Cuyahoga County had the best of intentions. It was looking for a new juvenile detention center site. Fallow sat 16 acres of brownfields at East 93rd and Quincy. If it built there, it could not only cleanse the land, but save $25 million on the cost of the center.
The site wasn't exactly primed for commercial development. Mayor Mike White once called it "the worst environmental hazard in Cleveland" -- a considerable claim for the world's largest Museum of Toxic History. Nor was the neighborhood chock-full o' Volvo drivers with dangerous credit card limits.
"Who's going to build on a site that doesn't have the right demographics?" asks Remmie Crawford, an aide to Councilwoman Patricia Britt, whose ward includes the area.
Okay, so detention centers aren't the kind of economic stimulus Beachwood grovels for. But swapping a barbed-wire-ringed field for a government center with 200 union jobs isn't a bad deal either.
Don't tell that to Sara Harper. The retired Ohio appeals court judge doesn't look like a menacing foe. She's in her 70s, only a few inches taller than a bar stool, with a 600-kilowatt smile. Ask her about 93rd and Quincy, however, and her fires are stoked.
The small, shrill campaign against the center has employed the requisite Nazi images of death camps and claims that the "contaminated site is comparable to an anthrax attack on our black youths." It's the kind of hyperbole that says, "Please dismiss us as kooks."
But Harper, working the legal end, has legitimate concerns. She points to the county's purchase of the land in 1999. Only five months before, Sam Miller, Forest City Enterprises chief and the mayor's principal sugar daddy, bought the turf for $384,000. A few months later, he dumped it on the county for $2.7 million -- and got a pass on the delinquent tax bill.
The site also sits a few hundred yards from Bolton Elementary. The surrounding Fairfax neighborhood has "had more incidents of brain tumors, respiratory illnesses, and liver cancer than anywhere else in the county," Harper argues. "I went through the coroner's reports, and I've talked to people. Their response to the people and me is 'This will bring jobs.' But when they dig, there's no telling what will be in the air."
Under Miller's stewardship, 800 tons of PCBs were removed from the site, says Harper. (This accounts for the rapid rise in property value, according to Deputy County Administrator Lee Trotter.) But arsenic and oil remain. And the final call on whether it's safe will rest with the Ohio EPA.
This, of course, is a scary proposition. The Ohio EPA has always been more content to plan its annual Dump Your Industrial Solvents in the River Day than protect residents from dangers that lurk underneath. "The history of the EPA in Ohio is they're wrong 90 percent of the time," says Harper.
So last year, she filed a public-records request with the city, asking for all documents on the land's sordid history of blown-off taxes and disregarded environmental decrees. She got only a portion back -- not surprising, given that White learned about open government on field trips to Beijing.
But this is the county's project now. Probe for holes in its plan, and all one gets back is universal praise. Though state law allows it to leave some pollution in the soil and thus reduce cleanup costs, the county is "going to take every single ounce of contamination off the property," says Brooke Furio, a brownfields specialist with the U.S. EPA. Translation: It's not going to rely on pathetic state statutes for safety.
Harper's distrust is understandable. Nary a deal goes down in Cleveland that's not tainted by the hands of morons and bloodsuckers. But the county is attempting to make productive land that's been a nuisance, a health hazard, a symbol of central-city neglect. It's a rare case of government trying to do the right thing.