On a sunny spring afternoon, developer Russell Berusch stood in the kitchen of a new micro-apartment on Larchmere Boulevard extolling the benefits of living small. Sorry, did we say kitchen? We meant living room, office, and bedroom too – for in these petite suites, the lines are in fact blurred. Mikros on Larchmere packs a great deal into its pint-sized living spaces.
“Once you’re here, you stop thinking about square feet and dollars and cents,” said Berusch as he gave us a tour, which mostly consisted of standing around since the unit was only 476 square feet. “You’re thinking this could be a cool place that feels like home. Sometimes a one bedroom studio can feel claustrophobic. This is smaller, ostensibly, but it’s designed from the inside out.”
Standing in Berusch’s paltry pad with bouts of sunshine streaming through the window and a view of historic Larchmere, it’s easy to see the appeal. The space, with its fold-up bed and moveable walls, feels cozy and livable. But will Clevelanders embrace it, particularly those living on historic Hessler Street in University Circle, where Berusch’s approved micro-unit development has drawn opposition?
Berusch said the answer to his vision of small living is a thumbs up so far on Larchmere. The property is fully leased just a few months after it’s opened.
The developer’s goal was always to build a different kind of development, one that embraces the urban fabric of Larchmere’s diverse, eclectic neighborhood while also providing people with sustainable living. The furnished suites start at $1,475 per month, including all utilities, parking and wi-fi. There’s also electric cars and bikes on site thanks to a car-share program.
Berusch’s partner on the project is Rick Maron, who previously owned MRN Ltd., the firm that developed East 4th Street, Uptown, the Tudor Arms Hotel, and more. Berusch describes the micro-apartment idea as Maron’s “baby.”
“He ran a large company, retired, got bored, and decided to invent a new housing type,” said Berusch. “I was bullish on Larchmere.”
Not everyone in Larchmere, however, was impressed by the desks that convert to dining tables and the sleek white kitchens that look like something designed by a certain ubiquitous Silicon Valley company whose name starts with the letter ‘A.’ “The neighborhood is full of healthy skeptics,” Berusch said jovially. The developers flip-flopped the layout of the L-shaped building so that it wouldn’t block neighbors’ views and added brightly colored cement board siding and generous balconies fronting the street.
Asked who his customer base is, Berusch responds, “everyone,” preferring not to pigeonhole his apartments. When pressed, he says renters tend to be empty nesters, students, and medical professionals (no families yet – there isn’t much space to stow a crib when company comes over). “They love the convenience, flexibility and design,” he said. “We rented to a doctor and he said the appeal was that he didn’t need furniture. It’s perfect for a traveling lifestyle.”
The urban developer, who started out doing nonprofit work in the 1980s before taking on his first project a decade ago, is now trying his hand at a similar, 12-unit project on Hessler Road in University Circle. It’s been approved for land behind two multi-family houses on Ford Road he bought from University Circle Inc. (UCI) last year. Things aren’t going so well. The neighbors oppose the project, his partner left, and now rising material costs are threatening his margins. Berusch has responded by trying to sell the project while simultaneously working to cost-engineer it so that it’s feasible to build.
Neighbors complain Berusch’s 2018 renovation of five row houses on the street tore up the wood block street on Hessler Court, and that the students he rents to for $1,000 a month have in the past thrown obnoxious beer pong parties. Berusch said he had “no comment” on these complaints, but the development property listing advertises “a fully entitled, BZA and Cleveland Landmarks Commission approved multifamily development parcel.”
Hessler resident Laura Cyrocki, who has lived on the street for 25 years, has led the charge against Berusch’s Hessler Road micro-units, in part because it could worsen the neighborhood’s parking crunch. “The city has this big push to go car-less and wants people to ride scooters and bikes,” she said of the approvals granted by the Landmarks Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals last year.
