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The city of Toledo needs to improve and expand its Collins Park water treatment plant. Otherwise, it will be in deep trouble with the federal Environmental Protection Agency as well as the state of Ohio.
Moreover, there is the real possibility of a breakdown — an emergency at the antiquated plant and a loss of service.
Imagine the city, or parts of it, without water.
Mayor Mike Bell has taken on this problem after years of neglect. And that is commendable. Facing up to tough problems is the mayor at his best.
And most people acknowledge that we need to deal with the water plant situation at last and be willing to pay for it.
But the residents on Collins Park Avenue, whose homes back up to the plant, would like a clearer idea of how the city wants to proceed. Indeed, they would like to be a part of the planning process.
All they know right now is that the city wants their homes.
In March, by an 11-0 vote, Toledo City Council authorized the director of Public Utilities to spend $700,000 of the bond proceeds from the Water Improvement Fund for the purchase of properties on Collins Park Avenue. There are 28 homes, and 27 owners, on the street. Do the math, that’s not a lot of money per home.
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Residents began receiving letters and phone calls asking about their interest. Some claim they heard the words “eminent domain,” though the city insists the buying and the selling of these homes is strictly on a voluntary basis at the moment. Other homeowners say they got the impression that they would get a higher price if they sold now. So far, only a handful of owners have sold, and rumor has it that the prices are going up with each sale, not down.
Enter the Birmingham Development Corp., representing the Birmingham neighborhood. This group generally concerns itself with running the Birmingham Ethnic Festival once a year — the ethnicity involved being primarily Hungarian. It is now thrust into the position of being a neighborhood preservation group.
These folk, whose core is about 50 people, are anything but firebrands. Their chairman is a retired Catholic priest and longtime neighborhood pastor — the Rev. Frank Eckart. One of their spokesmen says that he wants to be “respectful” of city government. “We don’t want to take off the gloves,” he says.
But they ask some very reasonable questions:
● Shouldn’t the city have a plan for the new water plant before it takes houses?
● Shouldn’t the people in the Birmingham neighborhood be a part of the planning process and not simply be told what to do?
● Shouldn’t as many houses as can be saved be saved?
The group asked the city for a moratorium on the buying of homes on Collins Park. The city said no. It next asked for a moratorium on the destruction of homes. Couldn’t the city rent out the homes until it is proven that this stretch of land is needed for the plant improvements? The response was that the city is not in the landlord business. (And the city is granting inside salvage rights to those who sell, which means those homes will never be homes again.)
In an early meeting with Collins Park residents and their neighbors, Public Utilities Director David Welch acknowledged that the city did not yet have a plan for the water plant and that the neighbors had a point: They should, he wrote in a May 13 letter, “... have clear definition about what is happening in their neighborhood.” But he also made clear that the city was moving ahead with plans to buy houses on Collins Park and, once purchased, to “demolish” and “grade” the properties.
Birmingham group members say it is their impression that Mr. Welch was willing to listen to them and accommodate them, to the extent possible, until he met with the mayor and his cabinet. The Birmingham group will not have an opportunity to meet with the mayor until July 11. And by then the $700,000 could be spent and many houses sold.
What these proud property owners say is simple and eloquent: Why destroy a street that is a vital part of a fine neighborhood when it may not be necessary? Why not see if a plan can be devised that takes a few, or none, of these houses? These homeowners mow their yards and pay their taxes. No houses on Collins Park are boarded up.
“Why kill a unique and beautiful neighborhood,” asks one owner. “Do they want to make us Detroit?”
Longtime East Toledo politician Peter Ujvagi says: “When ODOT built the [Craig or 280] bridge they worked with us and, in the end, only six houses came down.”
Is there is available land on the other three sides of the plant? It looks that way to us, Birmingham residents say. And, if you must take our homes and our neighborhood, they say, show us, make the case, and compensate us decently.
There are two issues here.
One is: What makes a city?
Toledo still has what many cities lost to highway development, misguided urban development, or white fight 30 years ago — neighborhoods. Livable, middle-class neighborhoods. And these neighborhoods have histories. That is part of what makes Toledo great.
People in this part of East Toledo choose to live there — because they always lived there and because their parents and grandparents lived there. There are roots. There are churches, social clubs, and a collective memory. There is real food that comes from somewhere other than a corporation and horse meat. The Birmingham public gardens have been going for four generations. “And,” says one gardener, “nobody steals.”
When so many cities have destroyed themselves by demolishing neighborhoods, and when so much of Toledo, on the other side of the river, is blighted, why would the city chase away responsible homeowners and tear down good homes in a vital neighborhood — if it doesn’t have to happen?
The second issue is: How best to lead and administer a city?
There is an arrogance in Government Center that is sometimes breathtaking. It is, I believe, a convergence, a sort of perfect storm: An entrenched city bureaucracy; a mayor who wants what’s best for the city but usually thinks there is only one way — his way, and a city council cowed by both the mayor and city administration and unable to act as a check on either.
So what we get is a city government that often seems to roll over its citizens and their just and reasonable concerns.
Destroy the trees on Collingwood Boulevard and you injure a neighborhood and a city of neighborhoods. That’s bad governance.
But people are not trees. They can speak and organize.
What can the Birmingham neighborhood do?
Turn up the volume. Take off the gloves, after all.
This is a neighborhood we are talking about. An old and dignified neighborhood.
Council can do something too. It can show some spine and rescind the $700,000 authorization. Cut off the money until there is a plan and a genuine conversation.
Keith C. Burris is associate editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.