Landmarks Commission weighs in on Lincoln Parks Flats project
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, August 2020) Director of Cleveland City Planning Commission Freddy Collier has come under criticism for his handling of a Landmarks Commission decision that took place in North Collinwood earlier this year. Cleveland historian and writer Carol Poh resigned from the Design Review Committee after claims that Collier engaged in political favoritism when he supported and approved a zoning variance against the unanimous objections of neighbors and City Councilman Mike Polensek. He has denied any wrongdoing.
“God forbid that I should have an opinion as planning director without being blasted in the paper for being conniving or corrupt,” he said during a July 9th Zoom meeting of the Landmarks Commission. “We may not agree but I hope people respect the opinions of others and don’t carry anger or slander. I exercise no extra authority with my vote. We need to respect democracy. The outcome is the outcome.”
David Maison, owner and architect at Maison A + D, and chief architect for the Lincoln Park Flats project presented a revised site plan to the commission. In attendance was Collier and eight members of the Landmarks Commission along with developer Sam Messina, representatives from Tremont West Development Corporation, and guests. There wasn’t much new to discuss according to Maison except a pull back from the edge of the sidewalk to the face of the building to allow for grass and shrubbery. But when the conversation shifted to parking options for tenants, he stayed clear of committing to a plan. He did point out that the development team secured two Letters of Intent (LOI) from nearby sources which could potentially lease parking to fulfill a variance requirement. Grace Hospital was not one of them.
Sam Messina, Business Development/Construction Services & Real Estate Development at Geis Companies has partnered with Maison and Brent Zimmerman, best known as the founder of Saucy Brew Works in Ohio City, on the apartment project overlooking historic Lincoln Park. Messina confirmed that Grace Hospital would not lease parking to them at this time.
“Grace has told us they want to ‘hold off’ on any agreements as they may have other future plans,” he said.
Donald Petit, a member of the Landmarks Commission, said he received ten emails the prior day from the community. Nine letters including a community statement letter from Susan Regan with twenty-three signatures opposed the project; there was one letter of support.
Michele Anderson, a 33-year veteran real estate sales agent at Cleveland-based Progressive Urban Real Estate and appointed to a three-year term on the Landmarks Commission in 2018, noted that any parking solutions proposed by Messina and Maison were too far from the building site. Cleveland Code of Ordinance requires automobile parking spaces be provided on the same lot, or on adjacent or nearby property, provided a major portion lies within 400 feet of the main entrance to building. None of the proposed parking sites come close to the 400 feet requirement.
“The parking on Auburn is a good two blocks away. I think anybody carrying groceries will find that unmanageable,” Anderson said.
The Landmarks Commission is an eleven-member board of preservation-minded individuals consisting of architects, historians, property owners, attorneys, Cleveland City Council representatives, the Director of City Planning, and the Commissioner of Architecture. The Commission and its staff pursue these goals by promoting the highest standards for development and revitalization in all of Cleveland’s neighborhoods and employment centers, according to the website city.cleveland.oh.us.
Most major cities have a Landmarks Preservation Commission or municipal preservation agency to encourage and promote historic preservation and Historic District revitalization. At issue is a variance request to allow the developers of Lincoln Park Flats to build a 49-unit apartment complex without parking. Some cities allow for no-parking variances but with mixed results.
“Any developer in the last two years who bought into the idea that parking wasn’t important missed the mark,” said Jeff Reynolds, a broker who focuses on the Seattle condo market, in a recent The Seattle Times article.
On the other hand, the low-end apartment market caters to young people without cars. Parking spaces are expensive to add as an amenity; construction costs can be lowered by eliminating parking all together. Masion’s original design concept for Lincoln Park Flats presented to the Auburn-Lincoln Block Club last fall showed 29 units with off-street parking. The current plan calls for as many as 49 units, a 60% increase in number of units all with no parking. The math adds up quickly. That’s a 60% increase in rental income.
In some cities like Portland, Oregon, parking isn’t even being considered in new apartment construction, where nearly two-thirds of recent projects don’t provide tenant spaces, according to Oregon Public Radio. Car owners are left on their own to find available street parking or lease parking from a third party and pay an additional fee on top of their monthly rent.
Kate O’Neil, co-chair of the Auburn-Lincoln Block Club, was concerned that a decision by the Landmarks Commission to support the project without parking would set a precedent for future projects in the neighborhood.
“Developers will come to us and say, ‘we don’t need any parking’ setting a dangerous precedent and putting tremendous demand on the neighborhood,” O’Neil said. “We would like to support development that is a good match for the neighborhood. This is not a good match.”
The Landmarks Commission asked Maison to redesign the structure to reduce the height from five to four stories in the back of the building to preserve the Holy Ghost Byzantine Church sight line. Restoration is needed to preserve the historic church, but Messina pointed out that the $8 million budget does not include financing for renovation or restoration of the rectory or church.
Giancarlo Calicchia suggested the Landmarks Commission focus on the historical importance of the church leaving the parking issue to the Board of Zoning Appeals.
“The owner hasn’t addressed the historical rectory or church at all. He mentions they might sell the house,” Calicchia said. “The church will be hidden behind the apartment building. I don’t see the owner coming up with any solutions.”
A motion to vote was made against the backdrop of confusion about the exact wording. When the vote was tallied, the Landmark Commission handed a 5-3 decision in favor of the project with two conditions: lower the rear building on Starkweather Ave by one story to allow more visibility for the Holy Ghost Byzantine Church, and provide some kind of drive thru or drop off and pick up area for delivery vehicles like UPS, Uber, Lyft, and food delivery services. If the stipulations are not met, the project can’t go forward. The parking issue will still have to go to the Board of Zoning Appeals for an approval of a variance.
A cloud of silence fell over the Landmarks Commission hearings as the committee moved onto the next project.
Later that afternoon, Tremont West Development Corporation Executive Director Cory Riordan expressed disapproval at the Landmarks Commission decision. In a phone conversation with the Plain Press, Riordan said, “I’m opposed to this project because it hasn’t been approached in a manner that would give me confidence that the community had ample opportunity to weigh in. St. Augustine provides vital community and social services. Shouldn’t they be taken into consideration? What is the damage to our community when they are not? That’s the process and they haven’t done that.”
Tremont property owner and former resident Herb Crowther had strong words for the developers and Landmarks Commission.
“[Messina] is giving the impression that there’s significant transit that makes living car free in Cleveland a real option. He has zero evidence to support his claim,” Crowther said in a phone interview. “From a planning perspective, he leaves all the risk on the community and has done less than anyone to build goodwill. He did nothing to build trust.”
“I’m trying to keep a cool head,” he added.