The Shaker Heights Service Center

A Public Improvement that improved the Gateway to the City

In March 1963, Cosmopolitan Magazine ran a story about the "Good Life" in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the wealthiest city per capita in the United States. While nationally-recognized wealthy suburb was the public image of the city in the 1960s, a very different story about the city was unfolding in one of its southwestern neighborhoods. The siting and construction of the Service Center in the Moreland neighborhood, as much as any other public project undertaken by the city in that decade, was an integral part of that very different story.

As you drive east on Kinsman Road today through Cleveland's Mount Pleasant neighborhood and approach East 154th Street, you come upon and notice it--almost before you notice anything else. You see it before you see that Kinsman Road has now become Chagrin Boulevard. And it greets your eyes even before they are greeted by the nearby Shaker Heights welcome sign. It's that long expanse of yellow brick wall--interrupted only once by a driveway-- that stretches for more than two city blocks along the south side of Chagrin. It is the Shaker Heights Service Center and it tells you that you have left Cleveland and have now entered one of the area's premier suburbs. How the Service Center came to be sited there, in Shaker’s Moreland neighborhood, is a fascinating story about city planning and resident activism.

Before the Service Center was built, Shaker Heights had for decades kept all of its service department trucks, other vehicles, and equipment on a five-acre parcel of land on East 173rd Street in Cleveland, just south of Harvard Avenue. In the early 1960s, nearby Cleveland residents and businesses began complaining to their ward councilman about odors coming from the yard as a result of Shaker using it also as a transfer station for city garbage. In large part as a result of these complaints, the city, which had since the previous decade been looking for a better location for its service yard, intensified its search and in January 1962 proposed to relocate it to a vacant parcel of land on the southeast corner of the intersection of Chagrin Boulevard and Warrensville Center Road, adjacent to Highland Park Cemetery. Opposition from Shaker residents living in the Mercer and Sussex neighborhoods, as well as nearby businesses, however, prompted the city to reject the site. Five years would pass before Shaker Heights would again attempt to relocate the service yard to within its city limits. In the interim period, it and Cleveland remained at impasse. Cleveland could not shut down Shaker's lawful activities on land that Shaker owned, but Cleveland could prohibit Shaker from expanding its activities there and from constructing modern buildings to house its service department vehicles and equipment.

It was Shaker Heights' decision in 1966 to hire two nationally known architects, Leonard Styche from Milwaukee and Don Hisaka, whose offices were in Cleveland but who was a resident of Shaker Heights, to create a city master plan that eventually provided the opportunity to site the Service Center in Moreland. The Styche-Hisaka Plan recommended a substantial redevelopment of the southwestern and southeastern sections of Shaker Heights, stating that it was necessary in order to improve the city's tax base for the future and to stem the tide of white flight from the aging middle class housing of these sections that was occuring during racial transition there. Official meetings on the plan had not even been scheduled in January 1967, when news leaked that a key feature of phase one of the plan was a proposal to construct a large civic center (a building that was expected to house the Shaker Historical Society, the Shaker Players, the Shaker Symphony and other cultural groups) at the intersection of Hildana and Hampstead Roads, in the southern part of the Moreland neighborhood. In order to calm residents' fears, the city scheduled an informal meeting, under the auspices of the League of Women Voters of Shaker Heights, on February 22 at Woodbury Junior High School to share the details of the master plan.

Hundreds of residents, mostly from the Moreland neighborhood, showed up for the meeting. There, Shaker Heights officials confirmed that a civic center was indeed proposed for the Moreland neighborhood and that it would likely displace 75 families whose houses would be demolished to make room for it. The officials added, however, that, prior to this occurring, the city planned to provide new housing in Moreland which would be available to displaced residents. Anxious residents responded by expressing their concerns over losing their homes and questioning whether they would even be able to afford the planned new housing. While representatives of Operation Equality, an organization created to expand housing opportunities in the Cleveland area for African Americans, and the Urban League of Cleveland, both of whom had been in contact with the city administration, stated that they saw no evidence that the plan was intended to remove African Americans from Moreland, at least one Moreland resident who had attended the meeting disagreed, calling it "a thinly disguised containment program for the Moreland negro population."

