A team of developers planning a $35 million, 245-unit apartment project at Stokes and Cedar Avenue last week asked the Cleveland Planning Commission to approve the demolition of six long-vacant row houses to make way for the development’s parking lot.
But the planning commission pushed back, asking the developers to reconsider demolishing a historic building in a primarily African-American community and if the site plan could preserve the property.
Elise Yablonsky, vice president of community development at University Circle Inc. (UCI), which owns the 2.2 acre, triangular parcel and has signed a ground lease with developer Brent Zimmerman to build the project, pitched the tearing down of the building to the five-member commission while acknowledging it would be a historic “loss.”
“We are supportive of this development and really believe it will advance the greater good of redeveloping the residential fabric over this entire site,” she said. “We continue to experience strong demand for housing in University Circle that this will meet.”
The triangular development site is one of nine strategic investment sites that UCI has worked to develop. Development continues to push outwards from University Circle into surrounding neighborhoods. Examples include the nearby Circle Square development, the first phase of which is now under construction, and houses being built in Glenville Circle North.
Steve Jennings from LDA Architects showed photos of the dilapidated row houses, which have been damaged by roof leaks and stolen copper piping. “All of the other context has already been demolished,” Jennings said. “It’s really more of a commercial neighborhood at this point, because all of these smaller neighborhood structures have been removed.”
Commission member August Fluker jumped in. “I think it’s unfortunate there’s no attempt to save the structure,” he said. “There’s not many row houses left in this city. We’ve obliterated most of them. I’ve seen worse ones renovated. I think there should be some consideration to incorporating this into the overall design. Cedar is a very important street in this city, especially in the African-American community, and you’re just going to tear down another place.”
Other planning commission members concurred. “That building, when you go down the street, is just beautiful, and it would be a shame to tear it down,” said Denise McCray-Scott.
Yablonsky countered by saying the group did look at saving the building, but it was too far gone and stood in the way of the project. “It’s true the building sits where the parking lot would be, but it supports the entire development,” she said.
“You’re saying it’s a heavy lift,” countered Fluker. “You know what? In Black and brown communities, it’s always going to be a heavier lift. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.”
Nonetheless, Dominick Durante of LDA Architects said keeping the row houses could force the developers to reduce the size of the project, noting they were already low on parking. The site plan currently calls for about 100 parking spaces for nearly 250 units. “It could be done, but it would likely take some of the units away,” Durante said.
He added that the project had already been seen by city staff and the local design review committee. Why stymie the project a year into the process? Kuri said the developer could have sought conceptual approval earlier as they were designing the buildings.
She also posed a potential solution: “Can the site plan make the preservation of the townhomes more viable?” she asked. “Right now, they’re isolated in a sea of traffic. In some ways, this could change the game.”
According to an article in the real estate blog Neotrans, Stokes West would feature two eight-story buildings with a mix of one bedrooms, two bedrooms, and micro apartments and an average unit size of 438 square feet. The building would require multiple variances for parking and height. Plans show first floor retail well as a multi-level fitness area, package delivery center, indoor and outdoor lounges, a pool, indoor and outdoor common areas, a dog run, and more.
Zimmerman told Neotrans the project would be geared towards medical residents and other professionals at the nearby hospitals. “You move-in, suitcase-only, and get one bill for rent, utilities, internet, etcetera,” he said.
Before the motion was tabled, Fluker cautioned UCI to consider the impact it was having on surrounding communities in pushing redevelopment. “There’s no place left for UCI to build so they’re starting to erode into the neighborhoods,” Fluker said. “We need to be more considerate of that. It’s a delicate thing and it could easily result in gentrification.”
Planning director Joyce Huang encouraged the developers to return with a new site plan showing how the historic row houses could be brought back to life and incorporated into the overall project. “This building is a victim of chronic disinvestment in Black communities. I question the necessity of tearing it down. I like the site plan overall.”
The Land reached out to developer Brent Zimmerman and Elise Yablonsky from UCI for further comment. In an email, Yablonsky said, “We heard and understand the concerns raised by the Planning Commission. We are committed to working alongside the development team and Planning Commission staff as we continue to advance a new development for this site. Further details will be reviewed with staff in coming weeks.”
Yablonsky also said UCI has owned the properties since 1989 and rented them for nearly 30 years. “UCI stopped leasing the property in 2017 at the recommendation of our property management team, due to concerns about the condition of the roof and building masonry,” she wrote in an email. “UCI was not in a position to make the significant investments required in the building without a development partner. We made significant capital investments … and completed regular repair and maintenance throughout the years they were occupied. We operated the property at a loss from 2000 to 2017 in an effort to retain and activate the building. During this period, the rowhouses were orphaned by City-approved demolitions of adjacent residential buildings by previous owners. We moved quickly to identify a development partner, however, the ability to develop the site sooner was greatly hindered by the pandemic.”
In a followup interview, commission member August Fluker said, “The developer didn’t share that they’d had any conversation with the Fairfax community. They didn’t mention any community engagement. This happens all the time on the west side because the community is invested, but in black and brown communities, it doesn’t happen because people feel disenfranchised and there’s not a critical mass. You have to be intentional about it.”
This is a developing story and will be updated. Learn more about upcoming planning commission agendas and participate in meetings here: https://planning.clevelandohio.gov/
Lee Chilcote is executive director of The Land.
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