Knez Ohio City townhouse plan wins appeal

Different angled views of Knez Homes' proposed townhouse development at 4705 Bridge Ave. in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood.

Absent further legal action, Knez Homes intends to pursue construction permits for this cluster of townhomes at 4705 Bridge Ave. in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. The project is back on again after the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals overturned the City Planning Commission’s November 2021 denial of its development plans (Knez). CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE THEM

Developer seeks construction in coming months

On Monday, the City of Cleveland’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) overturned a rejection by City Planning Commission of plans for building 11 market-rate townhomes at a vacant lot at 4705 Bridge Ave. in the Ohio City neighborhood.

BZA voted 3-1 in overturning the commission’s Nov. 5, 2021 denial of Knez Homes’ plan for building the townhouses in a two-family zoning district. The project’s plans meet the city’s current and proposed townhouse zoning codes, but planning commission denied it last fall by a 2-4 vote because it said the design didn’t fit in with the neighborhood.

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Voting for the reversal was BZA Chair Kelley Britt, Allana Faith and Terri Hamilton-Brown who made the motion to overturn. Ironically, Brown voted minutes earlier on a motion to uphold the planning commission’s rejection, joining with Myrlene Barnes in a tie vote. Because it was a tie, a second motion could be offered. Barnes was the lone vote against overturning the planning commission’s decision.

“I think they finally realized that we had presented to planning (commission) and BZA a completely code-compliant project,” said Michael David, Knez’s land acquisition manager and in-house counsel. “I don’t know if BZA was happy to overturn the decision of planning (commission) but they did and we’re moving forward. We will pursue building permits although we will have to make some modifications based on input from the city.”

Site plan for the Knez townhome development on Bridge Avenue at West 47th Street.

Revised site plans for the Bridge Avenue townhouse development that were submitted to the City Planning Commission for approval last fall (Knez).

Speaking in opposition to the townhomes project were three neighbors of the development site — Steve and Fay Zamborsky plus Haydee Pagan. None of them gave any indication at this time whether they would appeal BZA’s decision to the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.

“It’s a handsome building, there’s no question about it,” Steve Zamborsky said at the BZA meeting. “But if you look at those (townhouses), and you look at the site in front of Haydee Pagan’s little old blue house … it begs the question, how on earth does the form and the mass of this structure fit on to the site in front of Miss Pagan’s little blue house? How does this design have any relationship to the context and character of a two-family district in Ohio City?”

“I think the issue was misrepresented as being about the conditional RA (Residential Attached) Use, while the neighbor’s objection and the City Planning Commission’s decision to deny approval on Nov. 5, 2021, was based on whether the planning director had accurately determined that the building as proposed was architecturally compatible — as is required by section-e of the ordinance,” said David Ellison, an architect who lives and works in the neighborhood.

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The size and mass of the townhouse was the reason why City Planning Commission, then-chaired by David Bowen, voted against the the project in November. Bowen was since replaced by Mayor Justin Bibb on the commission by former vice-chair Lillian Kuri who is also executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Cleveland Foundation.

Site conditions before site-preparations by Knez were made to the Bridge Avenue townhouse site.

Conditions of the Bridge Avenue townhouse development site shortly before Knez demolished the gas station and a house immediately south of it (Knez).

That November vote was actually on an appeal by Knez of earlier design and denial by planning commission. In 2019, Knez won support from the 45-52 Block Club for building townhouses on a 0.273-acre lot on the southwest corner of Bridge and West 47th Street. Planning commission approved the townhouse design in August 2019.

Previously on the site was a gas station that served as a front for a heroin trafficking operation that sent more than a dozen people to prison several years ago. Knez acquired the property, demolished the blighted gas station and removed the underground fuel tanks along with polluted soil from the site, replacing it with clean soil. Knez attorney Anthony Coyne said the developer invested more than a half-million dollars cleaning up the site.

But the Zamborskys and Pagan appealed planning commission’s approval to BZA. In September 2019, BZA found that the commission acted appropriately but said neighbors weren’t given enough notice about the commission’s meeting. So the matter was remanded back to planning commission. With some different planning commission members in place, they voted to disapprove Knez’s plans. Knez appealed to BZA in January 2020 which denied the appeal.

Knez filed an administrative appeal with the Common Pleas Court. But during COVID, the case was a low priority. It took 18 months for the court to render a decision unfavorable to Knez. So Knez appealed to the 8th District Court of Appeals. The court directed the city and Knez to work out a settlement.

This is what the Knez townhomes development site in Cleveland's Ohio City looked in August 2021.

The Knez townhouse development site at the southwest corner of Bridge Avenue and West 47th Street in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood, as seen in August of 2021 (Google).

With BZA’s vote yesterday, David said the case that’s still pending before the 8th District Court of Appeals will be withdrawn.

“This plan (that planning commission rejected in November) was the result of that settlement,” David said. “These are changes they wanted to see. Included are changes that are part of the proposed townhouse zoning that’s pending before the City Council. They’re working on cleaning up some ambiguities in the legislation and we expect it to pass.”

Before Monday’s final BZA vote and in response to a question by a BZA commissioner, Assistant City Law Director Laure Wagner said the Knez court case would likely be dropped if BZA reversed the planning commission’s decision. Ellison said he considered Wagner’s remarks as inappropriate, as it was for BZA to take the status of Knez’s court case into consideration.

The proposed townhouses, including their enclosed garages, range in size from 1,500 to 1,860 square feet each. The proposed development would be less dense than what was planned here several years ago. The number of townhomes was decreased by one and the square footage of five of the townhouses also was reduced. That allowed the development to add more greenspace and landscaping and to meet the current zoning code as well as the new townhouse code pending before City Council.

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