How to save Severance Center
Severance Center is a mess. The owner of the mall portion of that mess is a company called Namdar. Namdar bought this property at a distress sale. It may think the old mall is profitable enough in its current condition. It does not seem inclined to invest nearly enough to make needed improvements.
The city commissioned a plan for improvements. To date, it has had no success getting Namdar to cooperate with this plan. And so, Severance Center remains a mess.
In 1963, Severance Town Center was one of the first shopping malls built anywhere in the entire country. To make it possible, the city defined an area inside and outside a private ring road as an “S-2” zoning district. The goal was to encourage comprehensive planning. This would mean rational development of the central mall area and also of properties outside the ring road. The then owners of the mall were cooperative. The Severance project became an economic success.
But the ring road eventually fell into disrepair. Its original design was not adequate for the emerging needs of the mall nor the community. The ring road had no adequate base under a paving course of asphalt. Such a base was needed to create a foundation that would allow large truck loads to travel on a paving course without destroying it. A proper foundation also was needed to create a frost barrier that would prevent heaving of the paving course when temperatures dropped. Some way to fix the ring road urgently was needed.
A good financial solution was found in 2003. It involved a special tax assessment of properties adjacent to the ring road, including the mall portion. Nearly 70% of an estimated construction cost of $3.5 million was financed that way.
Such a tax was legal because a benefit was being conferred on properties being taxed. It was analogous to the special tax assessments for street lighting and street trees that all homeowners pay. The city issued bonds. Money borrowed that way was available immediately to pay for the project. Over time, tax revenue from the assessments would repay this borrowed money and retire the bonds.
The city had found a creative way to finance removal of a blight. It built the present Severance Circle Drive. Neither the city nor the mall owner was stuck with the entire bill. But assessment meant the mall owner was required to make a significant financial contribution.
A similar approach could be used today. It might fund many kinds of improvements. At the very least, it might be used to pave a now badly deteriorated ring road and maybe even landscape it properly. Even just proposing a special tax assessment might give the city some leverage in negotiations with Namdar. It could be the start of a real effort to remedy the mess Namdar has allowed to persist at Severance Center.
Alan Rapoport, a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, served on CH City Council (1980–87) and as mayor (1982–87).