It was like déjà vu all over again – Cleveland neighborhood residents pushing back against a dense multi-family development favored by the city.
On November 2nd, the Board of Zoning Appeals (BOZA) approved a proposal for a five-unit condo development at the corner of Clifton and West Boulevard over objections from neighbors who say it’s too large for the site, too dense for the neighborhood, and lacks sufficient parking.
Tremont residents battled against the proposed 46-unit Lincoln Park Flats project at the Nov. 23rd BOZA hearing. The board postponed a vote on the project until January 25th, pending completion of a parking study by the developer.
The meetings served to highlight the continuing divide between residents and the city when it comes to the appropriateness of multi-family housing in the city’s dense, historic neighborhoods, especially where on-street parking is an issue. Residents asked why there wasn’t more public input into the projects and why the city was pushing for them over residents’ concerns.
Clifton-West Boulevard condo project receives approval
The southwest corner of Clifton and West Boulevard on the city’s west side has remained an empty lot for more than a decade, yet a new development could change that.
The lot, which is currently zoned single-family, requires multiple variances to be developed as multi-family housing. Developer Andrew Brickman of Brickhaus Partners has proposed building a five-unit development that would wrap three-story condominiums around the prominent corner.
The project, dubbed BigHaus, features two-car garages and one shared drive off West Boulevard. The exterior materials will be stucco and brick.
“This is a corner I drive by all the time,” Brickman said at the Nov. 2nd BOZA meeting. “To me, it looks like the missing tooth in a smile … but no one has been able to figure out, despite numerous attempts, how to develop it. The architecture [we’re proposing] is tasteful, and we’d bring in five new families to the city.”
The Landmarks Commission, which reviews projects in historic districts, and Clifton West Design Review, the local design review committee for the area, approved the project unanimously in October. On November 2nd, the five-member BOZA voted unanimously to grant variances for the five units and 30-foot front setback, allowing the development to proceed. They reasoned that they’d granted similar variances in the past and the dense development fits the neighborhood’s character.
But not before fiery debate between immediate neighbors and city planning director Freddie Collier, who lobbied hard for the project, arguing that dense urban development is key to rebuilding Cleveland’s neighborhoods and that a variety of housing types are needed to attract new residents.
“We know that with the product that is being presented here, there is a lot of market interest in that,” he said. “We fully support the variances because it’s a good product and it’s good for the city of Cleveland.”
Yet Dona Brady, a longtime resident of the area who previously served as city councilperson, said public input wasn’t considered. “In my 20 years as a councilperson and six years on the Board of Zoning Appeals, I’ve never, ever seen city departments come to BOZA and fight so hard for a project. I’m very concerned about this. You are hearing mainly concerns about this.”
Brickman pointed out that despite Brady’s concerns about density, a similar setback variance was granted twice for projects with fewer units when she was councilperson. City planner Adam Davenport noted this project offers an opportunity to fill a lot that’s been empty over a decade.
Neighbors Shawn Godwin, Chris Schlenkerman, Cathryn Bergman and Robert Bergman argued that the units have insufficient guest parking and the shared driveway on West Boulevard may prove dangerous if residents have to back out. The developer said there’s room to turn around.
“It looks great, I want to see the corner developed, but I’m not sure why there are five units – why not three instead of five?” Schlenkerman said. “I want him to build this, it’s a great product, but it’s not quite the right fit. I thought we were here to debate the project and try to make it better.”
Ward 11 Councilman Brian Mooney said he approached the developer about reducing the number of units, but he stated that four units would not be economically viable. Brickman paid $230,000 for the property and has told neighbors that units could be priced around $700,000.
“I think if you had four units, more people would support the project,” said Mooney. “Whatever number of units you say, the developer could say it’s not economically viable. I don’t know. I’m not a developer. But I do know that a developer is not Habitat for Humanity.”
Neighbors questioned the process for gathering public input and said they did not receive timely notice about the public meetings. Councilman Mooney said that he’d only received notice of the Landmarks Commission meeting about 40 hours before it occurred and didn’t have enough time to notify the neighbors properly. Additionally, he said he received six days’ notice of the BOZA hearing, which led to a postponement so he could organize a community meeting.
The city provided the required notice, Collier countered, and relies on council people to help get the word out and facilitate community input. “I appreciate those of you who came out, but there’s a lot more people in this neighborhood than are here today,” he argued, citing the fact that many letters of support were submitted for the project.
