, I made a series of comments for why I thought this was an important issue for the board to support. The week

Well it is about time….

It’s about time!

After about 2 years of not doing anything with this webpage I suppose it’s about time I start using it. It’s been a crazy couple years and while I am not sure what exactly I am going to do with the page, I’m going to do something! If nothing else it should be a good place to catalogue thoughts, discussions and adventures!