Concerns about proposed Lincoln Park Flats Project expressed by Auburn-Lincoln Block Club members
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, July 2020) A recent report released by RealtyHop ranked Cleveland #99 out of 100 cities in terms of having a strong housing market. Cleveland saw a -6.83% change in the asking price in June, according to Nina Furseth, Corporate Communications Analyst for the New York-based property investment company.
The RealtyHop Market Health Report for June investigates the strength of the 100 largest housing markets across the United States. To do this the company, founded in 2008 by Lawrence Zhou and Lee Lin, analyzed over 300,000 real estate listings on RealtyHop to identify the “market health” of each city based on the median change in asking prices over the past month. Their results explore this metric of housing market health across the country.
The report ranked two Arizona housing markets near Phoenix – Gilbert and Chandler – at the top of their list while Detroit and Cleveland fell to the bottom. Housing prices in both Midwestern cities required significant discounts on listed housing prices in order to be sold.
Despite data showing a slowdown in the housing market in Cleveland, investors at Rust Belt Development are forging ahead with plans to build a 49-unit apartment complex slated for the former Holy Ghost Byzantine Church parking lot at the corner of W. 14th Street and Kenilworth Avenue. David Maison from Maison Architecture and Design submitted a second-round design of Lincoln Park Flats to the Auburn-Lincoln Block Club at their June meeting held via ZOOM.
In September 2019, Maison Architect + Design and Rust Belt Development, led by Sam Messina, proposed demolition of the rectory (housing that the Byzantine Church provided for priests and nuns) on the lot just south of the parking lot. Shortly after, the Local Design Review Committee for the Tremont Historic District asked the Landmarks Commission of the City of Cleveland to deny the demolition request. The Lincoln Park Flats development is proposed in an “Urban Overlay Zone”, a regulatory tool that identifies distinctive development provisions in addition to those in the underlying base zone. No variances were being sought by Rust Belt Development back then. The membership present at the September Auburn-Lincoln Block Club meeting voted unanimously to support the proposed development as presented including demolition of the rectory.
The Landmarks Commission of the City of Cleveland has since denied Rust Belt Development’s request to demolish the rectory. Messina asked Maison to redesign the project keeping the rectory in place. The results were surprising. The new configuration provides no parking for its 49 tenants. Occupants will be asked to lease parking from a third party or park their cars on the street.
“The development team was excited about providing a living solution to a section of the marketplace that does not rely on automobile ownership to exist,” explained Maison. “Ride sharing is reliable and cost effective. We need a parking variance for 32 spaces to achieve our goal. We are not providing any on-site parking.”
The revised plans call for 45 market-rate one-bedroom apartments at 700 square feet each. Rents start at $1,400 per month. Four market-rate micro units at 300 square feet each start at $690 per month. Micro units will include a Murphy wall-bed allowing one room to serve many purposes. Most Murphy wall-beds have no box springs. The mattress lies on a wood platform or wire mesh and is held in place so as not to sag when in a closed position. Market-rate micro units have taken hold in larger cities like New York City and Tokyo where rental real estate is at an all-time premium. New York City Department of Planning recently removed the 400-square-foot apartment zoning minimum in many new development projects to make way for smaller apartments. Some newer apartments range from 260 to 360 square feet, according to the New York Times.
The Fair Housing Center for Rights & Research (formerly known as the Housing Research & Advocacy Center), a non-profit fair housing agency that promotes equal housing opportunities and positive race relations in Northeast Ohio, issued a Guide to Local Occupancy Codes in Northeast Ohio. In the report, the minimum habitat floor space for a single occupant in Cleveland is 150 square feet and 250 square feet for double occupancy.
Still, parking was the central topic of discussion. With no parking provided for tenants, some block club members were concerned about grocery delivery and other needs to access the apartment complex. An alleyway entrance may provide the best solution but won’t be used for deliveries. Most tenants will be riding their bikes, according to Maison.
“You’re going to have to figure out how the get groceries into the building,” Maison said when asked about deliveries. “You are not going to park in the back for delivery. You’re going to walk from wherever you park.”
Steven Harrison wasn’t so concerned. “Let developers build the project at their own risk,” he said. “If this is the way of the future, we should let them either sink or swim.”
Messina assured Harrison and others that the project was based on calculated risks.
“We didn’t just shoot from the hip on the product size. We’re not trying to west coast or east coast Tremont. Some of the residential and multi-family products have a negative turnover at $2,000 a month. Smaller units renting for less are driving a specific lessee with less turnover.”
Population density is part of the Tremont West Development Long Term Plan. Adding an age-diverse segment of younger residents and empty nesters without cars can be seen as part of their ongoing strategy. Unstructured density and escalating housing and rental costs causes more disruption to the community than enhancement according to several Tremont residents. Not everyone agrees.
“This project is targeted for someone like me,” said Patti Choby. “I’m an empty nester. I don’t own a car. There is a huge market for this type of development. Tremont is incredibly well-situated with the RTA routes. I would encourage everyone to think about attracting a certain population. I would live here if I could.”
Ben Cooper thought the Maison Architect + Design concept for Lincoln Park Flats was out of proportion for the neighborhood. The potential number of additional cars parked on public streets added to an already rising problem for Tremont residents.
“We absolutely have a right to give voice to our view on the impact of parking on the neighborhood and ourselves, not just the developers’ risk in building the project,” Cooper said. “Most residents feel the impact will be negative.”
A few days later in a phone conversation with Sister Corita Ambro, beloved figure in the St. Augustine Catholic Church community and recently retired after spending 48 years feeding millions of meals to the homeless at Saint Augustine’s, she reflected on the project.
“I think the apartment complex will destroy the beauty of the neighborhood. To take people without cars is a ridiculous idea. All of the people on 14th Street are against it,” Sister Corita said. “No one from the development company or Tremont West Development has talked to me.”
Sister Corita would like to see someone buy the rectory and turn it into something more useful for the neighborhood noting that she would purchase the building if she had the money. She worries that Lincoln Park will be flooded with too many people. The 83-year old community leader has lived in Tremont for over 50 years.
“I’ve never been so against a project as this one,” she added.
Kate O’Neil, co-chair of Auburn-Lincoln Block Club, reserved her right to withhold an opinion on the project. The block club developed a list of questions years ago for developers to consider before meeting with them, she acknowledged, including whether a project will need variances and which variances. Considerations include light and noise pollution, traffic congestion, garbage pickup and odors, food and restaurant services, and liquor license issues. Once a developer comes back to the block club with these concerns addressed getting the block club’s support is usually easier.
When it came to round-two of the Lincoln Park Flats proposal by Rust Belt Development, many members of the block club were surprised. They originally supported 29 units with parking back in September. They were now being asked to consider 49 units without parking. Various leased parking options were suggested by Messina, but none could be confirmed. Rust Belt Development is asking the block club to support a variance to wave the requirements for the 32 parking spaces required by zoning.
Messina and Maison knew beforehand that Tremont residents were concerned that parking would be the number one issue going into the meeting, according to O’Neil. She was right. There were no surprises. Parking took center stage. Messina could only suggest parking alternatives acknowledging that no legal agreements have been reached with any potential partners including with Grace Hospital or St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church several blocks south of the proposed site.
“$1,400 for a one-bedroom apartment is a high rate,” O’Neil said. “Two people per apartment would make the rent more affordable, but if I could afford a $1,400 a month apartment, I probably own a car.”
She paused to reflect on the overall impact of the meeting, noting there were more concerns than support for it.
“If I have to be a tie-breaker on a vote, then I’ll weigh in,” O’Neil added. “I’m always surprised. The process works.”