by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, October 2020) At 11:53AM on Monday, September 13, the City of Cleveland Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) called forward Appeal: Calendar No. 20 – 135 (1415 Kenilworth Ave) for review. This particular appeal had been left for last during the nearly three-hour meeting because of the volume of materials both in support and against the project. Carol A. Johnson, Chairperson of BZA, cited more than thirteen letters of protest against the project and asked for brevity from the committee and representatives of the community. More than a dozen participants lined up to speak including project representatives David Maison and Brent Zimmerman, Cleveland City Planner Matt Moss, Tremont West Development Corporation Executive Director Cory Riordan, Tremont residents Karla Maschmeier and Susan Scialabba among others.
BZA committee member Tim Donovan told Chairperson Johnson that he had to leave at 12 Noon, less than ten minutes after the case was first introduced. She agreed to keep the meeting brief. A swearing-in administered by City of Cleveland legal counsel took place during the live-streamed hearing on YouTube.
The Board of Zoning Appeals is a 5-member body responsible for hearing appeals from individuals who are requesting exceptions or variances for City Ordinances in regard to land use and building requirements or from individuals who are questioning the appropriateness of orders made by City officials, according to the City of Cleveland website. It is the Board’s goal to treat all individuals fairly and courteously. Each appeal is heard and decided on its own merit.
BZA Board Members include Carol A. Johnson (Chairperson), Tim Donovan, Myrlene Barnes, Kelley Britt, and Alanna Faith.
At stake with the appeal was a request by developers for a variance on parking. In September 2019, Maison Architect + Design and Rust Belt Development, led by Sam Messina, David Maison, and Brent Zimmerman, proposed demolition of the rectory (housing that the Byzantine Church provided for priests and nuns) on the lot just south of the parking lot. The Local Design Review Committee for the Tremont Historic District asked the Landmarks Commission of the City of Cleveland to deny the demolition request.
Maison Architect + Design and Rust Belt Development responded with new plans for 49 market-rate one-bedroom apartments starting at $1,100-$1,700 month. The new configuration provides no parking. Occupants will have to lease parking from a third party or park their cars on the street.
Last July, the Landmarks Commission voted in favor of the project with three conditions: lower the rear building on Starkweather Ave by one story to allow more visibility for the Holy Ghost Byzantine Church; provide some kind of drive thru or drop off and pick up area for delivery vehicles like UPS, Uber, Lyft, and food delivery services; and approval of the parking variance by the Board of Zoning Appeals.
According to David Maison, two of the three conditions have been met. “We developed a project that fit within the guides of the Urban Form Overlay,” he said. “We’ve met the criteria.”
“We put together a fantastic building for this corner,” added Brent Zimmerman. “We’re trying to create an affordable place to live. The average cost of car ownership is more than $8,500 a year. We’re paying for 100% utilities with this project, which saves another $102 month. All in all, we’re saving residents $805 month. When compared to our rents starting between $1,100 and $1,700, the net benefit creates a very affordable place to live in Cleveland.”
Zimmerman explained that by 2030 over 95% of all car traffic would be autonomous. Car ownership mileage will dwindle by more than 80%. People won’t need cars. “Many people are never going back to an office again,” he said. “We’re not going back to the way it was before COVID19. Large businesses are preparing for it. Remember, we used to ride horses. We don’t anymore.”
Chairperson Johnson interrupted Zimmerman to call on Cory Riordan.
“Car ownership is not on the agenda,” Riordan said. “Parking is the issue. The Auburn-Lincoln Block Club, Tremont West Development Corporation, and Councilman McCormack oppose this project.”
Susan Scialabba expressed her dissatisfaction with the review process. Overcrowded parking will damage the neighborhood. The pending issue presented by the Landmarks Commission, which requires signed parking leases within 400 feet of the building, has not been secured, according to her.
“The neighborhood is firmly opposed to this,” Scialabba said. “The developers never came back to us with a dedicated parking plan. They never worked with us.”
Auburn-Lincoln Block Club member Karla Maschmeier expressed similar concerns.
“We’ve strenuously recommended to the developers that they create a parking plan that addresses the concerns of the community. They’ve been to the block club several times but never with a parking plan,” Maschmeier said. “As a community group, the developers won’t come back to us because we’re advisory. It shows lack of good faith and partnership with the community.”
Maison defended the developer’s position that parking isn’t the primary issue. “We have Letters of Intent for 53 parking spaces,” he said. “Nobody agrees with us that we’re going to fill this [project] with people that don’t utilize a personal vehicle. We fully intend to do this. There’s plenty of underutilized parking in the neighborhood if someone searches it out.”
Thirty minutes into the meeting, City Planner Matt Moss explained trends changing in transportation and the need to increase density in the neighborhoods. The City of Cleveland Zoning and Planning Commission advised the developers to pursue a design plan that met the living code requirements with off street parking variances. Moss doesn’t believe the variances will contribute or create adverse traffic congestion.
“I spoke with City of Cleveland Traffic Commissioner and understanding the general land use of this site it seemed appropriate for us to support this project,” Moss said. “Our goal at the Zoning and Planning Commission is to meet a variety of lifestyles. This project provides an income tax base for the City of Cleveland while improving walkability in the neighborhood.”
Chairperson Johnson was losing her patience as the meeting dragged on past 12:30PM.
“I want to hear from people that are in favor or opposed to the case,” she said. “It’s long past due to take a vote with this case.”
The majority of remaining participants spoke out against the variance appeal. Johnson called for a motion to vote but no one from the board responded immediately. After a few minutes, BZA member Alanna Faith put forth a motion to pass the zoning appeal provided the developers secure a five-year minimum parking lease agreement.
“We granted a similar variance in Little Italy,” Faith said. “I understand that due to the popularity of Tremont, residents are afraid if we add more units to that area it will cause more parking problems,” adding, “but I move to approve the variances.”
The motion was seconded and a roll call to vote was taken. When Tim Donovan’s name was called, his computer screen showed an empty chair and he wasn’t there. He was emailed and a text message was sent to him. Donovan was nowhere to be found. A tied 2-2 vote resulted.
A new motion to postpone the hearing was presented. Myrlene Barnes seconded the motion and, with no objections from the board, a date of October 5 was set to vote on the variance appeal.
Maison Architect + Design and Rust Belt Development did not respond to the Plain Press request for a comment.
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