Promised Land

Who in God's name would want to keep a church out of their town? Euclid does. At least, if some angry residents get their way in this fall's election.

"Who is my neighbor?"

It's Sunday afternoon in Providence Baptist Church on Cleveland's Kinsman Road, and a nattily dressed elderly man is retelling the Samaritan's story to the women in the pews, tastefully attired in blue, black and floral-print dresses, and the men in button-down shirts. "Which of these three is my neighbor? The one who had compassion."

The jazz band flares up, its trumpeter leaps into the lead and the choir, a dozen men in black "Men In Christ" T-shirts, follows them into the next hymn. It's Providence's third service of the day, it's August vacation time and the senior pastor is out of town, so the crowd of 70 doesn't fill the sanctuary. But the spirit's with them. One woman can't stop shouting, "Thank you, Jesus!" when a hymn ends, and her friends hug and fan her until she calms down.

Associate minister Trent Thomas steps to the podium and summons up the moment Moses stood poised to lead his people into Israel.

"As a church, we're about to cross our own River Jordan into the land promised to us," he says. "We have lots of questions." The future belongs to God, Johnson reminds the congregation, but his people can face the unknown with faith. "God will never let you down."

Out in the narrow entry hall hangs an artist's rendering of Providence Baptist's Israel: a beautiful church with a steeple and a glass facade, a cross subtly outlined between the panes. It's the new church Providence Baptist wants to build on its land in Euclid.

It would boast a 1,400-seat sanctuary — so the growing congregation won't have to hold three services — plus offices, Sunday school and adult-education classrooms and badly needed room for its youth and senior programs. Around it, the church wants to build 110 homes, about half of them for seniors, on 45 acres. Anyone could buy them, and proceeds would help the church fund its new home. It'd be Euclid's biggest development in decades, on the suburb's largest still-undeveloped property.

"When this land became available, we felt God led us to pursue this," says senior pastor Rodney Maiden. "It's more than adequate to what we need. We felt that this is our promised land."

But 4,400 Euclid residents are standing on the banks of Providence's would-be River Jordan, blocking the church's way, unimpressed by its talk of divine destiny. Instead of welcoming their neighbors-to-be with handshakes and casserole dishes, the Euclid crowd signed petitions to run Providence Baptist out of town.

Some of them jammed city council chambers in February, trying to stop the land from being rezoned. When council approved rezoning, 5-4, the residents' petition drive forced a citywide vote. This November, all of Euclid will decide whether to welcome the church or banish it.

But who in God's name would try to chase away a church?

Opponents would actually rather see light industry rolling trucks in and out of the church's land than a new neighborhood there. It's all economics, they say: Euclid's running out of money and churches don't pay property taxes, unlike new businesses that might otherwise occupy the 23-acre church parcel. Also, the opponents don't trust the developer, Paul Taylor of Columbus-based SRP Development and American Church Builders. And they hate Mayor Bill Cervenik, who supports the project.

Meanwhile, racists have crawled out from under their rocks to protest that the black church's project would bring more black people to Euclid — forcing the anti-church organizers to insist that race has nothing to do with their efforts.

So a town whose official seal includes a church nestled next to a house is on the verge of deciding it doesn't want more of either.

It'd be an irresistible scene, a heart-rending democratic battle, if the poised families in Providence's pews and the Men In Christ choirmen and the elderly lady who couldn't stop praising Jesus all road-tripped to Euclid, fanned out, knocked on thousands of doors and said, "Please let our church into your city."

But instead of placing their faith in Euclid's voters, Providence is appealing to two higher powers: God and a federal judge. "We are not involved in a political battle to decide something on which the law is absolutely clear," says church lawyer Sheldon Berns. Providence is suing Euclid, charging that keeping it out would be illegal religious discrimination.

Euclid is nervous.

You may not notice if you motor up Lake Shore Drive, past the big lakefront homes, pretty parks and modern high-rises, or past East 222nd Street's old corner bars, modest apartments and city government buildings lined up in a row. And it's probably not obvious if you drive by Euclid's stout little houses, which sprang up 60 years ago, giving ex-GIs and factory workers their first taste of homeownership. Those houses look just as inviting to young families today, whether they're settling down a few minutes' drive from their parents or moved east from Cleveland to share the suburban dream.

