One of my first memories is from when I was 3 years old, sitting in the lobby of St. Luke’s Hospital. My recollection of a plaque hanging on the wall was so sharp that more than four decades later, when I saw it again, I immediately recognized it. That plaque honored the generous gift of the hospital’s first president, Francis F. Prentiss.
That day as a toddler, I was at St. Luke’s because of the birth of my brother. Like my sister and me – and our father a generation before us – my brother was born at St. Luke’s, delivered by Dr. Harold Burkons.
It is symbolic and inspiring that a place so welcoming and central to the start of so many Cleveland families, Jewish and non-Jewish, is now being reborn.
The landmark hospital is part of a $115 million, 20-project transformation of the area that stretches from Woodland in the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood to the doorstep of Shaker Square.
The transformation is unfolding in three interlocking phases.
Already, Harvey Rice Elementary School has been rebuilt, as was the nearby Harvey Rice branch of the Cleveland Public Library. Together, these beautiful buildings at 116th Street and Shaker Boulevard comprise a new “Learning Campus.” The impact is tremendous. For instance, the library branch jumped from one of the least-used in the Cleveland library system to one of the most.
Public art, including colorful benches of stone and tile, invite patrons and neighbors to gather, sit and visit – to reconnect with community.
Next door, amazing new life is already being breathed into the former St. Luke’s Hospital. Neighborhood Progress Inc. has already completed construction of 72 units of low-income housing for seniors. The units are bright, airy and modern.
The second phase of the project, which also involves housing for seniors, is now underway. In addition to Neighborhood Progress Inc., key partners in it – and all phases – include the city of Cleveland, the St. Luke’s Foundation, The Cleveland Foundation, The George Gund Foundation, PNC Bank and Enterprise Community Partners.
After the hospital closed, neighborhood residents voiced their hopes for a community process that this landmark could be repaired and given new life. Actually, it was more akin to a reincarnation, so damaged was the stately edifice. Hard hats were required before construction had even begun. The brass hands had been stolen from its clock tower. Scavengers ripped out copper plumbing and radiators, dragging those items and anything else salvageable over terrazzo stairs and chipping granite sculpted from a quarry long since closed.
Water rained through the roof, dousing auditorium chairs, ruining the floors and causing the ceiling to nearly collapse. But Neighborhood Progress refused to let the damage deter us from this exciting project.
The final phase will amplify the progress already made.
Construction will soon begin for a new home for the Intergenerational School, which has committed to moving in fall 2013. This nationally recognized school is a partner of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, as part of the Breakthrough Charter School Network. It has earned the state’s highest rating.
And though its mostly minority students come from low-income backgrounds, the children who learn in this innovative, intergenerational model thrive. Data show the achievement gap between white and black students has not only been narrowed but reversed. The school gets great results by using senior mentors who are moving into St. Luke’s and who volunteer to work with them.
This model also has amazing and positive effects on the students’ older collaborators and mentors, such as reducing signs of dementia and depression, research shows.
Lauded by the U.S. Department of Education and many others, the Intergenerational School’s leaders and administrators have committed to mentoring staff and students next door at Harvey Rice. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland will also be relocating there. And it will serve all of the children in the neighborhood after school with enrichment and recreation programs.
In addition, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority will rebuild a transit stop in front of the building. Transit-oriented development, the likes of which this city has seen along Euclid Avenue from Public Square to University Circle, is not just anecdotal. It’s real.
The benefits that flow to our community from this interconnected and powerful redevelopment swell far beyond the $115 million investment. They include the hundreds of jobs it supports during the years of construction and the impact on stopping urban blight in its tracks and preventing it from creeping further East.
A diverse and broad network of nonprofit, public- and private-sector partners is cooperating to make this redevelopment come to life. More than a dozen entities have contributed grants, tax credits or other funds.
The project also includes significant support from the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, the state of Ohio and the federal government. This is true civic engagement, built on commitment from the community’s residents, philanthropic partners, business leaders and developers.
The rebirth will attract business, jobs, residents, density and vibrancy and will support a stronger connection among Shaker Heights, Shaker Square and the energy of University Circle.
But perhaps the most valuable dividend – and this is immeasurable – is the breathtaking scale and diversity of redevelopment taking place just down the street from Shaker Heights, a perfect example of creating a dense, walkable, vibrant community.
Something enormous, however, is missing. The linchpin to all of this is the community’s ability to accomplish the final phase of construction of St. Luke’s.
Neighborhood Progress is in the midst of a campaign to raise the funds required. We’ve had wonderful support so far, but need more.
Jewish Cleveland can make this vital project part of our legacy. We know how crucial it is to save priceless icons of the community. A landmark that, quite literally, was a first cradle for tens of thousands of residents who still, proudly, call Greater Cleveland home.
Our community needs to support this critical project. Time is short. Together, let us realize a dream that is well on the way to becoming reality.
Joel Ratner is president and CEO of Neighborhood Progress Inc.