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Board of Zoning Appeals again postpones vote on Lincoln Park Flats

by Bruce Checefsky

(Plain Press, January 2021)    When Cleveland Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) committee member Tim Donovan suggested postponing a vote on the Lincoln Park Flats project in Tremont to allow developers 60 days to conduct a parking study in the middle of the winter, in the middle of the worst pandemic in 100 years, nobody was more surprised than Kate O’Neil.  

     O’Neil, co-chair of the Auburn/Lincoln Park Block Club, has expressed strong opposition to the project on behalf of block club members ever since a new proposal was submitted by Rust Belt Development last year. Developers for the project have not successfully worked with the community to come up with a plan for parking, according to her. The 49 market-rate one-bedroom apartments are proposed as a non-car owner complex, an idea block club members and local residents find unrealistic. 

     “It was literally and physically painful to watch BZA give the developers another chance to make their case. The tremendous opposition to this project is obvious to so many people,” O’Neil said. “I was stunned.” 

     “I’m getting flooded with phone calls, e-mail texts, and Facebook posts. People are strongly opposed to this project. I can’t see a way to support it. We would love to see a new proposal. We want to see great development at this location, but we can’t trash the rest of the neighborhood to get there.”

     More than two dozen letters from Tremont residents in opposition to the project were sent to the BZA committee prior to the November meeting. Several of the letters were read during the meeting. Residents lined up on the City of Cleveland live streaming YouTube channel TV20 to express their opposition. Others sent emails and phoned in with their comments. 

     At question is whether a parking study provided by Rust Belt Development partners Sam Messina and Brent Zimmerman (Saucy Brew Works) and David Maison, owner of Maison A+D, with no apparent oversight by City of Cleveland Planning Commission, will provide accurate information on Tremont’s parking needs. Opponents of the parking study, scheduled to take place at the height of the current COVID19 crisis in December and January 2021, are concerned that the pandemic is likely to skew data in favor of the developers. Many businesses in Tremont remain closed. 

     The Plain Press posed the question in an email exchange to several participants at the meeting. A few replied including Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack; Tremont West Development Executive Director Cory Riordan; Josh Rosen, Co-Founder of Sustainable Community Associates responsible for The Tappan, Wagner Awning, Fairmont Creamery, and forthcoming The Lincoln; and Freddy L. Collier, Jr., Director of Cleveland City Planning Commission.

     Sam Messina, Brent Zimmerman, and David Maison did not respond for a request to comment. Donald Petit, Cleveland Landmarks Commission, which voted in support of the controversial development project also did not respond along with Matthew Moss, Cleveland City Planning Commission. Members of the BZA were unavailable for comment.

     Here’s some of what they said: 

     Ward 3 Cleveland City Councilman Kerry McCormack supports opposition to the project, and replied, “My position is that I support the community and Tremont West in objecting to the variances for this version of the project. In working with neighbors, folks are open to and interested in a development on that site, but the community wants it to the right one.  I don’t believe that a surface parking lot on one of Cleveland’s most spectacular parks is the highest and best use, but we’ve got to make sure it’s the right project for the site.”

     McCormack added, We recently worked with neighborhood residents and city planning to rezone this area of Tremont. We should stick as closely as we can to that rezoning, as the point of proactive zoning changes are to express what the community wants to see through zoning.”

      Cory Riordan, Executive Director at Tremont West Development Corporation, was surprised by the Board of Zoning Appeals decision to delay a vote despite overwhelming public opposition. 

     “I am completely surprised that the Board of Zoning Appeals did not reject this since the community was completely against and that the BZA guidelines only allow for variances in cases where, 1) A hardship exists that is not shared by surrounding property owners; 2) That the appellant is being deprived of substantial property rights; or, 3) It is within the intent of the zoning code.”

     “None of these apply to this case,” Riordan continued. “In fact, much of what the Planning Department and the developer are saying is misinformed at best, outright deception at worst.  I expect the Planning Department to do better than give empty rhetoric that doesn’t match the planning documents they reference.  This is a clear-cut case of top-down heavy-handed planning based on an ideology and not sound planning principles.  Sound planning would work with the community to create buy-in, which, as you can see by the way the hearing went, did not happen.  I will do what I can to stay involved in the parking plan process, but l am skeptical.  The city punted their responsibility to do PLANNING WORK to the developer.  The developer that will benefit from a parking study that shows a surplus of parking. If that’s not a case of the fox guarding the henhouse, I don’t know what is.”  

     Josh Rosen, Co-Founder of Sustainable Community Associates, wrote, “I do think the proposed development is, to put it generously, a let-down. It fails to exceed any minimum threshold standards for quality design and placemaking. More density and form-based coding are fine principles, but only in the context of a quality project that enhances the street life and is in relative scale with its surroundings. This design does little to hold the streetscape. Where are the first floor uses that make it feel more welcoming? Can anyone state this design represents anything aspirational about the future of our community? Tremont should be past the point of just accepting any project because we are wo-begotten Cleveland and grateful for the investment.  Too much work in the neighborhood has been done to go backwards in expectations and quality standards”  

     Freddy L. Collier, Jr., Director of City Planning City of Cleveland, forwarded the Plain Press request for a comment to Nancy Kelsey-Carroll, Interim Assistant Director of Communications, Social & Digital Media, who issued the following statement:

     “The Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) decision to table/postpone the proposal for a parking study allows for the Community Development Corporation (CDC), Developer and Community to investigate the implications of parking concerns. The decision made by the board is one of consideration for community concerns. The BZA is empowered by the Charter of the City if Cleveland to request information necessary for making its determination. In this case, the board determined a parking analysis would help address any concerns raised.”

     “The process is transparent, equitable and fair,” the statement said. “People have the opportunity to voice their position. The board takes time to listen and hear concerns.” 

     “As long as there is an open transparent process that allows for public discourse, there will always be people who are happy with the results of a process and those who are not. The key is that everyone has the opportunity to be heard. Even when decisions are rendered, our democratic process allow for people to appeal decisions. We engage in community processes and determine our position based on goals and principles that are the result of planning and development trends, community planning input, our comprehensive plan and other factors.”

     “City Planning does not vote on these issues. The department weighs in, just as other interested parties do, the board deliberates and makes a determination as they are appointed to do.”

     Kate O’Neil, still puzzled by the BZA decision, said by phone, “We tried to be fair with the developers but there’s no other conclusion to reach than this is a bad project for the community. It’s a dangerous precedent for the neighborhood. If a vote had been taken at the meeting in November, a majority of the BZA would have voted against the project. Tim Donovan gave the developers an out. It’s unfair and affects all of us.” 

     The Board of Zoning Appeals is planning a final vote at their meeting on January 23, 2021.

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