- Walter Novak
- Eco-dreamin': Project managers David Rowe and Tom Eastman, wishful at the rapid station.
At a sheriff's sale four months ago, Dennis and Hugh O'Donnell bought the unsightly house with the rotted roof at the corner of Madison Avenue and West 58th Street, thinking the old eyesore had great potential. The father-and-son team planned to fix the roof, install a heating system, and build an additional bathroom, among other improvements. But they hadn't thought about putting in a special energy-efficient furnace or recycled-fiber carpeting until David Rowe showed up.
Rowe is the neighborhood "green patrol." He goes from door to door and meeting to meeting promoting the Cleveland EcoVillage, an experiment in urban living orchestrated by the Detroit-Shoreway Community Development Organization. Equipped with a disarming demeanor and all the informational backing of Eco-City Cleveland, the nonprofit environmental and urban planning group that helped launch the project, Rowe tirelessly champions an ambitious idea to the creaky working-class neighborhood surrounding the West 65th Street rapid transit station -- its transformation into an environmentally friendly urban village.
Essentially, EcoVillage supporters are attempting to create a model community that's as good for the environment as it is for the people who live in it. In the next few years, planners hope to achieve super-energy-efficient homes, a renovated rapid transit station, and pedestrian-friendly streets. Some smaller developments have already taken root.
On Ithaca Court, about 25 plots of flowers, herbs, and vegetable plants grow in the community garden. That's to increase the green space.
On Franklin, Joseph M. Gallagher Middle School soon will be installing solar panels. That's to help teach the children about alternative energy sources.
On the corner of Madison and West 58th, the O'Donnells are fixing up the charming, soon-to-be-energy-efficient house. That's to show property owners they can incorporate earth-friendly strategies into their renovation plans relatively easily.
Rowe is actually the second project manager in EcoVillage's two-year history, taking the place of David Cornicelli, who died of cancer last year. In that time, EcoVillage has gone from a vague vision of environmentalists and community planners to a foreseeable -- if somewhat fluid -- reality. Born out of a concern that urban sprawl and migration from the city were the biggest environmental threats to Cleveland, EcoVillage constitutes a way to counteract the allure of the suburbs.
"Cleveland, more than almost anywhere, along with these other Rust Belt cities, has to figure out how they can use the environment in a proactive way," says Manda Gillespie, assistant project manager of Eco-City Cleveland. "How we can work with our resources to bring people back to the city."
If people could get pleasant spaces and reliable public transportation, along with environmentally efficient housing right here in Cleveland, they would be less likely to take their families and their tax dollars to the suburbs. At least that was the thinking of EcoVillage's planners, who are associated with Case Western Reserve University and Eco-City. Various stages of the project have been funded by local foundations and the City of Cleveland. But it was a competitive $143,000 grant Detroit-Shoreway won from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1998 that set EcoVillage on its current course.
The cornerstone for the project is the West 65th Street rapid transit station. It fans out along a quarter-mile radius to include homes and businesses. The project was threatened in its early stages when RTA announced its intention to shut down the ominous, little-used station. More than 200 residents attended a public meeting to pressure the agency to change its plans.
It did. To the tune of a $3.5 million renovation, set to begin in October.
But it will take more than bigger signs and neighborly buzz to attract people to the station, which fronts a trash-strewn gully with green slime growing where a stream used to flow. During rush hour on a recent Monday afternoon, the only people at the station were two police officers. And they looked hard at work, not waiting for the train.
Projecting beyond its abandoned shopping carts and junked tires, Rowe says he sees a future for the station much different from its present. He envisions a lush valley rimmed with landscaping and filled with commuters.
"It would be a place for people to come together and have their needs met," he says. "It would be safe. It would be clean, not like it is now."
A short walk from the station, a few of Rowe's other projections have started to take form. On West 58th Street, he points to a few weedy lots and ramshackle homes, the last of which Detroit-Shoreway bought a week earlier. All will be torn down. In their place, Detroit-Shoreway will build 20 ecological townhouses, the first of their kind in the city. On West 54th, Green Built Homes will start construction, within the next six months, of two "green" demonstration homes.
From its inception, the project has been supported by most residents, says Rowe. Although being "green" typically costs a little more -- about $800 more for the O'Donnells' efficient furnace -- most see the long-term benefits. For instance, Dennis O'Donnell will tell potential buyers that the furnace will cut their heating costs, which should help the house sell.
The new owners will be buying into the EcoVillage concept without even knowing it.
Until Rowe shows up, of course.