Proposed development stirs disagreement over voting rights at Lincoln Heights Block Club Meeting

by Bruce Checefsky

(Plain Press, February 2019)          Josh Rosen, a partner in Sustainable Community Associates, wanted tostay on message when he presented plans for a new residential housingdevelopment at 1633 Auburn Avenue across the street from the WagnerAwing Building in Tremont.

Seated at a large round table in the basement of St. Augustine Churchon West 14th Street where the Lincoln Heights Block Club meeting tookplace on January 14th, his eyes were fixed on a laptop computer screenas he rattled off details of the $21 million project called Tappan.

“There’s a total of 95 apartments and 2100 square feet of retail space. The apartments are mostly on the smaller side,” hesaid. “There are three, two-bedrooms, close to an even splitbetween one-bedroom and studios. We’re focusing on smaller units, onunits my company doesn’t currently own in Tremont.”

When a question was floated from the back of the room about bikelanes along Scranton Ave and whether new construction and additionalparking on the street might affect the lanes, he grew impatient.

“Could I finish?” he said. “Then I’ll answer any questions that I’mqualified to answer.”

Anyone who’s attended these meetings on a regular basis over the pastfew months has seen the tension flare between Rosen and with members of theLincoln Heights Block Club.

This night was no different.

The turbulent undercurrent of the evening was a letter written byRosen and partners Naomi Sable and Ben Ezinga, and sent to TremontWest Development Corporation Executive Director Cory Riordan onOctober 27, 2018.  Sustainable Community Associates, the real-estate developer company owned by Rosen, Sable, and Ezinga, served notice toTWDC that they are done playing nice with the Block Club, furtherdriving the two sides apart.

In the opening paragraph of the two-page document, Rosen andassociates raise concerns about the direction of the Lincoln HeightsBlock Club, calling for a review of their bylaws and voting policy.They call for TWDC to pull its sponsorship of the Block Club becauseof its position on landowners versus non-landowner rights which, theyargue, is unreasonable.

Rosen, Sable, and Ezinga believe that non-landowners should have thesame voting rights as landowners.

Lincoln Heights Block Club couldn’t disagree more. Their bylaws, voted into place in 2004 and amended in 2014 to include voting on inherent rights, are limited to “membership that are owners of real property within the block service area, which is defined as a residential ownership or commercial ownership…”

Landowners voting rights align with City ofCleveland Planning Commission & Landmarks Commission regulations,according to Henry Senyak, president of the Lincoln Heights BlockClub.

“Just look at this envelope,” he said, pointing to a notice sent bythe City of Cleveland Office of the Council to his home address. Inthe lower left corner in bold letters, is printed: Please ForwardWithout Delay to Owner.

“Renters can’t represent owners to the Planning Commission,” headded. “We’re just following their lead.”

When asked in an email by the Plain Pressto comment on the letter,Executive Director Cory Riordan replied in writing, “I don’treally have a comment. The letter was sent to the (TWDC) Executive Committee to explain why Josh had a problem with the voting structure of the Lincoln Heights Block Club.”

Sustainable Community Associates see the landowners’ rights versus non-landowners’controversy different.

“I’m better off letting the letter speak for itself,” said Rosen,after he walked out midway through the meeting. “Feel free to quotethe letter.”

“Excluding non-landowners from voting on issues of their neighborhoodis a policy steeped in the history of classicism and racism inAmerica,” the letter stated. “The policy runs contrary to any shared values of organizingan inclusive community, and it has been our previously and currentlystated position that TWDC (Tremont West Development Corporation)should no longer sponsor a block-club that is governed by and ratifiesthese sorts of policies.”

“Given the Block Club’s intransigence on non-landowners votingrights, we will no longer be attending any Block Club meetings andwill not seek approval for our plans from this Block Club……. We hopethat the leadership of TWDC will stand by and support our decision privately and publicly.”

Historically, block clubs are groups of people who have homes andfamilies on any given block in the city, and have organized to improvethe quality of life in their neighborhoods. A major outlet forcommunity organizing, people in block clubs address concerns and shareinformation. Block clubs generally strive to be inclusive of allpeople regardless of race, sex, religion, or economic standing. Civic action andpolitical strength are key components of any successful block club.

Cleveland has some of the oldest block clubs in the country, datingback to the early 1940s, according to the Cleveland Historical website.

“In August 1940, residents on East 85th Street on Cleveland’s eastside decided to organize their efforts for the betterment of theirblock and Mrs. Beatrice Beasley, a citizen of the street, founded theE. 85th Street Club……The club was dedicated to doing good within itsown block by holding an annual spring cleaning program, which entailedolder members as well as the youth raking leaves, painting houses, whitewashing trees and curbs, and remodeling abodes. The organizationalso held a “Back to School” dance for the children, which includedrefreshments, prizes, and music disc-jockeyed by Eddie O’Jay, who wasknown for discovering and managing the R&B music group “The Mascots,”later known as the legendary “O’Jays.”

Both Lincoln Heights Block Club and Sustainable Community Associatesagree that blocks clubs are essential to the health and well-being ofthe city.

Whether Rosen and his business partners encourage their non-landowner tenants tovote on matters that involve Sustainable Community Associates projectsis not clear, but the implication is enough to cause a deep riftbetween the two organizations.

The Lincoln Heights Block Club has about a total of 100 members, 27 members have attained voting rights by attending three meetings in the past twelve months – a rule that applies to all Tremont Block Clubs. Renters and property owners that have attended three meetings in the past year can vote on all matters, except matters involving inherent property rights. Votes involving inherent property rights are restricted to property owners, following the lead of the Board of Zoning Appeals’ notification process.

In the case of the residential complex on Awing Avenue, if tenants were allowed to vote on inherent property matters as Rosen proposes, the decision could extend inherent property rights voting privileges to more than 95 non-landowner residents in comparison to a single owner of the complex which results in just one vote.  Add to that the more than 57 non-landowner residents in the Wagner Awing Building, and it’s easy to understand how decision making at the block club could shift dramatically. Of course, if attendance rules still applied, voting privileges would only apply to those tenants that attended three meetings in the past twelve months.

In the case of the residential complex on Awing Avenue, thatdecision could extend voting rights to more than 95 non-landowner residents, in comparison to a single owner of the complex which results injust one vote.  Add to that the more than 57 non-landowner residentsin the Wagner Awing Building, and it’s easy to understand how thecommunity makeup of the block club could shift dramatically fromits current 27 members to over 200 members, the majority of whichwould be non-landowners.

“We tried every way we could to include renters in our meetings, tobe inclusive,” said Patsy Kline, a property owner on Scranton Road, a few blocks from the development site. “Then we’re told by the developers that none of their renters are even going to cometo the meetings.”

“How are we going to operate as a block club if Tremont West pullsits support from us?” asked resident, Randy Norfus, a professional photographer and one of several non-landowners actively involved with the block club.

As the crowd dwindled to just a few remaining residents after a longthree-hour meeting, the question hung in the air.

Lincoln Heights Block Club plans to put the issue to a vote to itsmembers at the March meeting. Depending on the outcome, they’llconsider a course of action.

“We’re portrayed as ignorant elitist,” added Kline. “What’s that all about?”

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