Tension high at special hearing over CH adaptive-reuse zoning amdendment

Tensions were high between city officials and citizens at a public hearing Aug. 8 that centered on proposed amendments to the Cleveland Heights Zoning Code.

The tension rose in the context of whether City Council should invoke the emergency clause to pass a change in zoning legislation – and how that emergency clause would impact development of the Cleveland Heights portion of the former Oakwood Country Club.

The discussion became moot when it was revealed that the emergency clause had already been removed from the legislation, but that did not seem to mollify citizens who had come to make their point.

The proposed amendments would enact new guidelines for adaptive re-use of non-residential buildings in residential districts – allowing for vacant buildings, such as the former Coventry Elementary School, to be redeveloped for multi-family housing, offices, industrial design, research and development or educational programs, and other uses. Restrictions would prevent such buildings from being used as retail locations, and from conduct of business outside of these buildings by their tenants.

The emergency clause would make the law effective immediately, rather than after a customary 30-day waiting period.

City Council member and Planning & Development Committee Chair Dennis Wilcox, who headed the meeting, told the approximately 30 people in attendance at City Hall that the proposal is “a good piece of legislation.”

The increased emphasis on reuse is part of the city’s effort to make the zoning code more environmentally friendly. “The most sustainable structure is the one that is already built,” said Karen Knittel, of the Cleveland Heights Planning and Development Department, before she walked the audience through the legislation.

Kris Hopkins, the first community member to speak after Knittel’s presentation, was supportive of the proposal. “I think this is great,” she said, though she also expressed concern that the changes could cause confusion in instances in which a complete rezoning of a building would be preferable to adaptive reuse.

Michael Morse, who lives near the former Millikin School building, voiced concern about setting uniform standards for vacant properties because the needs of his neighborhood are different from those of Coventry Village. “They’re all in a different situation,” he said. “We need to be very, very careful with this." 

Morse was also one of multiple speakers who express concern about the precedent the city would set by opening the door to for-profit tenants in residential neighborhoods. Mayor Edward Kelley attempted to assuage those fears by reiterating that the amendments would not allow retail stores to open in adapted buildings. “A dollar store is not coming to Coventry School,” he said.

Michael Levin was skeptical of the implications the ordinance could have for the Oakwood property. “I’m very suspicious of quick rezoning,” he said. “It frightens me.”

On the issue of the Oakwood development, “The City of Cleveland Heights’ silence is deafening,” Levin said. “You’re gonna destroy the city.” He was the first of several speakers who Wilcox cut off for not addressing the topic at hand.

Kelley said that he has not received any formal proposal for Cleveland Heights’ portion of the Oakwood property. If and when he receives an offer, he said, he plans to take the concerns of the community into consideration. “I look forward to a very spirited debate,” he said.

While Wilcox clarified that the new amendments would apply to the entire city, and thus theoretically the Oakwood property, Council Member Bonita Caplan said the proposal was directed not toward Oakwood but toward the former Coventry Elementary School building.

Many attendees had come to speak out against the emergency clause in the legislation that would have made the ordinance effective immediately upon passage, instead of after 30 days. Wilcox began the meeting by announcing that, having heard from concerned citizens and discussed the issue amongst its members, council had decided to drop the emergency clause.

“We are responding to you by walking in this evening and saying, ‘Yes, you got it right, we didn’t,’” Council Member Cheryl Stephens said. The city’s legal department puts emergency clause language into the legislation automatically, she said, but council realized it was not appropriate for these zoning amendments.

Still, several citizens stepped up to the podium to express their displeasure with placing the emergency clause in a piece of non-emergency legislation – and multiple council members showed visual displeasure at continued discussion of it.

Douglas Whipple, who had previously addressed council to express concerns about a lack of transparency surrounding the Taylor Road construction project, was one of the attendees who stood up to talk about the emergency clause before being dismissed by Wilcox. Whipple said he understood that council wanted to focus specifically on the proposal at hand, but noted the irony of Wilcox refusing to listen to citizens talk about their desire for city officials to listen to them more.

Lewis Pollis

Lewis Pollis is a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident and a proud graduate of Cleveland Heights High School, Lewis Pollis is an Observer intern and a sophomore at Brown University. Read more on his blog: WahooBlues.com.

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Volume 4, Issue 9, Posted 12:40 PM, 08.09.2011