Central Tremont Block Club weighs in on J Roc Development proposal for an apartment development
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, July 2019) At their June meeting, residents of the Central Tremont Block Club voiced their concerns about J Roc Development’s proposal to build a 124-to-140-unit apartment building, called Electric Gardens, on the hillside just east of W. 5thand Literary Road.
Julie Goulis, co-chair of the Central Tremont Block Club, opened the standing room only meeting on June 3rd at the Polish Alliance Hall, with a reading of the block club bylaws.
“One person speaks at a time. Be respectful and do not interrupt anyone while they’re speaking. For questions, or comments, we will limit everyone to one minute. Simple majority is needed to pass any issue for our block club.”
Following an introduction by board members, people were asked to state their names, where in Tremont they live, and how many years they’ve been in Tremont including new residents of a few weeks in the neighborhood, to residents who have lived there for 35 years or more.
Goulis asked Cory Riordan, Executive Director of TWDC, to describe the development process in the Tremont area.
“Developers are asked to check in with Tremont West by the City of Cleveland or councilman. We do an initial review and provide development guidelines. These guidelines include meeting with the block clubs,” Riordan responded. “The economic development team formulates its own opinion. Central Tremont is not a legal body in the decision-making process. Neither is Tremont West. The City makes a decision based on our recommendations. We are advisory only.”
The remainder of the meeting focused on a proposal by J Roc Development, the residential and mixed-use development company responsible for Tremont Black and Tremont North townhouses, for a project they are calling Electric Gardens.
J Roc Development is proposing to construct a 124 to 140-unit apartment building connected to the Towpath Trail and overlooking Cleveland’s industrial valley with panoramic views of the Cuyahoga River. The 2-acre parcel on Literary Road purchased by J Roc is zoned industrial, which means the development corporation is seeking a rezoning from industrial to mixed use. Spot zoning, as it is referred to, is the process of singling out a small parcel of land for a use classification totally different from that of the surrounding area, for the benefit of the owner of such property, often to the detriment of other owners.
In some states, spot zoning is illegal and has uniformly been denied in zoning appeals when there is substantial impact upon surrounding land. The City of Cleveland currently has no consistent urban design standards that would limit the mass, height, and appearance of any new construction. Without a master plan, developers can pick and choose parcels that serve the interest of their investors and ignore the concerns of surrounding neighbors, or the environmental impacts on the land.
With the Towpath Trail near to the entrance to Electric Gardens, the spot zone request could potentially conflict with the public use of the trail, as some critics of the development project have suggested. The panoramic view, on the other hand, is an entirely different issue.
When Chris Nielson purchased his townhouse in Bergen Village four years ago, he was promised in a promotion from Sutton Development Group, “an astonishing scenic view from its enviable location… with unparalleled views and panoramic setting…with a nostalgic touch of Cleveland’s history, and most of all, a distinctive experience in urban living.”
The J Roc Development parcel borders his property line. Even with the current redesign of a 4-story apartment building, lower than the 5-story first presented to the block club, Nielson’s scenic view will be blocked. The effect is like having someone cut in front of you to get the better view.
Erin Taylor from J Roc Development explained. “The process of design approval and rezoning has been costly and time consuming. Still, we are committed to moving forward with completion of the project in the near future.”
“The first meeting we had with Councilman Kerry McCormack was 677 days ago,” Taylor said. “We’ll have met twenty-nine times since then, with Bergen Village about six times and Central Tremont Block Club six times. We’ve really tried to work with residents; listen to their feedback; and have the spirit of compromise.”
Compromise for J Roc Development designers and architects meant scaling back their project from a 5/1 construction (five stories over a garage) stick building with a scaled height of 81 feet, to proposing removal of more than 14,000 yards of soil to lower the height of the building to 51 feet. As of last month, they settled on a 4/1 (four stories with a garage) design with a height of 42 feet, just a few feet above the Bergen Village current height level.
Sutton Development Group built Bergen Village in 2009. Their website promotes Tremont’s first gated community as a residence on Tremont’s Ridge that enjoys “an astonishing scenic view from its enviable location…with a nostalgic touch of Cleveland’s history, and most of all, a distinctive experience in urban living.”
“Many of the homes have gorgeous city views that must be experienced,” reported several real estate sites with listings of the townhouses for sale.
That could all change if J Roc Development gets approval to rezone the industrial site. Electric Garden will create a barrier to the scenic view of the industrial valley from Bergen Village. The developers make no excuses for their plans to piggyback onto the success of the Towpath Trail and monetize the views of the industrial valley. In fact, it’s their selling point.
“We made simple moves to orientate the building, break down the scale, and engage it with the view,” said Bill Neburka from Evident Architecture Office, while disusing the design process. “We wanted to push the building as close to the Towpath as possible,” added Taylor.
Current projections for a typical unit at Electric Gardens are 600 to 1100 square feet, with a monthly rent of $1200 – $2200 depending on the apartment. J Roc Development representatives expressed interest in committing 5% – 10% for workforce housing.
Workforce housing is a term used by developers to provide attractive and affordable housing for middle-income service workers, such as police officers, teachers and nurses, in close proximity to their jobs. Households earning from 60 percent to 120 percent of the area’s median income are often considered eligible for workforce housing. Affordable housing, on the other hand, is generally used for households where income is less than 60 percent of AMI (Annual Median Income).
The median household income in Tremont is $40,561 or 27% lower than the national average.
Proponents believe every city needs workforce housing, so people can live near where they work especially those workers who are essential to the local economy.
Tax incentives for workforce housing in Qualified Opportunity Zones like Tremont are meant to promote job and wage growth. Developers can temporarily defer taxes on capital gains with restrictions but the types and compatibility of housing, and the impact on the character of neighborhood rarely get discussed, according to residents of Bergen Village.
Nielson appreciates the effort J Roc is going through to engage with local residents, but the Central Tremont Block Club approved a three-story construction project, not four-story. The first renderings of the project were made public less than a month ago, according to him.
“I think your depiction of the neighborhood concerns like parking, density, and building height are legitimate,” said Nielson, “but they go beyond that. We don’t know the impacts that can evolve as the project gets built. The massing and appearance of the building is a monolith. A monolith is a monolith is a monolith. It’s our view and it’s a monolith.”
Several Bergen Village properties are currently listed for sale from between $425,000 – $615,000.
“From the design perspective, Electric Garden still has to go through the design review process and City Planning Commission,” Riordan added.
When the vote tally was returned, there were 31 votes in favor of rezoning the site from industrial to mixed use, and 13 votes against it.
Nielson was visibly disappointed. “They can simply do better,” he said.