Cleveland city meetings to resume, construction industry cheers

City Planning Commission meetings are due to resume in May
but not at Cleveland City Hall. Instead, they will do so digitally
with live public viewing and public input by e-mail (WKSU).

After a 40- to 90-day hiatus forced by the COVID-19 crisis, Cleveland’s City Council and City Planning Commission meetings are due to restart. The first meetings are likely to be held in May.

That’s good news for Greater Cleveland’s real estate and construction industry whose projects and thousands of local jobs often depend on city reviews and the approval of incentives before they can proceed.

Although Cleveland’s City Planning Commission hasn’t announced anything formally, City Council members and local offices of architectural firms said they were aware of the city’s plans to restart the planning meetings virtually. City Council will also begin meeting live virtually via Zoom as well as by other public media.

“The goal is to have council meetings running next week or the week following,” said Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack. “It will be broadcasted live on other platforms as well.”

“It will be broadcast live and it will be public,” Ward 12 Councilman Anthony Brancatelli said.

Similarly, the goal is for Planning Commission to start meeting remotely by mid-May.

“That’s my understanding,” said Ward 15 Councilman Matt Zone.

Cleveland City Planning Commission Web page (CPC).

However it is taking longer to set up a virtual meeting process for the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) and Board of Building Standards (BBS) because of legal issues of having to swear-in witnesses and stakeholders. For that reason, BZA and BBS meetings may not re-start until mid-June.

Getting the meetings, and thus new construction projects restarted is critical for the region’s economy. Cleveland accounts for more than one-fourth to one-third of all new residential units built each year in Cuyahoga County, according to a recent housing study.

Major projects still awaiting planning review include a roughly 40-story Sherwin-Williams headquarters tower on Public Square, the 24-story Circle Square tower at 10600 Chester Ave. (the parking deck was already approved), the 25-story One nuCLEus Place downtown, Azure on Cleveland’s lakefront, the first phase of Chester75 in Hough, Bridgeworks in Ohio City plus numerous not-yet-announced projects awaiting property sales to close.

Developers say the residential projects are needed to address a housing shortage in the city. Office developments are needed for growing companies that continue to need more office space long-term, despite the pandemic. All are on hold without the city’s planning meetings.

“We are just hoping it starts as soon as possible,” said Bo Knez, founder and president of Knez Homes, one of the largest residential developers in Greater Cleveland. “We have a lot of projects in the pipeline that are sitting and waiting.”

In Miami, Florida, a city commission meeting proceeds as
scheduled on March 25 despite some commissioners self-
isolating. That was because the City of Miami had already
used technology to simplify permitting and enhance public
access by live-streaming city meetings (Mike Sarasti).

“It’s a good thing,” said Dan Whalen, vice president of design and development at Chicago-based Harbor Bay Realty Advisors LLC. His firm is building the $175 million Market Square development at Lorain Avenue and West 25th Street in Ohio City.

“They want to keep things moving as much as possible during this abnormal time,” Whalen said. “Presentations are given via PowerPoint presentation anyway, so there’s no reason not to try and accomplish things remotely, so long as everyone gets a chance to state their case.”

Although the technological method of citizen and stakeholder participation at these meetings is not yet known, other cities and public agencies have used e-mail as their choice of input. That required having a deadline for e-mail submissions several hours before the meeting so that the e-mails could be received and presented for inclusion in the public record.

Cleveland Planning Director Freddie Collier didn’t respond to questions e-mailed to him prior to publication of this article.

Some building permits that do not require new or additional design/zoning/building code reviews or appeals can be obtained through Cleveland’s online portal. Also, rental registrations and certificates of disclosure/occupancies for residential properties can be obtained by contacting the city, by mailing them to the city, or by dropping off applications (not checks/money) at the drop boxes at the front/rear entrances to City Hall, 601 Lakeside Ave.

Virtual meetings by city council, boards and commissions offer some positives and negatives.

City of Miami’s multi-media desk for managing the live-
stream of public meetings as well as communications so the
public can interact with those meetings (Mike Sarasti).

“I bet we will have many more viewers (for upcoming city meetings) than we normally would, which is good,” McCormack said.

Last month, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) held its first-ever virtual meeting via Facebook with public comments e-mailed beforehand. A total of 1,213 people viewed some or all of the live GCRTA board meeting, according to Facebook’s statistics.

GCRTA board member Justin Bibb said that’s many more people than the agency could have fit in the transit authority’s board room at 1240 W. 6th St. in downtown Cleveland. That’s also far more people than could fit in their schedules to attend the meeting, even under normal circumstances.

But virtual meetings also have their drawbacks.

“I remember nothing beat the democracy of live citizen engagement at the Planning and Landmarks commissions and the BZA,” said Chris Ronayne who was the city planning director under Mayor Jane Campbell in the early 2000s. He has served as president of University Circle Inc. since 2005.

“When a crowd lined up outside the door of the commission board room, at least you knew where the community stood,” he said. “I’ll never forget the drama of petitions stacked up to save important places like Whiskey Island or the Coast Guard Station.”

Cleveland City Hall, where Planning Commission meetings
are normally held on the fifth floor. For the foreseeable fu-
ture, meetings will be held digitally (ThisIsCleveland).

Ronayne acknowledged that virtual meetings are a necessary course of business to keep government going now amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. But he said nuances can get lost in the digital world. That includes losing the tone and tenor of community opinion in each case, or even the chance to touch and feel the texture of proposed building materials.

“Access to digital public meetings is a double-edged sword,” Ronayne said. “For some it’s easier and more convenient. For others there’s a digital divide (due to a lack of Internet access at home). For now digital meetings are the best we have. But I do look forward to the return of face-to-face planning meetings.”

The last City Council meeting was held on March 23, when council approved city incentives for the Sherwin-Williams headquarters development. Council meetings are normally held weekly. March 23 was also the last BZA meeting which are held weekly, too. BBS meetings are scheduled every two weeks; BBS last met March 18.

March 12 was the last Landmarks Commission meeting, which are typically held every other week. So are Planning Commission meetings, but it’s last meeting was March 6. Neighborhood-level design-review committees are held on an as-needed basis, and most of them had their last meetings in early- to mid-March.

“I do believe planning is still a people business, best conducted between people face-to-face who are able to bounce thoughts off of each other and improve our communities through the live iterative exchange of ideas,” Ronayne added. “Innovation happens in proximity more so than in distance.”


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