How the West End Was Won

An elderly Lakewood couple and their neighbors save their homes and bring down a mayor, with a little help from some Washington lawyers and "60 Minutes."

In a picture, they're adorable. Grandma wears bright, soft sweaters, and her blue eyes shine like gems framed by little oval spectacles. Grandpa wears retired-guy flannel, and his boxy glasses magnify his sad-looking brown eyes.

But when Grandpa starts talking, his loud voice pins you back in your chair, and soon he's roaring with anger.

"We've gotten to about 50 meetings," Jim Saleet says. "They hate us because we go at 'em. We say, 'This is wrong! It's stealing!' "

You don't want to pick a fight with Jim Saleet. When he played football in the Navy during World War II, his teammates called him "Hoss" — and at age 75, his gap-toothed scowl still looks tough. If you're, say, the mayor of his town and you try to seize his house and tear it down, he'll hound you at meetings until the voters reject your signature project and cast you out of office.

"We're fighting them tooth and nail!" Jim shouts. "They thought they'd roll through this neighborhood."

Instead, Jim walked across Lakewood and back last winter, leaving fliers at every house on Lake Avenue and Clifton Boulevard. "Your Lakewood neighbors need your help," they read in scarlet capital letters. "Beware! Will the city take your property next?"

Lakewood, desperate for new economic development, wanted to push the Saleets and hundreds of their neighbors out of the way so a developer, CenterPoint Properties of Cleveland, could build a shopping center and condominiums at the city's West End. Mayor Madeline Cain promised to seize 54 homes and four apartment buildings with the city's power of eminent domain if their owners wouldn't sell and move.

Most of the homeowners agreed to sell. But the Saleets and a small band of neighbors refused. The Saleets had spent 36 years looking out on the Rocky River valley from their porch and bedroom window. They want their daughter to inherit their house, then her son.

So this summer, Jim walked Lake Avenue again, in the Fourth of July parade, at the head of his fellow resisters. Their float, built in the Saleets' garage, was decorated with a quote from the Bill of Rights ("nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation"). His grandson, Rick Young, shouted, "Stand up for your property rights!" through a microphone over Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A.," Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" ("They paved paradise and put up a parking lot") and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It."

The crowd loved them. "They were just screaming at me, yelling, like I was the mayor or something," Jim says.

The real mayor of Lakewood was getting more jeers than cheers. Madeline Cain had looked at the scary realities of sprawl, of our love for shiny new houses and shopping centers, then looked at her city, built before 1930 and trying to age without declining. She thought she had to be daring and tough-hearted.

Cain compared the $150 million "lifestyle center" to Lakewood's Gold Coast, which was built despite some opposition and shores up the city's tax base today. She claimed that Lakewood's fate turned largely on the project. "Don't we have the same obligation that that mayor 40 years ago embraced?" she asked. "Or do we very literally abandon this community's future?"

The Saleets' supporters circulated petitions and forced a referendum onto the November ballot. Lakewood voters had to decide: Were they willing to sacrifice a neighborhood and displace hundreds of people so that they could have a new place to shop and the city could prosper?

Just barely, they said no.

How did the Saleets and their friends get 8,000 people to stand up for them? They staged the perfect citizens' revolt, a catchy PR campaign coordinated by their Washington, D.C., lawyers and narrated by Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes." Some bad math about the project's finances helped. But mostly, they won thanks to their stubborn willingness to fight for 19 months and their simple argument: You have no right to take my home.

Here's how they did it, a grass-roots handbook for taking on City Hall in nine easy steps. Some tactics are noble, some ugly. Of course, you could say that about the other side, too.

Pick an attractive elderly couple as your spokespeople.

"Welcome to our blighted home," JoAnn Saleet said, standing next to her modest 1929 colonial at the end of Gridley Avenue one September morning. She noticed my eyes wandering to their gorgeous view of the valley: the trees a hundred shades of green, the distant shale cliffs below Riverside Drive cascading down to the river.

"I wonder what the developers want," she said with a little smile.

If the West End fight caught your attention, you've probably heard the Saleets. They were interviewed on "60 Minutes." JoAnn wrote an op-ed piece for The Plain Dealer. Jim spoke at a League of Women Voters debate in October.

