Joyce Pan Huang came to Cleveland to serve in Christian ministry. Now she’s a sort of missionary for the city.
“I love this place,” said Huang, who became city planning director on Valentine’s Day. “It’s filled with resilient people.”
She loves Cleveland with open eyes. “I was taken with the history of Cleveland, both the shiny parts and what all American cities face: the dark history of racial politics. When you love a place or a person, you need to love all of it. There’s a sense of commitment.”
Huang, the planning department’s first female director and first Asian-American director, hopes not so much to develop the city as to help residents develop it. “Residents should have the opportunity to determine the future of their neighborhoods.” She hopes that residents can attract new neighbors and merchants without pricing themselves out.
Huang comes to City Hall from MidTown Cleveland, where she started in 2016 and rose to vice president of community development. Having worked with public officials on MidTown’s behalf, she said, “There’s really good people at City Hall. There’s a lot of good stuff that Director Collier put into place.” Freddy Collier Jr., her predecessor as planning director, is now the city’s administrative manager of innovation and strategic initiatives.
Huang hopes to better coordinate the city’s development efforts and explain them to the public. Developers often need to work with four different city departments and a review board. “It can be a very disempowering process.”
She was born 36 years ago in Penfield, N.Y. She was named Joyce Ming Pan in English and Pan Ming in Chinese. She played violin with the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at the University of Michigan.
She worked for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA at Case Western Reserve University and Oberlin College. She earned a master’s in urban planning, design, and development at Cleveland State University, then joined MidTown. The organization is a community development corporation and a sort of neighborhood association for its surging area, which lies between Carnegie Avenue, the Innerbelt, Payne Avenue, East 55th Street, Chester Avenue, and East 79th Street.
Among her contributions, Huang coordinated Midtown’s master plan and, at a consultant’s suggestion, put snippets of it on playing cards for handouts at community meetings. She staged a Cleveland Walls! festival last year, with 29 events and 19 new murals. She formed an Asian-American department with staffers who speak Chinese. She wrote improvement plans for Carnegie Avenue and East 66th Street. She worked closely with residents, workers, merchants, and other organizations, as she hopes to do now for city government.
Her boss at MidTown will be her boss at City Hall. Jeff Epstein, Midtown’s former executive director, has taken a newly created job as Cleveland’s chief of integrated development. He oversees four departments: economic development, community development, building and housing, and Huang’s planning department.
“The focus is to help do more across departments,” Epstein said. “We’re looking at other models across the country where cities have taken structural steps to try to make sure the different functions associated with planning and residential development and economic developments are more tightly aligned.”
Epstein said he had no role in Huang’s arrival but welcomes her. “Joyce brings her incredible ability to listen thoughtfully and consider the voices of residents. She’s great at building trust in the community.”
Architect Paul Deutsch, MidTown’s chairman, agrees. “One of her strongest suits is dealing with the human side of planning, not just seeing it as what goes on which piece of dirt. We’ve been through a lot of city planners. They’ve been very capable people with technical expertise. Joyce may have a higher level of understanding how what she’s doing benefits the community.”
At MidTown, Huang helped Hough activist Ron Fuqua host parties commemorating the neighborhood’s former Leo’s Casino, which showcased stars from Motown and elsewhere. Fuqua said, “She’s very detail-oriented. She cares about people. She invests herself. I’m so proud of her. She’s almost like a daughter. You see her career just skyrocketing.”
At City Hall, Huang hopes to better link Cleveland’s diverse, somewhat disjointed neighborhoods. She wants to promote corridors in all directions, not just to and from downtown. She said, “Infrastructure can connect people instead of dividing people.”
She also wants to make Cleveland friendlier for pedestrians, bicyclists, and mass transit riders. “The market value of land is so expensive, parking is no longer a good use.”
She said many neighborhoods have improved and others show potential. “In Hough, there’s quite a bit of development right now. The racial uprising became a scar on the community. Now [Hough]’s creating its own future.
“I think Clark Fulton, because of its proximity to MetroHealth and Ohio City, is a really interesting place, very diverse. Edgewater is an incredible asset. The Southeast side is an important residential neighborhood…”
Huang has lived in Asia Town, Shaker Square and Ohio City. Now she lives in Cleveland Heights with her husband and young daughter. She likes to scout restaurants, galleries, playgrounds, and more. She attends Church of the Saviour in Cleveland Heights.
Huang is two years older than new Mayor Justin Bibb. She’s part of a mix of what the city’s new officials call emerging and experienced leaders. She feels ready to contribute.
“Young people are world changers,” she said.
Grant Segall is an award-winning reporter who spent 34 years with The Plain Dealer. He has also published freelance articles, fiction, and “John D. Rockefeller: Anointed With Oil” (Oxford University Press).
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