Voters in Lakewood are preparing for a contentious day at the polls in November. Among the ballot issues attracting the most attention is the city's controversial West End Development. Citizens have been asked to decide if the best way to increase the town's revenue base is to knock down homes and replace them with condos and a shopping center. As ideastream's Renita Jablonski reports, it's a vote pitting neighbor against neighbor.
Kate Robson has lived in her cozy Lakewood neighborhood for the last 11 years. She has good friends here and loves the city. But she doesn't feel comfortable inviting people to her home anymore, especially reporters. She's a little more at ease talking in a discreet corner at a neighborhood bar.
Kate Robson: I was leaving a council meeting and I got an escort to my car. There have been threats in the neighborhood, now I'm not talking fire-bombings or anything, I'm just talking verbal. It's harassment.
Robson lives within the borders of the footprint where city leaders want to see a $151 million retail and condominium complex built. Her home, along with about 50 others would have to be knocked down. She's an active supporter of that plan, and that hasn't made her the most popular person on the block.
Kate Robson: This will build Lakewood. It will keep tax dollars in Lakewood. It will prevent more suburban flight. There will be new condominiums. This will be a shot in the arm for Lakewood.
Robson says she can remember the plan first being discussed 10 years ago. Lakewood's planning commission, city council, Board of Education, and Chamber of Commerce all endorse the project. In May the city agreed to put up $35 million to help build it. Developers had planned on breaking ground this fall but bulldozers won't be moving in any time soon. A group of citizens gathered enough signatures to put council's decision to a referendum vote November 4th. Voters will also see an initiative to change the city's charter, requiring any decision on future development to go through the election process. Lawyer Gerald Phillips helped organize the petition drive.
Gerald Phillips: This project is basically mortgaging the future of Lakewood on the basis of the success of this, therefore the taxpayers ultimately are going to bear the risk, they should have a right to vote on it.
Ned Hill: What these initiatives say is the people of the city of Lakewood don't trust their elected representatives.
Ned Hill is an economic development professor at Cleveland State University's Levin College of Urban Affairs. He's passionate about the West End situation, not only because it's the kind of scenario he studies for a living but also because it hits close to home. He's a Lakewood resident.
Ned Hill: A city that wants to maintain its services and wants to maintain its diversity, because a large fraction of Lakewood's schoolchildren are eligible for federal lunches, this is not a uniformly wealthy town, the city has responsibilities for police and fire, and the city has a responsibility to all the homeowners and renters in that town of maintaining itself as a viable public service unit. It can only do that by developing its tax base.
Jim Saleet: I live in Scenic Park in the west end of Lakewood and my wife and I have lived there for almost 40 years and we've raised four children there and now the city of Lakewood wants to take our home by eminent domain.
Jim Saleet and nearly a dozen neighbors like him make this much more than a simple ballot issue. Saleet is being represented legally by the Institute for Justice. The libertarian think tank based in Washington is challenging the city's designation of the west end neighborhood as blighted. As Lakewood Mayor Madelaine Caine admits, it's that designation that would allow the city to use eminent domain to take control of the Saleet's home.
Madelaine Caine: It is a condition that must be met based on objective criteria in order for economic development to be considered a public use.
Saleet doesn't buy it. That's something he's made clear at countless city council meetings.
Jim Saleet: We will fight and we will win! Because you know, as well as we do, that our neighborhood isn't blighted!
The Saleet home is decorated with "Fight Eminent Domain Abuse" signs in the windows facing the street. Kate Robson says she understands why Jim and his wife don't want to move. They've spent most of their lives in their Gridley Street home and they have one of the best views on the block, overlooking the sprawling woods of the Rocky River Metroparks Reservation. But her view is different. Driving up and down the dead-end streets that could be the future site of the Shops at West End, Robson points out some not-so-scenic areas.
Kate Robson: If you look to the right, you can see mattresses and trash, and fallen tree limbs, tires.
According to the project's developers, at least 70% of homeowners in the West End footprint have already agreed to sell. Kate Robson is one of them.
Kate Robson: I truly believe that the Saleets are doing this on principle, you know, they want to remain in their home for the rest of their life, I can respect that. But I want to sell my home and I'm being kept from selling my home.
After November 4th, the fate of the West End project will be a little clearer. But Robson says she plans on leaving regardless if Issue 47 passes, and regardless if blight lawsuit and the fight against eminent domain are successful. She says the issue has split friends and neighbors to a point where she no longer feels a sense of community. In Lakewood, Renita Jablonski, 90.3.