Euclid's become a promised land for a lot of black families, not just Providence Baptist. Black residents made up 31 percent of the city in the 2000 census, up from 9 percent in 1980, and most of Euclid's public schoolkids are black. Though Euclid had trouble accepting integration in the 1970s, since then, says Mayor Cervenik, "I think our community has integrated very well" — no real-estate panic, not much white flight. But black residents aren't sharing political power yet; the city council is still all white.

So what's making Euclid anxious? For-sale signs dot the old industrial area south of I-90. Much of the industry that used to anchor the town's economy has left. Meanwhile, poverty is creeping up, from 8 percent to 10 percent between 1990 and 2000. The city income tax is the highest in Cuyahoga County, 2.85 percent, yet City Hall had to borrow $2 million to keep its doors open this year.

That's why Euclid has turned its attention to its southeast corner, next to Richmond Heights. A beautiful, massive hill, spotted with trees, rises over Euclid Avenue's fast-food restaurants and sparsely developed business land. On the hill's 69 acres, yellow-green wild grass reaches waist-high. Groves of trees hide wetlands, ravines and streams. It's Euclid's last big piece of virgin land, the pined-for holy ground that Providence Baptist bought two years ago. If the church has its way, it'll make the hill a new neighborhood, 110 homes, with a church at its heart.

"We haven't had a development of this size in Euclid in probably 30 years," says Cervenik: $30 million in overall investment, including $20 million in the houses.

"They'll be larger and more expensive than 90 percent of the homes in the city of Euclid," adds councilman Christopher Gruber, whose ward includes the land. The neighborhood would be "step-up" housing selling for $180,000 and up, the developer says — some for senior citizens, some for families that have outgrown the starter homes that make up most of the city.

Pat Reilly, Tom Beckwith, Deborah Long and Craig Vincent live in a little integrated neighborhood of modest 60-year-old homes at the foot of the hill. They'd be Providence Baptist's closest neighbors, but some of them are either ambivalent about that or against it.

"The houses would be fantastic, but we don't need another church in the city," says Reilly. "We have many, many places of worship."

"The church itself isn't a bad deal," Beckwith, Reilly's next-door neighbor, says carefully. But he isn't sure how he'll vote in November. "I don't know if they have the means to develop that land. From what I've heard at meetings, they haven't said what the houses would look like."

Another door down, three sisters who've lived in their house for years all oppose the development. "From an economic standpoint, it's going to destroy the city of Euclid," says Ruth Manning. "Euclid can't afford all these church people." They'll need police and fire protection, but won't pay property taxes, she complains.

"We don't have enough money for anything in Euclid," adds Jeannette Manning. The city can't afford crossing guards and may lay off safety forces, she says, so why let land go off the tax rolls? It's not a racial issue, she insists: The city's already integrated. "If you're a racist, you won't be living in Euclid."

But around the corner, Deborah Long likes the fact that about half of the proposed houses would be set aside for seniors 55 and older. "I don't have a problem with it," she says. "I'm going to be old." She gets angry when she hears that the church's opponents prefer light industrial development. "If that's the case, I'd rather take the church and houses. It's too nice up there."

Across the street, Craig Vincent says he supports the project because he knows members of Providence Baptist. They help City Mission, the nonprofit where he works, deliver services to the poor. "They're upstanding people. I'd love to have them as my neighbor." The alternative doesn't make sense to him. "I'd much rather live in a neighborhood of homes than an industrial neighborhood," he says. The houses would pay taxes, he notes.

"I wonder, why are people so interested in our neighborhood?" Vincent asks. He hasn't sensed any racial hostility toward the church, but he thinks there might be another motive, "a little more politically oriented, as opposed to just looking at it as a project," he says. "The mayor has been for this project," he explains — and the mayor has a lot of enemies. "Quite possibly, some people are adamantly against it because with mayor is for it."

About 50 people come to the monthly meeting of the anti-church organization, the Euclid Awareness Committee, at the Euclid Public Library in August. Only two faces in the crowd are black — striking when you've just walked in from the main library room, where almost as many black families as white browse the books. (Supporters of the church project say most of the group's leaders live north of I-90, far from the church's land and the mostly black neighborhoods along Euclid Avenue.)

John Conway, EAC's treasurer, exudes calm and moderation as he runs the meeting. He's a financial marketer and looks the part with suspenders and a maroon tie, well-brushed hair and round, ruddy cheeks. Featured speaker Patrick Delaney, a councilman with gray-peppered black hair and a face even rosier than Conway's, is articulate in a plain-spoken, regular-guy way as he talks about a smaller cause the group has taken up: renovating the town golf course. When he rips into the mayor for scaling the project back, members of the audience jump in.

