Coventry PEACE Campus Faces Shaky Future: New Short-Term Leases Threaten Artist Community In Cleveland Heights

A sign of long-standing dischord, created years ago by Artful Executive Director Shannon Morris, with installation support by Sarah Curry, using recycled sign letters provided by Dana Depew.

A group of artists and administrators stepped up to the microphone at Cleveland Heights City Council Monday night to plead the case for the Coventry PEACE Campus, a community hub in danger of closing because of a change in lease terms. Three members of the board of Cleveland Heights-University Heights Libraries also spoke. CPC and Heights Libraries, its landlord, have been at odds for years. Their rift is becoming a chasm.

Brady Dindia, ARTFUL board president and board secretary of Coventry PEACE, urged council members to speak out in favor of CPC and telling them, their mayors and school board members that their voices matter.

“We are not naïve,” she said. “We recognize that the Library leadership has ultimate authority over the fate of our building. But we must not forget that the Library is a public institution that serves the people of both Cleveland Heights and University Heights. And because residents do not get a vote in who sits on their board or runs their organization, the only way to get them to listen is to use your voice now.”

Political pressure is mounting even as Heights Libraries doubles down on its decision to extend its current leases with nine tenants for only six months.    

Those nine nonprofits housed in the Coventry PEACE Building off Euclid Heights Boulevard at Coventry Road will have to move by July 1 if Heights Libraries sticks to its plan to offer six-month leases instead of the 18-month leases CPC tenants expected, and if they don’t sign the shorter leases. Those tenants have until this Friday to tell Heights Libraries if they will sign.

Asked whether Heights Libraries is open to adjusting the lease terms, Communications Manager Sheryl Banks said no, citing the tenants’ failure to notify the library that they wanted an extension at least 90 days prior to the change.

The imminent development is causing high anxiety among CPC members, many of whom say they’ll be forced to move. The stability they seek, and the community hub they have created, will no longer be available. The businesses affected: ARTFUL, Building Bridges, the Cleveland Heights Teacher’s Union, Coventry PEACE Inc., Future Heights, Grace Communion, Lake Erie Ink, Reaching Heights, and the Singer’s Club.

Those arts-oriented entities aren’t going without a fight, however. Just Monday (June 3), CPC blasted an email urging supporters to speak out at that night’s Cleveland Heights City Council meeting. The agencies have voiced their concerns to city officials.

Even though the CH-UH School Board appoints the members of the library board, Cleveland Heights City Council President Anthony Cuda and other officials from Cleveland Heights and University Heights are concerned about the troubled  relationship between the library board and CPC.

Cuda invited CPC members to speak at last night’s meeting. Although he said he doesn’t think “councils should inject themselves into the middle of this,” his city is invested in CPC, and he wants to make sure that more than $1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds Cleveland Heights allocated to the CPC agencies—including $300,000 to the library board for improvements to the CPC playground and $104,900 to Lake Erie Ink—are well spent.

The mayors of both University Heights and Cleveland Heights have visited CPC and expressed their support.

But the deadline for making the lease change is coming up fast, and a spreadsheet on the library board’s website suggests the decision to go to six-month leases is set in stone. The document shows that 18-month leases for the nine nonprofits, including legacy renters Lake Erie Ink and ARTFUL Cleveland, the largest tenant, expire June 30; six-month leases will be the only type available to them, and after those end, leases will be month-to-month. ARTFUL represents the CPC tenants.

Spokespeople for the nonprofits say they were blindsided by news of the change, even though the library board informed them they had to convey their lease plans to the board by May 15.

The only tenants with longer leases starting July 1 are People’s Choice Payee Services, DANCE Cleveland and Do Good Day Hub. People’s Choice is leasing 140 square feet at $8 per square foot in an arrangement set to end April 30, 2026. DANCE Cleveland signed a lease for 973 square feet at $6 a square foot. Do Good Day Hub, another newcomer, signed one for 1,829 square feet at the same rate. Both expire on Dec. 31, 2025—the 18 months the veteran tenants want.

“Operating an entire building for these three businesses while evicting the longstanding tenants in six months who pay over $150,000 a year is not fiscally responsible and makes no sense,” says Shannon Morris, ARTFUL executive director.

Heights Libraries, which says the building has been operating at a deficit for years, counters: “After six years of being a landlord of the former Coventry building, we can no longer continue to expend resources on the building. Our intentions at the beginning were honorable, but the reality is that our continued stewardship of this building drains resources that should be and must be spent on free library services across both Cleveland Heights and University Heights.”

Bowing to the inevitable?

Some tenants are resigned to moving, even though it’s against their will.

“We will accept the six-month lease and look for a new space,” says Amy Rosenbluth, executive director of Lake Erie Ink, a CPC member since 2011. “We have already started that process, although it is very difficult coming without warning and in the middle of our end of year/beginning of summer program season.

“We planned for a renewal of the 18-month lease, with the rent increase as they had outlined. We were very surprised to learn of this change of their mind, even though we recognize that we were late in letting them know that we wanted to renew.”

The library board  says it has been spending about $200,000 a year on maintenance and repairs, while CPC has been paying it $150,000 to $160,000 in rent. The board has yet to identify replacement tenants or reveal its plans for selling the controversial building. Cresco/Playhouse Square, the management company the board hired in 2022, finds that the former Coventry Elementary School requires more than $2.8 million in repairs, primarily to the HVAC and the roof. In an email responding to various questions about the situation, Libraries Communications Manager Banks said, “we have ended our contract with Cresco Real Estate Brokers.”

Heights Libraries has asked its staff to “develop options for viable use of the Property for consideration before December 31, 2024,” according to its website. It does not have replacement tenants for the nine that may well move.

A tear in the artistic fabric

Other arts organizations have rallied behind CPC, including Assembly for the Arts, the Cleveland region’s arts council. In a May 31 letter to CH-UH Libraries Executive Director Nancy Levin and Cleveland Heights Mayor Kahlil Seren, Assembly for the Arts Chief Community Officer Deidre McPherson appeals to Levin to join in a conversation with other stakeholders to work out these problems. She proposes that the library board give current tenants “closer to 12 months to find a permanent solution,” adding she would be happy to advise.

“Nonprofits work best when filling a need in the community where other nonprofits cannot,” says Rachel Bernstein, executive director of Heights Arts. ARTFUL complements Heights Arts’ work by providing badly needed space for artists, she adds, citing collaborations with Lake Erie Ink, Future Heights and Reaching Heights. “This is a very new development, so we are standing ready to help in any way we can. Right now, we are trying to spread the word about how such a loss would affect the surrounding community and the entire city of Cleveland Heights.”

What Heights Libraries is doing with (or to) CPC feels personal to ARTFUL’s Robin VanLear, an artist best known for  staging Parade the Circle. “Most of the artists, including me, are hoping to stay put as long as possible,” she says. “I don’t think I can move, (it’s) too expensive and time-consuming. I am pretty devastated. I think most of us felt that the 18-month extension would be it for our time at the PEACE Campus, but I, for one, had my last 18 months all planned out for the remaining large works I have been planning and working on for many years. Now what?”

Part of the problem is communications. “As a community-focused performance artist, this location is perfect,” VanLear says. “Why Nancy Levin (Heights Libraries executive director) invited me here to have a studio, to create installations and collaborate with the library and is now pulling the rug out, I can’t even fathom.”

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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