This article was published through an exclusive partnership with NEO-trans.blog.
The largest planned, single development in a century is proposed for Cleveland's Hough neighborhood by reutilizing the huge site of the closed Martin Luther King Jr. High School, 1651 E. 71st St. On that 11-acre property bounded by Hough and Lexington avenues plus East 71st and 73rd streets, 310 housing units and two divisible commercial spaces are planned as part of a neighborhood destination.
They are intended to serve a variety of residents -- ranging from the growing workforce and student population in the University Circle area to those retired and looking for modern, single-level housing. In the center of the development, a roughly 3-acre community park is envisioned with gardens, farms, a pond, fountain and a quarter-mile-long walking path.
Proposed by Structures Unlimited LLC of Greenbelt, MD in suburban Washington DC, with offices in Cleveland and West Palm Beach, FL, the developer has built major residential and commercial projects in suburban Maryland but also in Baltimore, Durham, NC and elsewhere. The minority-owned firm also touts its use of a panelized building technology made and marketed by Emmedue M2 Systems of Italy to quickly and affordably build structures.
Structures Unlimited proposes to build on the MLK school site 213 apartments in two L-shaped buildings featuring 22,789 square feet of commercial spaces on their ground floors facing Hough Avenue. In the commercial spaces, the developer's Founder and Managing Member Kareem Abdus-Salaam said he envisions an organic food market, an incubator for entrepreneurs, and a white-tablecloth restaurant.
"We don't want fast food," Abdus-Salaam said in a phone interview with NEOtrans. "We want to offer a nice place for people to walk to and enjoy a good meal. With the organic food market, we want to help residents eat better. The other commercial spaces will be for existing businesses and budding entrepreneurs as part of a live-work setting."
Around the perimeter of the north half of the site, halved by an extension of Quimby Avenue, 97 townhomes are planned. They will range in size from 635 square feet on one level for seniors to as much as 1,917 square feet for market-rate homes, according to plans submitted to the city by the project's architect LDA of Cleveland. Abdus-Salaam said the market-rate townhomes will be for-sale units and there will be 24 senior homes. There also will be 276 off-street parking spaces and 93 on-street spaces.
"When I came across this opportunity, I spent a lot of thought on what should be the vision," he said. "We're trying to take into consideration the demographics of Hough and really repurposing the site, and doing well by doing good. It is an enviable effort and I'm excited to develop this proposed community and give it a sense of place. Cleveland has many fine parks but you don't have to go elsewhere. This can be a park within a park and engender a sense of community. We plan on having a management team that will manage that property. There will be plentiful events happening in that public space on a weekly basis. We don't want it to be a ghost town."
In December 2021, Structures Unlimited won a bid from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to acquire the MLK school site for the district's appraised amount of $880,000. The developer has yet to take title to the property and probably won't try until it has won city approvals to build. The first such approval could come as early as this Friday when LDA will present plans to the City Planning Commission's Design Review Committee.
The developer intends to demolish the 167,833-square-foot school building that was built in 1971. However, in its bid to the school district, it proposed to renovate and expand the existing building with new housing, retail and educational uses. Abdus-Salaam said its current proposal is actually the fifth version it has considered. An earlier version had a 10-story building which, in public meetings, the community resisted. He said this Friday's meeting isn't the end either. He pledged to return to the community for more input after the planning commission meeting.
On its Web site, Structures Unlimited said the MLK school site development will feature "a diverse range of housing options, catering to various income levels, thereby fostering a socially diverse and inclusive community. The residential units will be thoughtfully designed, energy-efficient, and equipped with modern amenities, ensuring that residents enjoy a comfortable and contemporary living experience. By prioritizing environmental responsibility and social cohesion, this project will set a new standard for future urban developments, paving the way for healthier and more resilient communities."
Two years ago, the firm requested city approvals to develop the south side of Hough Avenue at East 85th Street with multiple retail spaces called the Madame CJ Walker Business District, named after an early 20th-century African American businesswoman who was active nationwide. But that proposed project, centered at 8502 Hough, was denied a permit by the city's Building Department due to several nonconformance zoning issues, according to city records.
Abdus-Salaam said the application will be resubmitted. That project, proposed on city land bank properties yet to be acquired by Structures Unlimited, will likely benefit from the city adopting a form-based zoning code. On Friday, the design review committee has on its agenda the Hough Form-Based Code Pilot Area on land north of Chester Avenue between East 55th and East 90th streets. The committee could vote to recommend that City Council pass the pilot program.
The MLK High School was built just five years after the Hough Riots of July 1966 in which four African Americans were killed and 50 people were injured. Dozens of homes, apartment buildings and businesses were burned, and the Hough Avenue commercial district between East 71st and 93rd streets was destroyed. The riot followed more than a decade of blockbusting, white flight and overcrowding in Hough resulting from the postwar Great Migration of blacks leaving the mechanizing agricultural South for northern industrial cities in search of jobs.
The area where the MLK school was built was previously fronted on Hough by businesses topped by apartments with a high-density area of apartments to the north of them. In those apartments, unscrupulous landlords crammed as many as three families into each residential unit, creating a socioeconomic powderkeg that ultimately exploded into riots. The area was dubbed "Little Hollywood" during Prohibition owing to its reputation as a place for prostitution, illegal bars and, later, drug dealing, according to the City Planning Commission.
Structures Unlimited's proposed developments could result in the first restoration of Hough's former business district since the riots. However, a large residential development was constructed between 1986-89 at Hough and East 79th Street called Lexington Village that totaled 277 units. Starting around the same time and adding new phases, Eliza Bryant Village senior housing started with a convalescent hospital at 7201 Wade Park Ave. Among all apartments and medical care suites, a total of 323 units were provided. But it was built over 20 years ago as a result of separate expansion plans.
"This will be like the phoenix coming out of the ashes," Abdus-Salaam said of the MLK school site. "It's long overdue for Hough. There needs to be a neighborhood destination. There will be no fences."
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