Everyone in the room seems to hate Mayor Cervenik. They listen politely when state-rep candidate Kenny Yuko gives his campaign speech, until he mentions that Cervenik endorsed him. Then, they groan in unison and dissolve into angry murmurs. "If you don't believe in confrontational politics and you're endorsed by Mr. Cervenik," a heckler yells after the speech, "why don't you talk to Mr. Cervenik [about confrontation]?" The place goes wild with cheers. Later, a woman says they need to fight Cervenik's budget-balancing idea of a trash-collection fee by marching on City Hall, not just once but over and over! More cheers.

Petty hate seethes from the message board on EAC's Web site. Message-posters call the mayor "Slick Willy," "King Willy" and "a snake." The pro-church council majority is referred to as "the five little puppets," the council president and his councilman son as "Dumb and Dumber," a councilwoman as "the Nazi Blonde," another councilman "ball-less" and the chatty Gruber as a Tourette's syndrome patient.

The mayor's not fond of the EAC either. He lost it at a tense February council meeting after an audience member attacked him for supporting Providence Baptist.

"A lot of the grief that you people are giving to this group has nothing to do with their project at all," the mayor said. He named 11 people who opposed the project and addressed them: "The election is over, OK? It's over. And the people of the city put me in charge in spite of you!"

Last fall's city election was vicious and the church project got caught up in the bloodletting. Cervenik and his allies were for it, his opponents against it. Euclid Awareness includes many of the mayor's enemies, including Jerry Corbran, a thin, elderly man whose Euclid Taxpayer Alliance contributes to anti-Cervenik candidates. Delaney jokingly calls him "the puppetmaster" at EAC's meeting. Corbran made his name in Euclid by chasing high-rise, apartment and condo developers out of town in the 1970s, at a time when some Euclid residents were resisting integration. But Corbran says he just didn't want too many renters in town, because "these people don't have ties in the community."

Even in today's integrated Euclid, race gets drawn into controversies. The mayor and several councilpeople say they've gotten racist letters, calls or comments about the church project.

"We did receive some letters that were clearly racial," says Cervenik, "written by people full of hate and ignorance." Councilman Daryl Langman says "a few older folks" told him they were against the church for racist reasons. The Plain Dealer once reported (without directly quoting him) that Rev. Maiden suspected race was one reason people opposed his church. ("I never said that," Maiden claims now.)

Race has nothing to do with their motivations, anti-church councilpeople and organizers insist angrily. "I got a couple calls from members of the church. They said, 'How come you're against this? Are you racist?' " says Langman. "How do you respond to that?"

The EAC says a third of its petitions' signers were black, and their leadership includes a black woman, president of a homeowners' association. Conway says he's challenged the group's opponents to warn him if any petition-gatherer mentions race. He's never heard anyone in EAC say anything racist, but concedes that some people in town might have less "pure" motives for opposing the church. "I think if I said none of the 4,400 [petition signers] had different motives than the rest of us, I would be naive and I'd be a fool," he says.

It's hard to miss, in council meeting transcripts, an atmosphere of suspicion: the resident who asked if the city had done an "in-depth background check" to make sure the church's partners weren't "unsavory characters" or "scam artists," or the attacks on the developer for having low-cost housing on his résumé, even though he said he'd build houses worth $180,000 and up in Euclid. Opponents asked fearfully if the many classrooms in the proposed church would house a charter school (the church promised it wouldn't). Yet when council rezoned a building owned by Catholic parish St. Christine's in June so that Pinnacle Academy, a charter school, could open there, no one objected.

"As far as I'm concerned, I don't care what they say, it's a racial issue," says Frank Ilcin, a Euclid resident and friend of pro-church councilman Gruber. If Euclid handles race relations positively, Ilcin says, "We could become Cleveland Heights or Shaker Heights. If not, we'll become East Cleveland."

"We've been an integrated community for 20 years. It's not like a spaceship has landed," counters Delaney. As for Providence's rough treatment in council meetings, "Euclid's a very active community. They're hard on everybody," he says.

