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Cleveland Suburbs Blaze Trail, Work Together to Stop Sprawl

First Suburbs Consortium a national model

December 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

As new suburbs continue marching farther into the countryside around Cleveland, Ohio, the "first ring" of suburbs near the city are experiencing the urban ills associated with loss of economic investment -- crime, deteriorating housing, and failing schools. Now civic leaders who once competed with the city and each other for tax revenues are uniting to change state and federal polices that fuel sprawl.

CLEVELAND -- Civic officials from Ohio's largest metropolitan region have teamed up to invent a new tool for governing that shows great promise for invigorating urban centers and curbing sprawl.

It is the First Suburbs Consortium, an alliance of 10 Cleveland suburbs that is the first government-led advocacy organization in the nation to focus on ending state and federal policies that subsidize sprawl. Behind the big idea lies a simple premise. Leaders of Cleveland's older suburbs have concluded that only by working with each other, and with Cleveland Mayor Michael White, can they amass a sufficiently influential political coalition to change policies in the state Legislature that affect growth and development. Cleveland and its older suburbs have embraced a new model of regional cooperation that can be applied in Detroit and other Michigan cities afflicted by urban disinvestment. The First Suburbs Consortium is a genuine political breakthrough in the swiftly evolving national movement to control sprawl.

"For 30 years or so we've been going along with the cities, losing population, and the growth occurring farther and farther out," said John Gilligan, the Democratic governor of Ohio from 1971 to 1975 and now a lecturer at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. "One of the things that contributed to [the sprawl] was how the policy game was played. The cities were always arrayed against the suburban and rural interests. Suburban leaders were raised on a diet of fearing the city and warring against the big city. Crime. Failing schools. Deteriorating housing. That was always the big city's problem, not theirs.

"But now we're starting to see the older incorporated suburbs experiencing some of the same symptoms of decay," Mr. Gilligan continued. "Leaders of those suburbs recognize that the identical policies that sucked the life out of urban centers are hitting them. Only instead of going at the problem alone, the suburbs and the cities are coming together because they have certain common interests. And that translates into votes which could shift the balance of power in the Legislature."

Growing Support to Stop New Highways

Formed in 1996, the First Suburbs Consortium emerged in the public arena when it joined the fight to halt the widening of Interstate-90, an east-west corridor, because of concerns the project would accelerate flight to the distant suburbs. The battle was the first ever waged by local governments in the Cleveland region against a major road, and although the highway will be widened, the struggle changed how the state Department of Transportation spends money in older communities. The agency has agreed to repair existing roads within the jurisdictions of cities, something it previously refused to consider.

More recently, the Consortium joined Cleveland leaders to stop the widening of Interstate-71, and redistribute transportation spending to a new light-rail line, more bus service, and the repair of existing roads, curbs, and sidewalks.

"Widening I-71 is a misallocation of resources," said Ken Montlack, a Cleveland Heights city councilman and cofounder and chairman of the First Suburbs Consortium. "We want to see the whole program changed. Highways just encourage an over-dependence on cars that has become a tremendous burden on the infrastructure of cities. It's a quality of life issue."

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