By Nicole Hennessy
To develop cities’ commercial areas is to increase economic stability. There are the tax dollars that come with new employees, including the construction workers necessary to build or renovate structures. There are the shoppers spending money in the city and homeowners more likely to live in a flourishing area rather than one plagued by consistently empty storefronts.
Usually, with development comes more development: resurfacing of roads, sewer reconstruction and traffic regionalization, a large portion of which can be accomplished with state and county grants.
In the core Westshore cities – Westlake, North Olmsted, Bay Village, Rocky River, Fairview Park and North Olmsted – there is a mall in each except for Bay Village, with Westgate shopping center located on the border of Rocky River and Fairview Park.
Anyone who remembers the old Westgate can conjure up images of a decrepit strip of a mall – a holdover from the 1950s – tucked quietly away in a large parking lot increasingly empty of cars.
Other than personal design preference, it would be hard to argue that this development is not a positive thing.
More people are likely to come from other cities, and the eyesore that was Westgate is no more.
So, is all development good development? If there is land, should the most eager franchise be plopped down on it?
The answers to these questions differ, depending on the city to which they are referring.
Take Bay Village, a mall-less, underdeveloped, quiet city on the lake where modest yet well-maintained shopping centers containing mostly small businesses contribute to the city’s character.
There is very little land in the city available for commercial use, as it is mostly residential. So, whether or not the village’s distinct character is deliberate, Bay works with what it has. By Mayor Deborah Sutherland’s estimation, over 95 percent of Bay is zoned residential.
“Things like a Crocker Park are sort of not becoming of our city culture,” said Councilman Clete Miller.
A few years ago, when the city rebuilt the Dover Junction Shopping Center, adding Mojo’s Coffe and a drycleaner, “those are the kinds of things that are reflections of retail needs that we do have,” Miller added.
These independent businesses are the type that the city doesn’t want to lose. In fact, according to Miller, the city prefers these types of businesses, discouraging franchises other than the few they have that thrive, such as Verizon Wireless and Subway.
“It has to be about sustainability,” he said. “Just because someone has hundreds of acres of industrial or commercial space to build out, it may not be in the best interest of the city to build it out.”
In heavily industrialized Westlake, building out seems to work.
The 75-acre Crocker Park, for eight years, has continued, and is continuing, to grow. Built to resemble a picturesque town complete with cobblestone walkways, glittering sidewalks and fountains, the shopping center in some ways mimics a city, offering every imaginable amenity.
From 2010 to 2011, 57 business either opened or made improvements in the city of Westlake.
According to the official community report, income taxes alone generated $19,136,172 for the city in 2010, an increase of more than $88,000 from the previous year.
Infrastructure, such as asphalt, waterlines and roadways, was improved as a result.
Now legislation is being considered to be decided by voters in November that would rezone a portion of Crocker Park currently occupied by a parking lot to accommodate 24 apartment units, which would contribute even more to Westlake’s growing revenues.
Also, there are the plans to develop a new 655,000-square-foot American Greetings headquarters south of the shopping center.
Despite all of this, as of April, 78.18 acres of vacant land, zoned primarily for industrial, general business or office buildings, remain available within the city.
In Lakewood, an outlying Westshore community, there has been a sudden influx of franchises.
When this happens in Westlake, there is discussion of growth; but in Lakewood, there is discussion of character.
While the two cities are not comparable, looking at how development is handled in each one and how the community reacts to it is a great example of how development works differently in different cities.
While both cities were a part of 19th Century townships, Lakewood became the city it is today in 1911, while Westlake changed until 1940. A glimpse of the houses relay these histories.
Westlake is comprised of fairly new development, as far as neighborhoods are concerned. And, in Lakewood, where old churches and movie theaters are knocked down to accommodate national chains, there is sure to be reaction from the community.
But when old structures like the dilapidated Lakewood Plaza, still under construction, is remodeled, it is hard to complain.
Along with new businesses, the city is in the process of infrastructure upgrades to roads and traffic signals.
“What do we have to show for this investment?” Mayor Michael P. Summers asked in his blog.
“We have a structurally sound, upgraded street ready for its 2nd century. We have traffic signals that will use less energy, allow us to manage and adjust for changing traffic patterns, and will require less maintenance. These signals should be good for 30 years, perhaps more.”
Continuing, he added, “Most importantly, we have a dynamic, revitalized sense of ‘place’ that continues to attract millions in private investment. In fact, there is in excess of $20 million of private investment up and down Detroit.”
Ending the post, he asks whether or not this was a good investment, answering the question by stating only time will tell, but answering in the affirmative, in his opinion.
At one point or another, everyone has wondered whether or not three gas stations at one intersection is necessary, or has wondered how a shopping center’s design might improve. Aversion to development usually, as stated, has to do with residents protecting the character and vibe of their respective cities.
And, as Councilman Miller explained, what works in one city may not in another. It is about recognizing the needs of residents.
Likely, Westlake residents have different needs than those in Bay Village, Lakewood or Fairview Park, which is currently renovating its main shopping plaza.
Conveniently, Fairview is also compiling a new master plan. To encourage community feedback, a questionnaire was mailed out to residents.
Some of the questions referenced what kind of new retail establishments people would like to see.
“The top vote-getter was a restaurant,” said James M. Kennedy, director of service and development. “It’s not that there are not a lot of restaurants of one kind or another – everything from fast food to family-style and chain restaurants – what that reference is alluding to is a nice high-end restaurant.”
He said a good example of what would be a good fit is Morton’s Restaurant Group or Blake’s Seafood Restaurant & Bar.
Another thing the survey revealed is the fact that a lot of residents shop elsewhere for groceries despite a centrally located Giant Eagle.
“It’s kind of interesting,” Kennedy said of analyzing the survey responses, which included mention of a new drugstore.
As construction continues and public comments are collected, the city will consider what will work best for its residents.
Again, in his blog, Mayor Summers made a statement that could apply to any city:
“At the core of both good business and good government,” he wrote, “is a commitment to goals, great customer service, efficient use of resources and effective implementation of thoughtful strategies.”