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Judge grants order temporarily halting Cleveland schools' removal of trees at Cudell park

Yellow caution tape is tied around the trunk of each of three trees on a lawn beside a fenced-in, asphalt athletic court.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
The trees, with yellow caution tape around them at Cudell Commons Park on Cleveland's West Side are expected to be removed to make way for a new Marion C. Seltzer School.

A Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge has granted a restraining order to activists on Cleveland's West Side, temporarily halting Cleveland Metropolitan School District's plans to build a new school that would require removal of some mature trees at Cudell Commons Park.

The motion for a temporary restraining order, which was granted this week by Judge Nancy Margaret Russo, was filed by a handful of residents with the Friends of Cudell Commons Park advocacy group. Former Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich also signed onto the effort. The restraining order will be in effect through the end of October, and will prevent removal of the trees and elimination of any green space in the park during that time.

Marion C. Seltzer's principal, in a letter to families Wednesday, noted that construction of the new school will be "on hold" pending court review.

"We understand this delay may be extremely disappointing for some of our families who are anxious for construction to begin," Principal Caitlin Kilbane wrote. "The District's priority is ensuring students have an excellent education and learning environment where quality instruction can occur.

The school district has planned for years to replace the nearby aging Marion C. Seltzer School with a new building. The school district and city approved a land swap in 2021 so the school district could gain access to land at the park, just to the north of the current site of the school.

CMSD’s architect has said 34 trees at the park will be removed from the park to make way for the new school facility. The design will rework the park to be sandwiched between the school and the nearby recreation center. The city will also work in tandem with CMSD to build several new recreation amenities like a new basketball court, ballfield and a multi-purpose recreation field.

The motion for a restraining order argues that the deed of the land that was given to the city by Frank Cudell, a Cleveland architect who died in the early 1900s, expressly requires the city and any future owners of the land to preserve the space as a park. It also argues that the neighborhood will be seriously harmed by the removal of green recreational space, along with the loss of shade and other environmental benefits from the trees.

“Despite numerous public meetings and widespread outcry from adjacent property owners and the broader Cudell neighborhood community at the prospective unnecessary loss of so much of the neighborhood and park’s tree canopy, CMSD and City officials doubled-down on their intention to remove the trees from the northeast corner of Cudell Commons and eliminate the greenspace area that Frank Cudell directed be kept for park purposes, forever,” the motion for the restraining order reads.

Ideastream Public Media has previously reported that Cleveland Councilmember Jenny Spencer, whose ward includes the park, said the city’s tree preservation ordinance fell short in this situation. By the time the city forester had a chance to review design plans, they were already final. Project planners have said changing the design at that point could cost more than $1 million.

According to a timeline of events created by the activists, while the school district has planned to build a new Marion C. Seltzer School since 2014, an updated design of the new facility requiring removal of the mature trees wasn't presented to the public until October 2022. The activists have argued the community wasn't adequately engaged in the process, while Patti Choby, with Cobalt Group, Inc., a consultant for the project, has said multiple community meetings and opportunities for public comment have already passed.

Updated: September 21, 2023 at 11:11 AM EDT
This story has been updated to include details about a judge granting the restraining order.
Updated: September 20, 2023 at 1:38 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include a statement from Marion C. Seltzer School's principal.
Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.