Nine years ago, a happy crowd planted the Cudell Orchard.
“Everyone was really excited,” recalled former Councilman Matt Zone, who represented a neighboring ward back then but went to the orchard’s opening anyway. Rico Montenegro, chief arborist for The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, led officials, volunteers, jobless veterans and court-supervised community service workers in planting 40 apple, pear, plum and cherry trees at the 8610 Franklin Blvd. site, where decrepit apartments had been razed.
“You certainly have some very good soil,” Montenegro said. “The trees should do fine.”
For a while, he seemed right. Volunteers and staff from Cudell Improvement tended the lot, hosted a farm market there, harvested the fruit, and gave it to food programs and urban chickens.
But the narrow, secluded orchard drew crime, so Cudell fenced it off, unlocking it just for organized events. Meanwhile, Cudell’s staff shrank, and the site fell into neglect. Some of the trees withered. Others still bear fruit, which falls and rots in weeds, asphalt, and trash.
This September, the local nonprofit Horizon Education Centers bought the orchard and an adjoining, weathered parking lot left behind by Ferris Steak House in 2012, when the popular restaurant moved from busy Detroit Avenue to Rocky River. In recent weeks, Horizon won tentative city approval to build a $3 million early childhood center on these sites for low- to moderate-income children.
Some local leaders see the center as good for children and the neighborhood. Horizon promises to plant 24 new trees there and expand the green space. And Cudell promises to honor the Tree Foundation’s terms by putting 40 fruit trees, either new or transplanted from the orchard, on scattered sites nearby.
But, by Monday morning, 1,974 locals had petitioned to save the original orchard. Petitioner Anne Moore Armstrong said, “The community is against the orchard becoming a parking lot.” Horizon plans for buses and staff to park on the old orchard. Neighbors also oppose the design of the building, which they say doesn’t fit the neighborhood.
Like many Cleveland properties, the orchard has complex borders, histories, and parties, some of whom might not care to share a table at Ferris. Charles Slone, Cudell’s chair, said of Horizon’s proposal, “It is one of the most complicated deals that I have ever been involved in.”
But he thinks the complications are worth resolving. “We viewed this as taking some nonperforming properties and giving a complete solution to the area.”
Horizon’s proposal uses a harsher term than “nonperforming.” It calls its purchases “a blight on the neighborhood which we will be able to transform into a well-ordered development with more trees and green space than presently exist.”
But the petition doesn’t call the orchard a blight. “Neighbors want to keep this a green space for everyone in the community so they can have access to healthy food, too, and also enjoy the health benefits of a canopy of mature shade trees.”
Anita Brindza, who served Cudell Improvement for 44 years, 34 of them as executive director, said, “It’s sad that the orchard will be going…. Horizon is trying to jam a day care center on a site that doesn’t work.”
A good neighbor
The sale comes amid a citywide consolidation of CDCs. Several of Cleveland’s community development organizations have closed or merged in recent years as funding waned. Today, Cudell Improvement Inc. shares personnel and services with the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization (DSCDO).
Horizon, founded in 1978, has 18 sites on the West Side, in Cleveland’s western suburbs and in Lorain County. It offers early childhood education, after-school programs and summer camps. It has a top rating of five stars from the Ohio Department of Education.
Horizon’s executive director, David Smith, said a study by Cleveland State recommended the orchard and the Ferris lot for a new center because of the visible frontage on Detroit and because of the neighborhood’s many children from low to moderate income families in need of Horizon’s services.
Children make up 30% of Cudell’s population versus versus 23% for Cleveland overall, acccording to StatisticalAtlas.com. The racially mixed neighborhood has a median household of $21,392, well below the citywide median of $27,349. Its poverty rate is 39% versus 31%.
None of the orchard’s champions dispute the need or Horizon’s merits. Says Armstrong, “People think they’re high quality, a good neighbor.”
An orchard grows in Cudell
Cudell Improvement actually represents two neighborhoods: its namesake Cudell and Edgewater. The Cudell part lies between West 83rd Street, West 117th, Lorain Avenue, Detroit Avenue and Berea Road. It bears the name of a leading architect who bequeathed his estate to the city in 1916.
