Thursday, July 12, 2012

Port wants new levy, Mall-to-lakefront bridge

Cleveland's port authority is making a bold new pitch to voters.  It'll ask for a property tax increase on the November ballot that would greatly expand its budget and reassert itself dramatically in the debate about the lakefront's future.  It's proposing to build a pedestrian bridge over the Shoreway to connect the lakefront to the downtown Mall.

Bridging the downtown bluff to get pedestrians, bicyclists and conventioneers from downtown to the Rock Hall and back, has been an eternal, elusive goal of Cleveland lakefront dreamers.  Mayor Frank Jackson wants to do it, but has had trouble finding the money.  Now it looks like he and county executive Ed FitzGerald have hit upon a way to fund it.

{I'm guessing this is why Jackson and FitzGerald have called a press conference for tomorrow promising "a major development in the progress of the Cleveland Medical Mart and Convention Center project."} [Update, 7/13: Oops, bad guess! They're announcing that the convention center will open early.]

A winter-proof pedestrian bridge that takes conventioneers to the Rock Hall and the Science Center joined the wish list once the Mall was chosen as the convention center and Medical Mart site. But there was no money for it.

Today's letter (pdf) from port CEO Will Friedman and chair Bob Smith lays it out.  They're asking for a 0.67-mill property tax levy, up from the port's current 0.13 mills.  That'd be a 480 percent increase, though 0.67 mills would still be small compared to the taxes Cuyahoga County homeowners pay for the Metroparks (1.81 mills) and tri-C (3.08 mills).  Owners of a $100,000 home would pay $20 a year for the port authority, up from $3.50.

Here's how the port wants to spend the tax increase:

• Stabilizing the Cuyahoga River's eroding riverbank on Franklin Hill near Ohio City: $43 million

• All-weather pedestrian bridge from Mall to lakefront: $25 million

• A new way to dispose of the sediment from dredging the shipping channel: $12.5 million

• Improving truck and pedestrian access to Whiskey Island, including a Lake Link Trail bridge over the railroad tracks: $6 million

• Improving the port cargo terminals: $3 million

I think I see what the port, Jackson, and FitzGerald are trying to do here.  Two big-ticket items are important but unexciting projects.  Take the eroding riverbank.  Drive down by Hoopple's and the Columbus Road Bridge and you'll see -- an entire road, Riverbed Street, that used to link Duck Island and the Flats West Bank is closed because it's collapsing.  Raising taxes to dispose of sediment, part of the port's core job, is even less sexy.

So the port and its backers add the lakefront bridge, which would make Cleveland a more attractive convention destination and could help attract a developer and residents to the proposed new neighborhood behind Browns Stadium.  They also add the Whiskey Island roads and bridge, which would benefit industry and please the cyclists and public-space advocates who want to connect the Towpath to the lake.

That's pretty smart political packaging and coalition-building.  Still, the plan will be closely scrutinized by the skeptics who questioned the motives behind the previous port regime's efforts to develop the waterfront. 

FitzGerald and Jackson found themselves in a bit of a quiet standoff late last year over downtown and lakefront issues. Looks like they've hashed through their differences and formed an alliance. It'll be very interesting to see what the mayor and exec decide together when they tackle what to do at the Mall and Public Square and with the casino tax money.  The politics of downtown development are shifting.

The port plan also could have a small effect on the levy campaign for the Cleveland schools.  Someone is bound to complain that Jackson is supporting two property tax increases on the November ballot.  But that complaint won't be too loud, simply because the schools levy is going to dwarf the port levy -- it could be a 9 to 11 mill increase, compared to a half-mill increase for the port.  The enormous school levy will stand or fall on its own.

Clevelanders now have a local issue to debate in November, something bigger than letting the mayor pick the fire chief or letting the county executive control the board of revision.  An exciting and controversial port levy?  Looks like it.

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