by Henry Senyak
(Plain Press, June 2014) In the past few weeks you may have read in the Plain Dealer and Cleveland Scene articles and opinions regarding a liquor inspection by State of Ohio Department of Public Safety agents at the Loren Naji Gallery. The Gallery is a located at 2138 West 25th Street. Some stories were balanced some were not and failed at the core to explain how many attempts by City of Cleveland police officers, and building inspectors occurred to inform the owner of his non-compliance. Most stories seem to paint the gallery owner as a victim of over zealous enforcement by city and state officials.
Another perspective on the request for team inspections for the building located at 2138 West 25th Street is that of citizens, police and city officials who have attempted to gain the gallery’s compliance to city and state ordinances. Concerned residents in the Ohio City Community contacted me in 2013 on issues concerning the Loren Naji Gallery stemming from the Brite Winter Festival. This was a community event that has been held in Ohio City since 2012. These residents also contacted then Commander Keith Sulzer of the Second District Cleveland Police. (A team inspection is when the City and State coordinate resources with different departments to inspect a premise for compliance of local codified ordinances and Ohio Revised Code.)
Commander Sulzer on March 12th, 2013 sent an email to Ohio City Inc. and copied Councilman Joe Cimperman over issues at the Loren Naji Gallery. I was sent a copy because some of the residents have contacted me too.
Here is Commander Sulzer’s email to Ohio City Inc:
I RECEIVED SOME COMPLAINTS ABOUT THIS LOCATION FROM OHIO CITY RESIDENTS AND SOUTH OF LORAIN BLOCK CLUB MEMBERS. APPARENTLY THIS STUDIO IS HAVING CONCERTS, EVENTS, WITH ALCOHOL. I DON’T REMEMBER SIGNING OFF ON ANY PERMITS FOR ALCOHOL. THE COMPLAINTS ARE THAT THERE MAY BE A COVER CHARGE, ALCOHOL BEING SERVED, OVERCROWDING, OPEN CONTAINER, IMPROPER PERMITS, ZONING VIOLATIONS, ETC. REPORTEDLY, AFTER OR DURING THE BRITE WINTER FEST, PATRONS OF THIS STUDIO WERE DRINKING IN THE VOSS PARKING LOT. CAN YOU SET UP A MEETING WITH THESE PEOPLE, OR AT LEAST GIVE ME SOME INSIGHT ON WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?
This email was the start. According to Loren Naji’s Facebook pages he had opened the building as a public gallery in 2011. Since the March 12th 2013 email, the former Second District Commander, his Vice Detectives, and officers, either have visited and/or contacted Loren Naji at least six times or warned him what he was doing was not legal. Former Commander Sulzer had warned him personally that he could not have all these people inside the building and block fire exits. Naji has made handbills promoting his live entertainment. This is what nightclubs do to get business.
Loren Naji has given interviews that he did not know anything about needing a temporary liquor permit. But public records attained from the State shown that Naji had signed a permit tenantcy application for the local non-profit Land Studio for the premise at 2138 West 25th. This was for 2013 Brite Winter Festival.
Commander Sulzer sent one of his officers to speak with Loren Naji the week prior to the 2014 Brite Winter Festival. Naji told the officer that he attained the proper 2014 temporary permit, just like last year. Naji showed the document to the officer, the officer did not bother to look at the dates. Naji showed the officer the expired permit for 2013. Public records show that no temporary permit was requested or issued for the address in 2014.
More of the same issues of overcrowding and other complaints came out of the Brite Festival and 2138 West 25th this year. So I sent emails to City and State officials requesting team inspections. The City of Cleveland Building and Housing (B&H) took immediate action. My emails showed evidence, and copied and linked to web pages and Facebook accounts. B&H Inspectors tried to gain access on March 5th 2014. Records show B&H issued a violation for illegal use on March 6th. On two separate occasions the B&H Department had tried to gain access without cooperation and then on April 21st sent a prosecution packet submitted to the Cleveland Law Department. Naji is now scheduled to appear in Housing Court on June 3rd 2014 regarding the illegal use charges. (2138 West 25th does not have a legal use as a gallery or entertainment venue).
Here are some Facebook – Social Media Excerpts on May 2nd or prior:
Bob Peck(Graffiti Tagger that was the artist appearing at the gallery the night of the inspection): “There will be live music, drinks and snacks. (And of course, our art.) There is no cover/door charge or anything like that but donations are appreciated for drinks”.
