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Why is the Cleveland Foundation insisting on taking over the newly restored Dunham Tavern Museum greenspace?

Last month, our firm filed a lawsuit on behalf of Dunham Tavern Museum (“DTM”) trustees and members to bar the sale of a portion of the Museum’s newly restored greenspace to the Cleveland Foundation for the site of the Foundation’s new headquarters. Almost immediately after a 5-year capital campaign raised $700,000 to restore 2.28 acres of the original Dunham Tavern site, certain DTM board members who are repeat players in Cleveland’s real-estate market began to orchestrate the sale of this land to the Foundation. The lawsuit alleges that these and other board members have pushed the sale without opening the process to competitive bidding, and despite obvious conflicts of interest and responsibility that bar their participation in any such transaction under the Museum’s bylaws. (More details on the lawsuit, including a copy of the Complaint and the bylaws, are available here.)

Yesterday, the Cleveland Foundation issued a press release announcing its intention to proceed with the transaction despite that the lawsuit may eventually invalidate it. This release resulted in an extensive story by Steven Litt at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and where Foundation representatives touted their intent to “revitalize” the “struggling” neighborhood surrounding the DTM site, and “neighborhood leaders” further “hailed the concept.”

“This is a clear, emphatic statement that we want to work on bringing these neighborhoods back,” said Ronn Richard, the Foundation’s president and CEO.

“I’m so excited I want to yell it from the rooftops,’’ added Ward 7 Councilman Basheer Jones, whose district includes the DTM site. “This move with the Cleveland Foundation moving to Ward 7 will be the best accomplishment I could achieve,” he said. “There could be nothing else that’s as great. It almost bring tears to my eyes.”

Jeff Epstein, director of the “nonprofit” Midtown Inc., which “leads development efforts” in Midtown neighborhood where the DTM site resides, said that the move would be “huge, not just for Midtown, but for the entire city.” “This is a really catalytic project in terms of community impact, in terms of placemaking, and in terms of urban planning,” Epstein added. “It’s going to have generational positive impact on the city.”

These grandiose comments by the Cleveland Foundation and the “neighborhood leaders” raise obvious questions that Mr. Litt’s story makes no effort to answer. Primarily: If building the Cleveland Foundation headquarters in this “struggling” neighborhood would be so “revitalizing,” “great,” “huge,” “catalytic,” and “generationally positive,” why can’t these parties use their extensive financial and political wherewithal (including the Foundation’s $2.5 billion endowment) to locate the headquarters on any of a number of vacant or underutilized sites nearby? If the Cleveland Foundation is so “emphatic” about “bringing this neighborhood back,” why can’t it build its headquarters on any other parcel in the surrounding area?

Why is it necessary for the Foundation to encroach on the Dunham Tavern greenspace that was restored by $700,000 in donations from community members who were solicited to help further the organization’s mission, which, as stated in its bylaws, is to “preserve, develop, and share historical Dunham Tavern Museum and its campus as an educational and cultural resource,” “provide an urban green space in Midtown Cleveland, and to return the Tavern to its roots by serving as a place for urban history, education, nature, and community”?

The apparent inability of the Cleveland Foundation or the conflicted Dunham Tavern board members who approved this transaction to answer these obvious questions—or even try to answer them—only strengthens the inference that this transaction has been driven by the alleged conflicts of interest and responsibility.

The Dunham Tavern was once a stagecoach stop on the road between Buffalo, New York and Detroit, Michigan. Today, it is the oldest building still standing on its original site in Cleveland, a designated Cleveland Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and a museum campus designed in stark contrast to the cityscape that surrounds it, to offer a glimpse of history and insight into the lifestyles of early Ohio settlers and travelers.

Our firm remains proud to represent the DTM trustees and members who are fighting to uphold the organization’s mission of historic preservation and we look forward to vindicating that mission in court.