The racial tensions are getting worse. At a recent council meeting, a resident questioned whether the church could actually afford to buy and develop the land on its own. Her tirade was tinged with conspiracy and hints of shadow financiers, including church lawyer Sheldon Berns and late developer Carl Milstein, whose company, Associated Estates Realty, sold the land to the church four years after he died.

"Does the church really own this property?" she asked. Much of the audience applauded her — but Brian Meister, an assistant law director watching on cable access, got into his car, drove to City Hall and blasted the comments as "absurd anti-Semitic garbage." Then (in a rant that quickly got him taken off the city zoning cases), Meister accused the Euclid Awareness Committee of distrusting church developer Paul Taylor because he's black. "You're so afraid of [being called] racist, but you are!"

The opposition to the church is all about economics, Conway insists over coffee in early August. "It doesn't have to do with anything else," he says. "Our committee, and most of the residents, are not necessarily opposed to a church. They're opposed to making those acres tax-exempt."

Delaney agrees. "The hardest part about it in my mind, to this day, [is] how can you vote against a church? But you've got to say no."

Providence's opponents prefer money to a new temple. How can you let a 23-acre parcel go off the property-tax rolls, they ask, when Euclid can't balance its budget and tax collections are falling?

Right now, the church land is zoned for light industry. If the city sticks to that, the anti-church group is convinced, the church will sell the land and another developer will come along.

"It's the last developable piece of land of that size," Delaney says. "You just won't find [another] tract of land that is pristine and doesn't need to be cleaned up."

The city started an industrial development nearby years ago, hoping business would spread uphill, explains councilwoman Kirsten Holzheimer Gail. (It has only one tenant so far.) A 2000 study supported keeping the area industrial.

"We need to set the bar high," insists councilman Daryl Langman. Light industry usually means non-dirtying machine shops, such as a ceramics business, but Langman is thinking bigger — a water-into-wine sort of transformation. The area could be a new high-tech corridor, "our Rockside Road," he says. The land "could make for a very fine headquarters park." He claims that its previous owners didn't market it aggressively enough.

There are all sorts of reasons why they think the housing development won't be good for Euclid. They say the plans are too vague. Langman wants the houses to be pricier than $180,000 to $225,000, and Delaney wants them to be bigger. Conway claims the developer doesn't have a good marketing plan. The developer said he'd adjust the housing plans after the first phase is built based on what sells. Conway suspects that means he'd build cheaper houses in later phases.

The anti-church crowd distrusts developer Paul Taylor. Someone asked Taylor, at a council meeting, what other local projects he'd done, and Taylor failed to mention a church his company started in nearby Collinwood for the Christian Fellowship Center, but never finished. When someone brought it up and asked why the project was stalled, Taylor replied that the minister had suffered a heart attack.

But when church opponents looked up the project, they discovered a lawsuit. In July 2001, Cleveland's building department stopped construction on it, concerned it wasn't up to code. ACB sued the church for not paying for its work, and the church responded by alleging that ACB had done dangerously shoddy work and misled it about the designs. The lawsuit is unresolved, so the anti-Providence protesters aren't really sure what happened in Collinwood. But they're eager to spread suspicion, often quoting a Cleveland Free Times story in which CFC's lawyer called Taylor a "con man."

Euclid needs the kind of neighborhood Providence wants to build. "One of the things people are saying when they leave the city," says Gruber, "[is] there's no move-up housing, no upscale housing." The new houses would have to be at least 2,000 square feet under a new city law. They'll sell for about twice the cost of a typical Euclid home, and Taylor has assured residents he wouldn't settle for cheap homes.

The $20 million housing development would be a big tax engine, generating about $384,000 a year in property taxes alone, the city estimates. Add about $30,000 in income taxes from the church's $1 million payroll and tens of thousands more in income taxes on dozens of working homeowners and the total should be somewhere around $500,000 a year. A hypothetical industrial development, according to one city estimate, could generate roughly 50 percent more tax money — about $760,000 a year in property and income taxes — eventually.

But almost every development in Euclid gets a tax abatement — except the Providence project. New housing doesn't pay property taxes for seven years and new industry doesn't pay for 15 years under a city law meant to encourage development. Providence Baptist, though, agreed not to seek an abatement on the 110 homes to make up for having a church on the land. "We were a good neighbor," Rev. Maiden says. The houses would start paying taxes as soon as they're built.