The Saleets moved into their house in 1966, bought it two years later for $18,000 and raised four kids there. Jim worked in sales for drug company GlaxoSmithKline and coached youth flag football at the Lakewood YMCA. JoAnn owned a photography studio in Willowick. Retirement meant daily swims in the Lakewood High pool, Jim's solo walks in the Metropark and long days relaxing on their screened-in porch.

They didn't hear, in January 2001, that a study called their neighborhood Lakewood's best location for new economic development, or that a little-noticed line in the study called their street an ideal place to build new condos.

In spring 2002, Lakewood's government announced it had invited a developer to tear down the neighborhood. Anxious neighbors gravitated to the Saleets' house.

"[Jim] was a calming influence," JoAnn says. "He put things in perspective." From the beginning, he said, "We're not going to sign. They're doing it all wrong." They were furious that the city would use eminent domain — the power to seize property for a public purpose — to give their land to a private company.

Since the Saleets were retired, they had plenty of time to fight. They denounced the plan at council meetings. They never entertained the developer's offers, as some of the resisters did. Their house was poster-perfect: bigger than most in the neighborhood and on the cliff's edge. When the neighbors sued the city, the Saleets were the lead plaintiffs.

"The Saleets are my mom and dad. The Saleets are your mom and dad," says Lakewood councilman Brian Corrigan, whose ward includes the West End. "The Saleets are salt-of-the-earth people. I'm a lawyer. I would want Jim and JoAnn Saleet to be my plaintiffs."

Choose a villain.

Every good movement needs an enemy. For the Saleets, it was Mayor Cain.

To her supporters, Cain was the strong, principled leader voters often say they want. A good administrator, she bragged about rebuilding Lakewood Park, fixing up more streets and sewers, and expanding safety services without raising taxes during eight years in office.

But when she muscled the West End project through council, thinking it'd help Lakewood compete with Westlake and Avon's new homes and shopping, it was easy for her enemies to cast her as arrogant and uncaring.

With a master's degree in public administration, Cain says she originally imagined a career behind the scenes in a mayor's cabinet. Once in office, she became so busy with running the city, she admitted in October, that she didn't connect with people enough. Her monthly "mayor's nights out" petered out to a couple a year.

A former nun, she became the stern taskmaster telling Lakewood to toughen up and accept some pain for its own good — when she could have said she'd felt the pain herself.

Her family lost a home to eminent domain while she was in college, when the Cleveland schools expanded her old elementary school, Alcott School at West 104th Street and Baltic Avenue. Her parents were upset, but they moved to a modest house in Bay Village that they loved. "Having lived through that," she says, "[I] know there can be life after eminent domain."

If she could talk to the Saleets alone, she says, "I would tell them I was very sorry that the public good is affecting them so personally. It saddens me."

The Saleets, who watched Cain ignore their protests, don't believe it.

"Nothing saddens her," snaps Jim. "She's not capable of being saddened. She cares nothing about the citizens."

Choose a good name.

The protesters found a catchy name for their neighborhood in a flash of imagination. One night, Krista Blum, a Latvian-born college instructor who owns a Swiss-chalet-like house on Graber Drive, was haranguing city council. She remembered that her property tax bill calls the neighborhood "Scenic Park" because it was built on a former city park.

"How can you call this neighborhood blighted, when it's been called Scenic Park all these years?" Jim remembers her saying.

After that, the group used the name whenever it could — even on invitations to their "blighted block party" last summer.

Find the other side's weakness.

To tear down the Saleets' neighborhood, the city had to make it look bad. It had to declare the area "blighted" either to use eminent domain or to finance the development (depending on which lawyer you asked). So it hired a consultant to look for decay.

You've seen the neighborhood if you've driven into Lakewood from Rocky River on the Detroit Avenue bridge. It includes the four boxy apartment buildings south of Detroit, a little street (Detroit Avenue Extension) with a mishmash of buildings and four hidden dead-end streets of homes.