The neighborhood once held orchards and vineyards. Now it mostly holds small residential, commercial, and industrial buildings in a wide range of conditions.
Cudell Improvement was given the orchard in 2008 by Cleveland Housing Court. The narrow site is hidden like a key in a lock. It fronts a short stretch of Franklin’s dead end past West 85th Street and extends behind homes facing West 85th and West 87th. (Its parcel also includes a slender strip of asphalt to Detroit.) Most nearby neighbors interviewed say they didn’t know an orchard was there.
In 2011, stumping hard, Cudell Improvement got nearly 24,000 votes to finish fourth among five winners of a nationwide Communities Take Root contest sponsored by the Tree Foundation and Edy’s Fruit Bars. The foundation provided material and help worth about $5,000 for the site.
At the end of 2013, Zone’s ward grew to include Cudell. The next year, Brindza began four years of talks with the neighboring Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization about sharing personnel and services. Meanwhile, the orchard declined with her staff. At least once that she recalls, thieves made their way past the fence and stole all the peaches.
In 2018, Cudell and Detroit Shoreway worked out an alliance that pleased Zone but not Brindza. She left Cudell and continues to disagree with Zone about many issues. With Brindza’s departure, Jenny Spencer of Detroit Shoreway began to double as Cudell’s managing director. Last month, she left both groups to succeed Zone on council.
Horizon moves in
In part to pay for DCSDO’s services, Cudell Improvement has sold a few parcels of land. Mustafa Abed of Smart Development says he sought the orchard in vain. Slone says no one sought it during his roughly 18 months as Cudell’s chair, and he never put it on the market, considering it unappealing until Horizon sought it out.
Still, activist Moore Armstrong says Cudell should have publicized Horizon’s interest and sought alternatives.
Horizon paid $83,700 for the orchard’s 1.1 acres and $129,000 for the Ferris lot’s 0.6 at 8701 Detroit. It plans to put 120 to 160 children and 10 staffers in a 9,067-square-foot building.
Horizon will also create two playgrounds and an outdoor classroom. It will remove all the fruit trees and some older trees, but plant 24 new trees, including six fruit trees outside its fence off Franklin, available for public plucking. All told, more than 60 percent of the site will be green space, versus more than 60 percent impervious today.
Smith says that, when inspecting the property, he saw the fruit trees but didn’t learn about the Tree Foundation’s grant. Still, he promises to let Cudell transplant any of them. An arborist found that just a third of them were healthy enough to move. But the asphalt seems to prevent normal removal. Tree crews might need a special tool called an air spade.
After the orchard’s sale, Cudell trustee Nikki Hudson formed a committee to find new homes for trees. She says, “There’s a special feeling to having all those trees in one spot. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been very accessible to the community. I’m hoping that whatever’s lost by splitting up the trees will be gained by giving people more access.”
She hopes to use several sites, including the front yard of Neal Terrace, which borders the Ferris lot.
Frustration with building design
After meetings with city officials, Horizon has somewhat modified its site plans, partly by moving its building closer to Detroit and limiting a drop-off lane in front to one-way traffic, with no left turn at the exit.
But Armstrong and Hudson say the drop-offs should happen from Franklin and the building should abut Detroit’s sidewalk, matching the urban neighborhood’s preferred style. They’re also frustrated that public comments were not allowed at a preliminary hearing last month.
Former Councilman Zone supports Horizon’s new building but hopes it will be modified to meet the sidewalk.
In a key step, a tentative agreement was made last week among Horizon, the Cuyahoga County land bank, and Smart Development. Smart owns 14 of the 16 units of Dindia Terrace, a 1910 complex next to the orchard, and plans to acquire the other two, one of them from the land bank. Smart has won $600,000 in federal funds to renovate Dindia.
Under the agreement, Horizon and Smart will swap a little land along their irregular border, Horizon will move Dindia’s parking lot, and Smart will waive a $48,000 lien on the orchard for some maintenance there.
With this agreement in hand, Smith hopes to get final city approval this month or next.
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