From the start of the movement to establish the Coventry P.E.A.C.E. Campus, the community organizations that call Coventry home have tried to be honest, positive and productive in our dealings with the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, the City of Cleveland Heights and residents. We set out with the hope that together we would demonstrate a successful public-private partnership working for the greater good. We have tried to understand everyone’s concerns, to present options that benefit the entire community and to live up to the name P.E.A.C.E., People Enhancing a Community’s Environment.
Upon watching the video of the November 6 CH-UH Board of Education meeting, our hopes wavered. Our hearts sank with each inaccurate statement and careless insult. The same evening that we met with city leaders and the Heights Library board in the hopes of working out a solution agreeable to all stakeholders, our school district leaders were discussing whether the current tenants of Coventry should be called “squatters,” musing about boarding up the building and even joking about tearing it down. This all played out in front of a mural that read “Developing a Stronger Community Through Unity.”
The school district still owns the property, but BOE members have shown little interest in the P.E.A.C.E. Campus vision. Only one member showed up when we presented the plan at a Cleveland Heights City Council meeting on September 11, and invitations to join us for the community meeting we hosted on September 27 were declined. We offered to present to the board in October, but the response indicated that they didn’t see the point, given their tentative agreement to turn the property over to the city.
Regarding the misleading discussion at the November 6 meeting:
It’s true that most of the current tenants have not signed the month-to-month leases we received in the summer. Those leases were supposed to be accompanied by a memorandum of understanding from the city, confirming what we were told in July about staying in the building through June 2018. We still have not received that memorandum. But all tenants associated with the P.E.A.C.E. Campus proposal have continued to pay rent. So no, we are not “squatters,” and we deeply resent the use of that word in a public forum. We have always acted in good faith with the school district, even after suddenly learning in May that our leases were void and we could be forced to vacate with just 30 days’ notice. We have worked hard to serve our constituencies and to make the Coventry building an asset to the entire community. When elected officials carelessly toss out terms that imply wrongdoing, it is not only hurtful, but damaging. Our reputations are our most valuable assets.
It’s true that the rents are “below market rate.” The rates were set by the school district, and no current tenant was ever asked to pay more. Several organizations are key partners with the school district and provide services at no charge. More important, however, it’s a false equivalency. The school district does not (and should not) provide the same level of service that a commercial landlord would. To be very clear, we are not complaining — we all knew the deal when we moved in. The Coventry building is a special case. The tenants were recruited by the school district, with help from the city, in accordance with the findings of the 2008 Coventry Study Committee, which evaluated reuse options and noted that housing arts and community-service nonprofits was popular with residents.
But the most alarming comments came at the end of the discussion when a board member indicated that emptying and boarding up the Coventry building is a real possibility, and a school district official suggested tearing it down. This elicited laughter.
Not once in the 13-minute discussion did anyone even acknowledge the detailed proposal put forth months ago by the tenants and their partners, a proposal that takes into account the priorities of all stakeholders — school district, city, library, tenants and their clients, and residents.
We truly understand the board’s frustration, but in turn they must try to imagine ours. We’re told by the city that it can’t act on our proposal because of “an understanding” — there is no formal agreement — with the school board to issue an RFQ (request for qualifications) to private developers. We’re told by the school board that it can’t even listen to our proposal because of its understanding with the city.
Now it’s mid-November and we’re just a few weeks away from the tenants, who are trying to plan for 2018, needing to decide whether they can continue to wait, or must begin finding new homes. There is no guarantee that any of these groups — which employ 200 people, most of them Heights residents, and serve thousands more — will resettle in Cleveland Heights.
We understand that there are many details to address regarding the Coventry P.E.A.C.E. Campus proposal. But the choice before our elected and appointed officials is pretty straightforward: Do we try to preserve and build on something that’s already working and enjoys broad community support, or do we let it fall apart in hopes that someone comes forward with a better, as-yet-unspecified plan?
Our vision allows for the transfer of ownership more quickly than if an RFQ process moves forward, and has received strong community support. But unless the school board and city both agree to forego the RFQ process, or at the very least agree to extend our occupancy through June 2019 so that we can submit our plan to the RFQ, then they will run the clock out on our organizations. We will have no choice but to leave, and the hope of Coventry P.E.A.C.E. Campus will be extinguished.