The apartments are drab, even ugly, no-frills living for people who can't afford something stylish. The city's blight study declares them in "poor" condition and tallies up their flaws. It says the neighborhood attracts more police and fire calls than nearby parts of Lakewood. That's because of the apartments, says Cain. An old pool is fenced off, its sides crumbling, brackish rainwater in the deep end. On one October day, dumpers had left a couple of tires, a dresser, a mattress and assorted other garbage near another fence. By suburban standards, the area is pretty run-down.

But three of the dead-end streets — Rio, Graber and the Saleets' Gridley — are lined with nice, pretty, small houses. The blight study struggles to find fault with them. They're on small lots and it's hard for police cars and fire trucks to turn around in the dead ends, it says. It calls the houses "obsolete," but takes its definition from the Shopping Center Development Handbook, and shows that the development would pay more taxes than the current residents as evidence. The study's definition includes "loss in value" — but the houses' values aren't declining.

"Everyone with eyes knows we're not blighted," Jim Saleet said at the voters' forum in October. "Our county appraisals are up 14 percent. Obsolescent should mean people don't want to buy those homes."

Instead, the study compares the homes to new area homes. Many are only about 1,100 square feet, while new homes are at least 1,400, it says. Many have only one or two bedrooms and most only one bathroom. Most have a one-car garage, and a few have no garage, it says, "while it is now standard to expect a two-car attached garage with a single-family home."

That was the soft spot that JoAnn and Julie Wiltse found after a week of reading the 3 1/2-inch-thick study on the Saleets' porch. The neighbors quoted it over and over, and claimed that under that standard, most of Lakewood was blighted — including the mayor's and council members' houses. It wasn't quite true; most Lakewood homes are bigger, not on cramped dead-end streets and not close to borderline-shabby apartments. But the development's supporters never lived it down.

Get the media on your side.

About 20 people gather in the Saleets' living room on the last Sunday in September to watch the Saleets and Cain on "60 Minutes." At quarter to 8, the room gets quiet as Mike Wallace comes on. He describes how governments use eminent domain to build roads and courthouses.

"But did you know the government can also seize your land for private use if they can prove that doing it will serve what is called 'the public good'?" he asks.

Jim appears on the TV and his friends clap. He's sitting in his living room with an American flag hanging outside the window behind him.

"The bottom line is, this is morally wrong, what they're doing here. This is our home and we're going to stay here," he says.

Wallace explains their situation. "The Saleets are in effect saying, hell, no, they won't go!" People laugh.

Mayor Cain appears. "This is about Lakewood's future," she says. The group boos and drowns out the rest.

Are you saying the neighborhood has to be sacrificed? Wallace asks her.

"That neighborhood is being asked—" she says. At the word "asked," everyone groans.

Wallace appears on the Saleets' deck, with the Rocky River swimming beautifully behind him. Condos will go here, where the Saleets' home sits, if the city can kick the Saleets out, he says.

The mayor states that an area is legally blighted if it "can be used for a higher and better use." It's city plannerese, and Wallace jumps on it.

"Wait," Wallace asks. "What's higher and better than a home?" The group cheers.

"The term 'blight' is used to describe whether or not the structures generally, in an area, meet today's standards," Cain says. So Wallace lets the Saleets summarize the blight study. They say it's about bedrooms, bathrooms, central air and garages.

Wallace asks the mayor if her home has an attached two-car garage. No, she says. "Blight," Wallace responds.

The screen shows Cain in extreme closeups, stumbling over her words, as if she's been caught lying. But it's hard to tell if she couldn't defend herself or was the victim of selective editing.

Wallace interviews the Saleets' lawyers, from the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, and people fighting eminent domain in Arizona and New York, then returns to Jim.

"If my home isn't safe, nobody's home is safe!" Jim says.

Everyone cheers at the end.

"They took hours and hours of tape," JoAnn says.

"The mayor looked like a witch," Jim says with glee. "She looked awful on camera."

The phone rings and JoAnn answers. Someone from New London, Ohio, is calling to congratulate them for "standing up for America," she says. Some Institute for Justice lawyers call next: They're having a party, too. The Saleets' friends break off into conversations and dig into the cheese cubes, grapes, salad, brownies, chips and dip on the table.