If the city chases the church away, it'll have to reinstate the abatement. Otherwise, who would buy the only land in Euclid that isn't tax-abated? So it'd probably take decades for Euclid to come out ahead taxwise — if the ideal development ever comes along.

"[The land's] been vacant since God created this Earth," says Gruber. "For the last probably 30 years or so, it's been zoned light industrial and nothing's happened."

Euclid has about 200 other vacant industrial acres, 80 of them never developed. Downhill from the church land, signs on vacant lots and empty buildings plead for buyers.

"If a company wants to come here, I can find them a spot in five minutes," says councilwoman Sally Hufnagle, whose ward includes the industrial belt. "It's not like we're turning companies away because we don't have room for them. But I think we do turn families away because we don't have the kind of housing they want to purchase."

People are still clinging to Euclid's industrial past, says councilman Tony Stusarsic. "The large-scale headquarters-type industry is no longer here. We have to look at creative ways of bringing tax dollars to our community."

Euclid's master plan — its guide to future zoning — has called for houses on the property since 1996. And cities can only turn down rezoning requests for certain legal reasons. So Gruber says the demands to see home designs or floor plans were premature and should wait until the city considers a site plan.

There's one more problem. Keeping a church out of town because it doesn't pay property taxes probably amounts to illegal religious discrimination under federal law.

"I did the research," says Stusarsic. "We can't discriminate [between] a church [and] any other public gathering place. When I brought that up, I brought up an act of Congress that was passed. Lo and behold, that's what the church was suing us for."

The law, passed in 2000, makes it very difficult for cities to use zoning to keep a church out of town. Providence Baptist has a strong case, says William D. Rich, a University of Akron law professor who's studied the federal law, since Euclid doesn't have any empty land zoned for new churches.

"We have an adult entertainment district," complains Gruber, "but if you want to build a church, you're out of luck."

In the name of smart economics, the church opponents have provoked a costly legal battle without explaining how the city should pay for it. Providence's lawyer predicts the church will win "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in damages due to lost business opportunity. And if the city drives away the taxable homes but not the church, Euclid loses.

As for attacks on the developer's reputation, American Church Builders has admitted it didn't make the unfinished Collinwood church strong enough to withstand lakefront winds. But by September 2001, soon after the city of Cleveland stopped the project, ACB was ready to fix the problem by adding supports, Cleveland's building department confirms. The unresolved lawsuit appears to be stalling the project now, and ACB denies Christian Fellowship Center's other allegations.

Meanwhile, several councilpeople visited Taylor's housing development in Columbus, a model for the Providence project, which already has people living in it. "The homes are beautiful homes," Gruber reports. Taylor built Mt. Zion church in Oakwood two years ago, and the pastor and Oakwood's mayor both say he did a great job.

"They did everything they said they would do and then some," adds Paul Barnes, pastor of Madison Christian Church in Groveport, near Columbus, which moved into a $2.7 million church ACB built last year. Besides, the Euclid project's homes would be built and sold by the reputable Snavely Development of Chagrin Falls, which mostly works in Lake and Geauga counties — a coup for an inner-ring suburb, says Gruber.

Turner Nashe, a member of Providence Baptist, can't understand why Euclid doesn't want his church as a neighbor. A postal worker and former policeman, Nashe lives in Richmond Heights, the next town over.

"Euclid had nothing going with [the land]," he says. "And then, all of a sudden, when they found out we were after this property and acquired this property, then it's a problem."

It frustrates him. "We just want a place where we can come and worship and spread out, spread our wings," he says. "There's so much negativity going on in the world today and here we have something positive."

But Euclid may well vote against Providence Baptist in November, because no one is going to campaign for the church. Besides, Providence has made some Euclid voters angrier by suing them. The Euclid Observer, a monthly paper, snidely warned the church that it should reread 1 Timothy 6:9-11, which includes the verse, "The love of money is the root of all evils." The suit has also scared the church's allies, the mayor and council majority, out of speaking up, for fear of hurting the city's legal defense.

That leaves the anti-church crowd to run an unchallenged campaign based on suspicion, hatred of the mayor and wild optimism about industrial rebirth. If they win, they'll pressure the mayor to keep fighting in court, hoping the federal law gets struck down as unconstitutional, as legal fees and potential damage awards increase.

So Euclid voters have two questions to answer next month.

"How is a church going to hurt your city?" asks councilman Hugh Daly. Then, there's the question we all have to face when our towns change: Are your new neighbors welcome?

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