Cyrocki said that while she supports alternative modes of transportation, it’s not realistic to expect that most Hessler residents will live car-free. On the contrary, many students have cars, she said, and neighbors complain they frequently park illegally because there isn’t enough parking. Some senior citizens and handicapped residents who don’t have driveways also rely on street parking, she said.
In the latest wrinkle, UCI announced last month it would demolish its Ford Road parking garage, which has been deemed unsafe. Berusch’s planned project was already short on parking and was planning to rely on 20 spaces in the garage, but now that’s moot. In an email, UCI’s Elise Yablonsky said the organization would still be able to accommodate Berusch’s project.
“UCI is reviewing our parking capacity and reaching out to other garage operators in the area to identify alternative parking options for our roughly 170 existing monthly parkers,” she said in an email. “Our current focus is to demolish the garage safely. Though we are still working through future planning for the site, we are confident in our ability to satisfy our parking commitment to the Ford and Hessler project by the time construction is completed.”
Berusch said UCI has to make good on the parking and Hessler’s activists don’t represent the larger community. “You have to ask yourself, who is the neighborhood versus outspoken opposers?” he said. “Do you have several people opposed? Yes. Will they oppose any project? I’m told yes. If you expand the definition of neighborhood? Then people say, ‘This is just what we need.’”
Cyrocki and longtime resident Eric Ambro vigorously disagree, claiming that more than 60 people submitted letters in opposition to the project at city meetings, and more than 1,000 people signed an online petition against it. “We’re not developers, landlords or politicians,” said Ambro. “When we got landmark status in 1975, we thought we were safe.”
UCI sold 1975 and 1981 Ford Drive to Berusch last year, but county records do not list the sale price. Berusch renovated the buildings, rented them, and tore down the historic garage a year ago. “Even with tax abatement, it’s marginal, that’s God’s honest truth, but I’m going to see if I can make it work,” he told The Land.
When UCI announced in February the Ford Road garage would come down, Cyrocki and others petitioned the Board of Zoning Appeals to reconsider the case, but BZA turned them down.
In an interview, Ambro, Cyrocki and fellow Hessler resident Janice Cogger complained about UCI’s lack of communication. They said they only learned the parking garage would be torn down a couple months ago after Berusch was given variances in December 2021 based on an agreement he had with UCI for 20 parking spaces in that garage. Additionally, online community meetings organized by UCI didn’t provide enough resident and property owner input, they said. Hessler residents and owners responded by demanding and organizing more meetings.
Tensions between UCI and Hessler residents go back to the 1970s when UCI owned properties on the street and renters went on strike to protest what they said were poor housing conditions. UCI eventually sold the properties to the Hessler Housing Co-op, and other tenants. Many, including the co-op, still own their units on the street. Cyrocki is a co-op member.
The project’s future is now uncertain and may rest in the hands of the Board of Zoning Appeals. Cyrocki and others have decided to again appeal to BZA for a reconsideration. Since building permits have not been pulled since the original variances were issued six months ago, Berusch or a future developer will have to go back to BZA to seek them again, according to the city planning commission. At that time, the BZA would again need to consider the parking agreement with UCI.
Ambro, who has lived on Hessler for more than 50 years, lamented the fact that the historic garage where the project is to be built was destroyed without much fanfare. Previously, it was used as a museum of street history during the Hessler Street Fair. Today, it’s a concrete pad where Berusch rents out parking spaces for $75 a month, according to Hessler residents.
Ambro said the tiny lot should be filled with a pocket park instead of pocket apartments. Hessler residents would love to buy the lot and turn it into a park with parking spaces for the residents at 1975 Ford Dr. They said they would name that park after after Donna Lee (Pitter) Pratt, a resident who helped to create the Hessler Neighborhood Association and was active on the street for decades, before she died in 2019. “They say a vacant lot is a missing tooth that needs to be filled,” said Ambro. “I react to that by saying, have you heard of the importance of open space?”
Follow the Cleveland Planning Commission, Landmarks Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals: https://planning.clevelandohio.gov/
Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.
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