Jake and Rick Young, the Saleets' grandsons, have moved into the neighborhood to join the fight. Their landlord had to move out of state, but didn't want to sell to the developer, they explain, so their grandparents lined them up as renters. Jim puts his big hands on Jake's shoulders. "You were fantastic on that picket," he tells him.

The Saleets' fridge is covered with mementos of their battle: JoAnn's Plain Dealer piece, a quote from Winston Churchill — "If you are going through Hell, keep going." — and two pictures of Wallace posing with the Saleets.

When Wallace visited, JoAnn says, he did a "Sound of Music turn" in their yard, looking out over the cliff, and said, "You've got to be kidding."

"I knew we had a friend," JoAnn says.

She isn't sure how the American flag ended up behind Jim on the program. It hangs outside the dining-room window, not the living room. They must have moved the flag, or spliced two camera shots together, she guesses.

Get sharp lawyers.

After the Saleets appeared in The Plain Dealer, posing sadly next to their family pictures, lawyers with the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest firm, visited them, then took their case.

IJ lawyer Dana Berliner says they checked the map when they arrived, because they couldn't believe Gridley Avenue had been called blighted. "I've seen a lot of ridiculous blight designations, but this one is one of the worst I've ever seen," she says.

One of the institute's causes is fighting government use of eminent domain to clear land for businesses. (IJ also helped defend Cleveland's school-voucher program.) It made Lakewood a test case, suing over the blight study.

Cain complains that IJ's savvy press releases attracted "60 Minutes'" attention. But that hardly made the pro-development side the little guy in the David-and-Goliath battle, since it outspent the anti-development side $30,000 to $4,300, according to October campaign filings. But two IJ staffers did get involved in the referendum. They came to Lakewood in early October to plan campaign events, and one returned just before Election Day to organize a Sunday picnic in Lakewood Park and an election-eve candlelight vigil, patterned after events IJ organized with groups in other states.

Even the neighbors' appearance at a September city council meeting was prepared by the lawyers, from their T-shirts to their snappy speeches.

The Saleets walk in wearing matching white shirts with a red circle and slash through the words "Eminent Domain Abuse." JoAnn hands out copies of their group's remarks, another attack on the blight study, which she says the institute prepared based on information the group gave them. Five of them each read a section during the public comment time. All read straight from the text, except Sue Horn, a nurse wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and an unbuttoned black blouse, who ad-libs extra comments.

Jim speaks last, in the loudest, angriest voice, like a hammy actor in a community-theater production, tearing through the text with bewildered outrage. He has good material to work with: the blight study's "site deficiencies," an inspector's list of every imperfection in their neighborhood, including a "disheveled bush" (people in the audience giggle) and weeds on the Detroit Avenue bridge. "No one told me if I didn't weed the bridge, I'd lose my home!" Jim bellows.

Neutralize the opposition.

At the Saleets' "60 Minutes" party, the protesters pull out a poster-sized map of the neighborhood. Red marks everyone who won't sell: all four apartment buildings, much of Gridley Avenue, scattered homes on the other three streets.

Gray marks most of the area's homes, because 41 of the neighborhood's 54 homeowners signed purchase agreements (though some let them lapse).

Kate Robson, a cardiac sonographer, wants to sell her Rio Street house and move in with her ailing mother in Strongsville. A knee injury makes it hard for Robson to climb her stairs. She says the developer made her a very fair offer.

Robson joined the "Yes on Issue 47" campaign, and she insists the neighborhood is blighted and obsolete. When she bought a new washer, she discovered it wouldn't fit through her tiny basement door. She had to pay to have it disassembled and rebuilt inside. Her garage is so small that when she rented a Ford Taurus, it wouldn't fit inside. "Houses have a finite life," she says.

She thinks the Saleets are "narrow-minded" and "grandstanded" at council meetings. "They're not interested in hearing your side," she says. Elderly residents have felt intimidated by the development's opponents, she adds, because they keep asking them if they've signed options.

Sue Delzani agreed to sell her house on Gridley and moved elsewhere in Lakewood. "I cried and cried when it was time to leave," she says. Now, she loves her new house, which is much bigger. But this fall, she was stuck with two houses, because the referendum kept CenterPoint Properties from taking possession. She tried to get the referendum thrown off the ballot on a technicality, but gave up when it looked hopeless.