” If you’ve never been to a gallery opening, don’t let it scare ya’. It’s like a party with some sweet ass art on the walls. “
Loren Naji (Property owner of record for 2138 West 25th Street): “It’s FREE! But we greatly appreciate a $2 donation.”
“ I’m being loose with my vocab here. It’s actually just a beer pit.”
Dave Segrue “That’s the coolest Beer Pit I’ve ever seen–better selection than World of Beer!!”
Now comes May 2nd 2014, Councilman Joe Cimperman sent a text to me that he contacted Cleveland Police Department (CPD), and later called me that day to say he spoken with the Law Department and CPD Vice. CPD Vice arrives at the gallery and issues another stern warning. The State agents then arrive and issue a cease and desist order, and further charges in a summons at a later date. Councilman Cimperman was well aware of issues since March 2013, so was Ohio City Incorporated (OCI).
The State removed close to $700 in alcohol products, mostly beer. This is not a wine and cheese event as reported. Granted almost every gallery in the state has served a small glass of alcohol product for an opening. Most art galleries operate within a box and do not advertise or put pictures on social media showing 100’s of beers cooling in a huge ice chest, live entertainment etc. Over 50% of the public pictures on the Loran Naji Studio Gallery Facebook page show people drinking and live bands versus the showing of the talents of artists. Most galleries do not do this as they are in business to promote and sell art.
Public pictures, and You Tube videos also show that on the occasions Naji has had live entertainment, his establishment is overcrowded. Pictures show blocked fire exits, no illuminated exit signs within the front of the gallery, drapes hanging near firewall’s to project live electronica imagery along with the live bands performing with all the buildings lights turned off. Other pictures show flammable chairs and couches used for seats. All of this could lead to a catastrophic event. This is not a typical gallery. The Facebook page lists it as “Art and Entertainment”. Matter of fact you cannot just have live entertainment performances at a business. Such entertainment is not permitted within 500 feet of a residential district. Neighbors denied the building right next door, the former Envy lounge, an entertainment variance in 2006. Since then it was closed and torn down.
The main issue here is the obtaining a proper certificate of occupancy and required permits. There is a necessity to have a fire protection system and sprinkler system installed to legally hold events with more than 99 patrons, and to follow local and state law. Please take a moment to think about the Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed 100 people. This business needs to adhere to the current fire code adopted by the State of Ohio.
So, with that said, do you think this is just a vendetta from one person? Laws are in place to protect the public. Most citizens walk into any retail space or place of assembly thinking that proprietor has all his permits in place, and proper fire protection in place to protect the public’s safety.
It is a shame that Loren Naji has made this an issue for everyone, this is an issue only for Loren Naji, he has brought this on himself, and he is now convincing his colleagues to fight his legal battles for him. Other businesses did everything right and either have proper building permits and certificates of occupancy, or find non-profit partners to pull liquor permits to legally serve alcohol at an event held in a gallery.
Bars and restaurants have to spend tens of thousands of dollars for fire protection with less people that Naji had in his building. They have to pay well over twenty five thousand to get a legit liquor permit. How fair is this to law abiding business owners all over the state?
This is not personal. I have assisted with these matters all over the Westside of Cleveland, even at the request of local officials. Loren Naji is a well-respected artist, and his business is a positive for the City and the Ohio City neighborhood. Concerned citizens and city officials are just asking that he not ignore the proper authorities in the future when they advise him to correct his issues. Do not exploit ignorance. In my opinion this is the fault of Ohio City Inc. for not following up on the request from the police to make sure this space was legally compliant. They only had 15 months to do so before the glass slipper fell off.
State liquor laws need to be changed to allow legally permitted galleries to have a level of wine and cheese service and minimal alcohol products to be given to guests. Businesses should note be allowed to exploit the law and create an artist class nightclub. Several states have thoughtfully made changes to accommodate art galleries — like Colorado, Vermont, Tennessee, and a few others. But the overwhelming majority of states are still like Ohio and do not permit this activity yet. The question then is to have a legal definition as other states do for an “Art Gallery”. There never was any intent to punish members of the art gallery community that have always abided with the spirit and intent of the law. Let’s support legal gallery owners by asking your State of Ohio Representatives to move on rectifying this matter.