Stokes West gets go-ahead

Stokes West, a seven-story apartment building offering below-market-rate rents and smaller apartments, two-thirds of them furnished, could see construction start by August after it won final approval today at City Planning Commission (LDA). CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE THEM.

University Circle project may start by August

Developers of a large apartment complex in Cleveland’s University Circle could start construction of the $40 million project before August if all goes well in the coming weeks. That optimism was earned today after City Planning Commission gave the project final approval of its new, overhauled design and a zoning change to accommodate that design. The development is different from several others nearby because it isn’t trying to brush with or break through the top of the market when it comes to rents. Instead, Stokes West intends to offer smaller, more affordable apartments, many of them already furnished for new arrivals in Cleveland and from across the world.

Achieving that was a Herculean task in the face of rising construction costs and interest rates for the development team. The team is comprised of Cleveland-based Brent Zimmerman Development, ACRE of Atlanta and New York City, Geis Construction of Streetsboro and Cleveland, plus Cleveland companies Rust Belt Development, LDA Architects and civil engineer Donald Bohning & Associates.

They said they hoped to start construction last year on the 261-unit development, set on a 2.2-acre site in the 2100 block of Stokes Boulevard and leased from University Circle Inc. It will also have 1,990 square feet of co-working space, a 1,510-square-foot games/lounge area and an 8,900-square-foot outdoor, ground-level amenity deck, plans show. In order to afford construction without reducing the number of apartments, more net revenues had to be squeezed from the development but without raising rents. That meant making the building’s ongoing operation less costly.

“Our goals and intentions on this design change were simply to keep with our thesis and be able to have a constructable and feasible project that we could deliver to this neighborhood at the rents and the unit count that we initially promised,” said Jeff Goldstein, ACRE’s manager of development. “Since we started this, our construction BAR (Builders All Risks) and costs have essentially doubled. Our costs of construction have gone up about 50 percent and this is with the design change and keeping the same unit count from our initial plan.”

“Ultimately, the design change is meant to retain the level of rents that they have proposed for the development,” said City Planning Director Joyce Huang.

Landscaping and site plan for Stokes West. Stokes Boulevard is across the bottom of image with Cedar Avenue to the left side of the triangular-shaped lot and East 107th Street to the right side of the angle (LDA).

Goldstein praised the development team’s relationship with its investors who increased their financing amounts, adding “Financing, though, is getting more difficult every day. We run the risk of losing on this great opportunity to build this project if we’re not able to efficiently move along and get a shovel in the ground.”

The project will retain 12 dedicated low-income restricted units and will keep 66 percent of the apartments as furnished studios with rents that will be affordable at 80 percent of the area’s median income. Stokes West intends to offer average apartment rents that are 13-21 percent lower than its peers in and near University Circle. Studios will average $1,395, one-bedroom units $1,595 and two-bedroom suites $2,495.

Brent Zimmerman told NEOtrans that traditional bank financing no longer works for projects like Stokes West due to high interest rates and construction costs. He said everything is place to move forward by August, if not sooner if the development team can keep pushing ahead. The project was announced in 2021. Construction should take about 18 months.

“We are ready to go,” Zimmerman said. “We have debt and equity financing in place. I can’t emphasize enough the help of Planning Director Joyce Huang, Chief City Planner Shannan Leonard, (Ward 6) Councilman Blaine Griffin, Mayor (Justin) Bibb and County Executive Chris Ronayne. Without their help we wouldn’t have got to the finish line. (It’s) a true public-private partnership with the goal of bettering Cleveland.”

“This (Stokes West development) adds to the portfolio of exciting worker housing and single-family homes being built in Fairfax,” Councilman Griffin said. “We want to create a community that accommodates the rich history and long-time residents of Fairfax and attract young professionals, students and healthcare workers. I am committed to the renaissance of Fairfax.”

View of a proposed public plaza at the north end of the Stokes West development. East 107th Street is across the bottom of this image and Stokes Boulevard running behind the apartment building (LDA).

The rezoning actually kept the existing use of limited retail but reduced the required building setbacks from the surrounding streets, especially Cedar Avenue. That allowed the project to expand the apartment building’s footprint so it could be operated more cost-effectively. That also allowed an increase in the proposed number of townhouses along Cedar from six to eight and to add two more parking spaces to the surface lot in back, from 87 to 89.

The number of parking spaces was still 35 percent below that which is required for the site. To allow for the reduced parking, the project is required to adopt and maintain transit demand strategies including subsidizing transit passes at 40 percent of value to tenants not already eligible for free or discounted transit passes as students or employees through the Commuter Advantage Program offered by surrounding institutions and employers, Leonard said.

City officials also said they will work to provide more active transportation infrastructure in the area, including reduced traffic lanes, traffic-calming features, new sidewalks and streetscapes. Stokes West will have interior secured bike parking for more than 150 bicycles and covered exterior bike parking, with bicycle repair kits made available to all residents and staff. There will be parking for shared electric scooters.

“I think it’s appropriate we’re coming forward on Bike To Work Day given that the project team has worked closely with the city of Cleveland, RTA (Regional Transit Authority) and our team to make this a transit-oriented development,” said Elise Yablonsky, vice president of community development at University Circle Inc. “We’re in ongoing conversations with the city of Cleveland in implementing a bike facility on Stokes Boulevard as recommended in our Moving Greater University Circle Plan.”

Eight townhouses are planned along Cedar Avenue where a decayed, brick rowhouse stood until last summer. It was not feasible to renovate the rowhouses, so new towhomes were urged by the community so that a parking lot didn’t front Cedar (LDA).

“I appreciate that there’s efforts on (improving) mobility and not being so car reliant,” said Ward 17 Councilman Slife and a Planning Commission Design Review Committee member. “But that part of University Circle especially feels incredibly car reliant. Just getting from here to the Cedar Rapid station feels like a game of Frogger. There’s some work that we need to do on the public side to really help projects like this in this part of town meet their full potential.”

Huang said the city’s new major transportation projects coordinator will be working on an effort to calm traffic on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and on Stokes to make it safer for walking and biking. Streets on Cleveland’s East Side are more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists because they are designed for speed. Redesigning them less for cars and more for people will help reduce fatalities and serious injuries, city officials said.

The commission approved Stokes West by a 4-1 vote with retired architect August Fluker being the lone vote against. He was also the commission’s lone opponent last summer when the developers sought approval for demolishing vacant, neglected rowhouses on the site, facing Cedar. He said the rowhouses were among the few still left from when Cedar was part of Cleveland’s first African-American neighborhood. After a neighborhood meeting led by Councilman Griffin, the developers agreed to construct new townhomes along Cedar to replace them and give that stretch a street presence rather than a parking lot.

“To the applicant, I commend you guys for bringing in more diverse voices to this process,” Fluker said. “It was obviously at the urging of this commission that it happened. Hopefully there’s a lesson here, that when you’re designing in black and brown communities you need to lean in, you need to be considerate and you need to be transparent. I’m glad that you guys found your way and hopefully you continue to develop in and around this city, that you take that win with you.”


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