She doesn't think the area is blighted. "It's just a term that is used so eminent domain can come into play," she notes. But she's still for the project, because she thinks Lakewood badly needs new development. She says she asked the "60 Minutes" crew if they wanted to talk to a resident who was for the project, and they said no.

"We haven't lost any friends," Delzani says. She hugged Jim Saleet when she saw him at the voters' forum. "I'll feel sorry for them and the neighbors, if it comes to the point they have to leave. But they'll survive."

Larry Seidel, the Saleets' next-door neighbor, went to meetings to fight for his house at first, but eventually signed with the developer so he'd get the best deal if the project went through. A bus driver, he's 60 and tired of climbing his stairs.

Seidel calls some of the protesters "opportunists" because they talked to the developer, then rejected its offers and fought. He says JoAnn Saleet apologizes to him for how things are going, but he hints that Jim isn't as understanding.

Jim insists he respects neighbors who've signed. "It's their own decision. That's fine," he says.

The Yes campaign's literature reminded voters that most West End homeowners had agreed to move. It printed testimonials from some of them. CenterPoint Properties' offers had averaged 126 percent of fair market value, it added.

The No side fought back with its own testimonials and noted that renters in 500 apartments would be kicked out, too. One apartment resident who joined the No campaign registered 75 fellow tenants to vote. Sure enough, on Election Day, the two precincts that included the development area voted against the project, 295-170.

When a politician makes a mistake in your favor, run with it.

The Shops at West End would have been a mix of stores, restaurants, condos and a movie theater designed to look like a classic American Main Street. "Pottery Barn," read a prominent sign in the attractive sketch sent to voters. It was billed as a "lifestyle center" like Lyndhurst's Legacy Village, except that it would be in a real neighborhood and people would live there.

The protesters predicted the development would fail, that the city would lose the money it would invest in it, that it wouldn't generate enough taxes to make it worthwhile, and that middle-class Lakewood residents couldn't afford its "upscale" shops.

Actually, there was no reason to believe The Shops at West End wouldn't have been as wildly popular as Legacy Village. The area has more wealthy shoppers nearby than Westlake, since Lakewood is so dense, the developer says. Middle-class residents could have afforded a California Pizza Kitchen dinner, a book from the bookstore or a movie ticket. And city planners estimated it would have generated $30 million more in taxes for the city and schools over the next 30 years than the properties there now.

But Tom George, a councilman and mayoral candidate who'd questioned the project yet voted for it, posted a message on the Lakewood Buzz Web site in August, saying that "Cleveland Tomorrow has calculated the overall benefits of the project to be $4.5 million after 30 years" — one-sixth of the city's figure.

The opponents used the $4.5 million number in their campaign literature from then on. But there was no such study. One Cleveland Tomorrow employee had helped the city analyze the project in her spare time — but she agreed with the city's figures. The treasurer of the No campaign couldn't document the $4.5 million number when asked, and George did not return four phone calls.

When the other side is pessimistic, be optimistic.

"We have no land for development," ex-councilman Joe Gibbons, a co-chair of the Yes campaign, said in October. With a Jimmy Stewart-like earnestness, he called The Shops at West End "an extremely, extremely important project for the city of Lakewood. If you have a small number of people opposed to it, you have to consider [what's] best for the community."

Lakewood will have to spend more and more to fix its aging roads and sewers, Gibbons notes. "If Lakewood does not diversify its tax base, ultimately Lakewood is going to face decline," he says. He envisions a day when the city won't be able to afford backyard garbage pickup; another day, school levies won't get passed because taxes are too high.

Ned Hill, a Cleveland State University urban-affairs professor, debated Jim Saleet at the October forum. He brought figures showing that Lakewood residents' share of city taxes rose from 59.7 percent to 62.3 percent in just five years as businesses moved out. Cosmetics company Bonne Bell wanted to build a new headquarters in the West End development, but had threatened to leave its old Lakewood offices if the project lost, he noted.

"With every job that leaves the city of Lakewood, services are going to be cut or taxes from homeowners are going to increase," Hill said. "Not having the West End go through is going to give us a future that no one is going to benefit from."