Following the February 22 meeting, the Moreland Community Association (MCA), an organization formed in 1962 and largely funded by the Cleveland Foundation to help stabilize Moreland during its racial transition, and a number of local block clubs, scheduled almost weekly meetings with residents to discuss the Styche-Hisaka master plan as it pertained to their neighborhood. When Council held its first official public hearing on the plan on May 1, 1967, more than 300 residents showed up. According to news accounts, it was the largest audience in the history of Shaker Heights council meetings. Netta Berman, MCA president, who attended the meeting, conveyed the residents' feelings, including their strong opposition to the proposed civic center, and suggested that, in phase one of the plan, the city do something about the south side of Chagrin Boulevard between the Cleveland city line and Lee Road, the condition of which she intimated was adversely impacting the neighborhood.

Within days following the May 1, 1967 hearing, Shaker Heights Mayor Paul K. Jones announced that the proposed civic center would not be built in the Moreland neighborhood. Several months later, Jones appointed a 15-member master plan advisory committee, which included two MCA representatives--Patricia James (whose husband Clarence would be appointed Cleveland law director in 1968 by Mayor Carl Stokes) and William B. Hammer (who also served as operations coordinator for the Metropolitan Housing Authority), charging the committee with the task of coming up with alternatives to the master plan's proposed redevelopment of the Moreland neighborhood. Meeting for the next several months, the committee presented its recommendations to Shaker Heights City Council in January 1968. Among them was a proposal to fund the construction of a service center along the south side of Chagrin Boulevard near the Cleveland city line, the area that MCA president Berman had stated needed immediate redevelopment. City Council accepted that committee recommendation and thereafter voted to submit a bond issue to the electorate providing funding for land acquisition and construction. While the bond issue was endorsed by the Moreland Community Association, it was not without its opponents. On July 22, 1968, Robert LaChance, who lived at 3742 Menlo Road, submitted a petition to Council signed by 71 residents of Menlo and Pennington Roads, opposing the issue. (At the same meeting, MCA vice-president James Peoples spoke in support of the issue.) Shaker housing officers Alan Gressel and Suzanne Spetrino also actively campaigned against the issue, and were, allegedly as a result of their opposition, fired by Mayor Jones. On November 5, 1968, the Shaker Heights electorate passed the issue by a vote of 8257 to 5275.

Over the course of the next two and one-half years, the city purchased 32 homes on Menlo, Pennington and Ludgate Roads, as well as a number of commercial properties on Chagrin Boulevard, that were located on the site of the new Service Center, moving some of the homes and demolishing the rest, before then proceeding to construct the Center. Pursuant to a relocation policy that it had entered into with the Moreland Community Association in January 1968, the city offered housing assistance to all residents who had been displaced. County deed records and local directories show that, of the 27 families whose relocation information could be found, only 12 moved to a new address in Shaker Heights, with the remaining 15 moving out of the city. The new Shaker Heights Service Center became operational in April 1971 and was officially dedicated on May 1 of that year.

The Shaker Heights Service Center has now for 47 years fulfilled the city's need to have a service yard located within its city limits. It is a notable gateway to Shaker Heights and improved the appearance of the south side of Chagrin Boulevard near the Cleveland city line. It also blocked commercial retail traffic on Chagrin from Menlo and Pennington Roads. But the story of the Shaker Heights Service Center is not just one about the needs of the city that were filled or the benefits that may have been derived by the Moreland neighborhood. It is also, and maybe more importantly, a story about neighborhood activism and how residents, working together and making sure that their voices are heard by city hall, can have a positive impact on the future development, and redevelopment, of their neighborhood.