Robert Bergman accused the city of “rubber stamping” the designs, but this accusation rubbed Collier the wrong way. “At the end of the day, this is a democratic process,” he said. “I don’t appreciate terminology like ‘rubber stamp.’ It’s insulting. We’re here in a public forum voicing our opinion on a project. Nothing is rubber stamped here. We go through a rigorous process with every development project in the city.”
Bergman responded, “I’m sorry if you’re offended, but to me, the process is what’s offensive in and of itself. It’s offensive how rapidly this project moved forward without neighbors’ involvement and input.”
BOZA member Tim Donovan, who’s been on the board for 30 years, noted at the end of the meeting that while some people will always be unhappy with the outcome, community input is important. “Don’t take it personally,” he said.
Now that both Landmarks and BOZA have approved the BigHaus project, the development will move to city planning. Once approved, the developer can apply for a building permit and break ground on the project, potentially adding a new landmark to this historic west side community.
“They will have cars”: After resident outcry, BOZA postpones vote on Lincoln Park Flats
At the November 23rd BOZA meeting, developers requested a variance for the proposed five-story, 46-unit Lincoln Park Flats project at Kenilworth and West 14th Street across from Lincoln Park. Current zoning laws require 30 on-site parking spaces. The proposed project has no parking, but the developers showed letters of intent (LOIs) with area parking lot owners as proof that other parking will be committed.
David Maison with Maison Architecture and Design, the project architect, said the goal was creating smaller units to appeal to renters who do not have cars and use ride-sharing services, public transportation, and bicycles. Every floor has bicycle storage and there is a designated area on the first floor for pick-up and a drop-off area for packages. The non-binding LOIs are for 59 off-site parking spaces several blocks away, although not all of them are for overnight parking.
Brent Zimmerman, a member of the development team, said he’d been working on the project for more than three years. He recited the history, saying they’d attempted to respond to feedback from the neighborhood and the city while also creating a project that is financially viable.
“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “This is a great project on a corner lot that needs to be activated. It’s either this or it’s going to be a disheveled parking lot for the next 30 years.”
Yet Cory Riordan, executive director of Tremont West Development Corporation, the nonprofit community development group serving the area, said that the developers have every opportunity to build a dense development as long as they work with the community and address concerns. He cited a viral video created by residents, titled “They will have cars,” as an example of the grassroots opposition to the project. So far, the video has over 1,000 views on YouTube.
“There is unanimous opposition to this project – from the CDC, from the block clubs and from the councilperson,” Riordan said. “I want to reiterate that this is not NIMBYism (not in my backyard). We’ve supported dense development in other projects in Tremont.”
The developers began working on Lincoln Park Flats in 2019. They originally proposed 29 units with 20 parking spaces, but when the Landmarks Commission denied tearing down the adjacent rectory for that plan, the developers reworked the project to include 46 units with no parking.
City planner Matt Moss told the board that city planning had encouraged the developer to pursue this no-parking plan. He displayed maps showing as many as 40 underutilized parking spaces on Kenilworth and West 14th Street. Yet nearby residents and church leaders say those parking spaces are already being used for other purposes, including parking for church meal programs.
“We emphasized to the developer that our priority is to create space for people over cars, and to take that to the community,” Moss said. “We told them there would likely be opposition, and suggested they seek letters of intent for additional off-street parking.”
The Landmarks Commission met in October and approved the project 5-3, but required changes to the design, including reducing the building height in one section. Riordan said the area was rezoned just a few years ago to accommodate denser development and reduce the parking requirement, so any project should conform to these plans.
“We used the most progressive planning tools available, with support from the neighborhood to set the stage for a project,” Roirdan said, noting that they’d worked with city planning on the form-based zoning overlay, a type of development regulation that emphasizes the physical character of development over regulation of land uses. In this case, it allows for dense development on the site, but requires 30 parking spaces.
Kate O’Neil, who leads the Auburn Lincoln Block Club, said she’d never heard from so many residents, churches and small businesses in opposition to a project before. “Almost 900 people spoke with severe opposition,” she said.
Carol Johnson, chair of BOZA, reiterated the theme of the video just before the board voted to postpone the vote until Jan. 25th pending a parking study by the developer: “They will have cars and it’s not fair to the neighborhood.”
Interested in learning more or getting involved? Check out the city of Cleveland’s Planning Department page for info on zoning meetings and more.
Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land. Madison MacArthur is a journalist and recent Kent State University graduate. This article was produced through a reporting partnership with the Collaborative News Lab at Kent State University.