The Yes side noted that Ohio's constitution allows eminent domain to be used for economic development: It's made room for downtown Cleveland skyscrapers, Gateway and new businesses in Fairview Park and Garfield Heights. "If you wait to do urban redevelopment until the point where things are rotting around you, it's too late," Hill said.

The mayor also saw a dim future without the project. "The next 30 years are going to be very tough for this community and every other inner-ring suburb," she said.

Their forecasts were so bleak that even Corrigan, a pro-West End councilman, had to disagree. "If it doesn't pass, is it going to be the death knell of Lakewood? No. Lakewood will be fine," he said. "We'll get along. We'll tighten our belts."

The Saleets and their friends responded with optimism. Lakewood's property values are steadily increasing, it has a good bond rating and it can bring smaller development to the empty storefronts scattered here and there on Detroit and Madison avenues, they said. The protesters sounded like they believed in Lakewood's future more than city leaders did.

On Election Night, the No campaigners walk up their streets to wait for the returns in fellow resister and city council candidate Lynn Farris' office building. The Saleets arrive around 10:30, after a nap, tired from handing out fliers at the polls all day. "I felt like the city of Lakewood was for us everywhere we went," JoAnn says, "but you never know."

Martin Luther King III, who worked with the Institute for Justice on other eminent-domain fights, had sent a supportive letter the day before. Jim read it at the Monday night candlelight vigil to happy cheers. They'd asked several Lakewood ministers to come and bless their cause, but only one agreed. He led the crowd in prayer, then added, "God bless the unattached garages," reports JoAnn.

"You guys, I've got the final results!" Farris tells the dozens of people in the building's hallway. "This doesn't count provisional ballots — and I don't know what that means — but yes is 7,874, no is 7,913."

The crowd cheers, claps and shrieks. JoAnn hugs Julie Wiltse. "Thank you, Lakewood!" someone yells.

"I'm numb," JoAnn says.

The front door opens and camera crews rush in, just in time for live news feeds.

"We knew this was un-American and this was a fraudulent thing," Jim tells a reporter. "I'm glad that the citizens have spoken. They've said, 'This is enough.'" Another camera comes up, and he says almost the same thing. "I knew that the citizens of Lakewood would come to the rescue," he adds.

Word passes that Cain has lost to Tom George in the mayoral race.

"The numbness is starting to wear off," JoAnn says. "If it wears off completely, I'll cry."

Jim heads to a back room and calls someone from the Institute for Justice. "This would all be dirt if it wasn't for you," he says.

He returns, then stands on the stairs to speak. "This has been a team effort," he says. "You energized me, at my age! ... We're still going to keep fighting this. I told all the TV people, we're not happy until they take the blight [designation] off this neighborhood."

Down Detroit Avenue, at Panini's, the Yes campaign party fizzles out around 12:30. Two women drink near a sketch of the rejected development. A cake whose frosting thanks people for supporting Lakewood sits mostly uneaten. Brian Powers, a campaign co-chair, angrily downs a beer.

"We fought a tough campaign," he says. "Against the wealth of outside influences, we didn't stand much of a chance. I think the people of Lakewood were duped by outsiders." He accuses the opposition of stealing hundreds of lawn signs, vandalizing the Harry Buffalo restaurant (which had hung out a Yes on 47 banner) and intimidating neighbors who signed with CenterPoint Properties.

Cain, recovering in Florida, said the West End battle was one reason she wasn't re-elected. "I said it before: Without significant tax-base growth, it's going to be very difficult for the city of Lakewood to maintain its quality school system and quality safety services," she says.

The two sides aren't done fighting. The Saleets still want to overturn the blight study in court or another referendum. Lakewood's law director says the developer could sue, too, to try to push the project through. But mayor-elect George announced that if a recount confirmed the results, he'd propose scaling back the project and leaving the houses alone, though Cain and the developer had claimed a smaller project wouldn't work financially.

So when the recount still showed Issue 47 losing, it became clearer that the citizens' revolt had succeeded.

"I'm not a seasoned campaigner," Jim said with glib modesty on Election Night. "I'm just a guy who's trying to save my home."

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