But we remain hopeful and determined to move forward in a spirit of partnership, progress and respect.
You can watch video of the November 6 meeting here. Discussion of Coventry begins at about 1:13:00, and runs about 13 minutesand the link should take you to that point in the video . We encourage you to watch it.
To learn more about the Coventry P.E.A.C.E. Campus proposal, please visit our Proposal Page.
The organizations of Coventry P.E.A.C.E. Campus
ARTFUL’S RESPONSE TO BOE COMMENTS
As you are fully aware by now, news of the conversation regarding the Coventry Site at your November 6th meeting has started to spread. Like many of the organizations located at Coventry School, ARTFUL was also taken aback by several of the comments. And our name was mentioned more than any other organization. Typically, we would view this as a compliment, but in this case we are afraid a certain stigma may now be associated with our name.
When we signed our lease back in July of 2016, we were assured by Mr. Petkac that everyone in the building had always operated on a yearly lease (we had asked for a minimum of 3 years), that each year the leases were always renewed, and if anything were to change we would receive ample notice. We went out on a limb, put our faith in what we had been told, signed the lease, and began the process of raising the $50,000 we would need for our build-out of 18 studio spaces. We were fortunate to find that the community believed in our plan and we were able to raise the money in less than 6 months time. In December, we submitted our plans to you and received your approval, as well as the City’s. And we built, much with our own hands, 18 wonderful new spaces from which artists in our community could create new works and launch their businesses. We opened our doors in March and welcomed over 400 people at our Grand Opening. Two months to the day from that Grand Opening, you informed us that our annual leases were not being renewed, that we would be moved to month-to-month leases and we would receive only 30 days notice before we would have to vacate the premises. If this news was not already enough, you can imagine our further dismay when we discovered that discussions with the city regarding the sale of the building had begun at the same time you approved our plans. It is on us that we took the risk and put our faith in the fact that we would be able to renew our annual lease each year, but it is on you that you knowingly approved our plans (and thus, our outlay of a significant amount of money) when you had begun talks to rid yourselves of the building.
Because ARTFUL’s walls were a significant talking point during your meeting, we do feel it necessary to mention that if you had familiarized yourself with our space, you would in fact know that our walls are a source of pride for us. They are a unique, modular system and we are one of the first organizations of our type to use them. You can rest assured, if we are made to leave the building, our walls are going with us and will not serve as a deterrent to any hypothetical new tenants. And in the case of tearing the building down, perhaps the fact that our walls would no longer be there will help save you a few dollars.
ARTFUL began as a grassroots effort to make creativity and life-long learning more accessible to the people of Cleveland Heights, and the surrounding area. It quickly blossomed into a viable non-profit that would fulfill a glaring void in the city that claims to be “Home to the Arts” – a lack of space in which artists and creators could practice their methods, teach new skills to new people, and a place from which they could launch new small businesses. When we were notified of available space in the Coventry Building, we were actually hesitant. We needed wide open floors and high ceilings, and good, but not direct natural light, lots of sinks, etc. Imagine our surprise when we walked in and were taken to the second floor of the Coventry building where we found all that we had spent so many months looking for. Yet, it wasn’t just the fair cost of rent, or the ceilings, or the open space that made us sign on the dotted line. It was the fact that this rather nondescript building was also home to several other nonprofits. And not just any nonprofits, but some of the longest standing, most well respected organizations of their type in our region. Nationally respected arts, culture and education businesses. This, to a start-up nonprofit, was more valuable than any below market rent, or spacial configuration. We recognized immediately the VALUE of each of these organizations, and the VALUE of being in proximity to them. Being able to learn from them, to partner with them, and to receive guidance from them is something we could never put a price on.
We take it to heart that what has evolved at the Coventry Site has been lost in the discussions you have amongst yourselves. All of us have looked to you and our City leaders not just as the elected officials you are, but as community members, friends and neighbors. So to hear a discussion where the point was to find the proper “term” to refer to us as, maybe even as “squatters”, was more than disheartening. And to hear none of you come to our defense was even worse. May we suggest some terms you may want to use in the future when referring to the people who occupy this beloved space: writer, advocate, parent, grandparent, teacher, educator, volunteer, artist, painter, entrepreneur, actor, director, student, builder, friend, neighbor, resident and taxpayer.
Your dedicated, creative friends and neighbors,