by Rich Weiss
(Plain Press, July 2014) At a 9:30 a.m. hearing on Monday, June 23, on the 5th floor of Cleveland City Hall, The Board of Zoning Appeals (BOZA) approved a parking variance request for the Loren Naji Studio Gallery, located at 2138 W. 25th Street.
The BOZA room was empty around 9 a.m., prior to the hearing. Loren Naji waited patiently, seated in the hall. “In order to get usage as an art gallery, they claim I need 53 parking spaces for my space, of which I have 3,” said Naji. “However, my great neighbor, Voss [Industries], has a huge parking lot and they gave me a lease for sixty spaces, right across the street from my building, so I’m hoping to get a variance so they allow me use that as my 53 spaces.” BOZA normally requires parking spaces to be on the same plot as the business the lot serves.
“The unusual thing is,” Naji continued, “I don’t know of any other gallery in Cleveland that has 53 parking spaces, including the huge Transformer Station; I don’t know how many they have – maybe 15? So…an interesting comparison.”
“I would like people to see the positive light of what I’m doing. Communities need art. They need art galleries. They need culture. This is good for communities. Ohio City is becoming all bars; I think…nothing wrong with bars – that’s okay – but a gallery here and there doesn’t do any harm.”
Passionate Naji supporters helped to fill the seats, and then line the walls of the small, standing-room-only BOZA hearing.
The BOZA agenda was full of other items, but the Naji gallery request was entertained first.
After being sworn in, Naji testified, “The parking lot is owned by Voss Industries and they have given me a lease for sixty spaces that I can use. I only will be using these spaces probably 6, or less, times a year. I’ll be having events only every other month, and probably skip a couple of those, so, 4 to 6 times a year I will have an event that will require any parking.” Naji provided the board with a copy of his 5-year Voss parking lot lease.
All who wanted to testify in favor of Naji’s request to allow his gallery parking spaces were sworn in as a group.
When it was explained to the board that BOZA requirements for “assembly use” parking spaces are calculated based on square footage and special use credits, Naji said, “I wanted to add that they calculated with the basement, which is never used for public use.” He continued, “Actually, there’s much less in square feet of the building as far as public use. The basement, I think, is 2,000 square feet, and that’s just a storage area.”
Tamara Ruiz, a co-owner of a business with a show yard located at Chatham and W. 26th Street, testified for the board in favor of Naji’s parking variance: “I have to say that it’s never been a problem in the neighborhood with any of the parties, it’s really just – and it’s not really a party so much as it is a gathering of artists, and a celebration, and a show.”
Julia Sieck, president of the South of Lorain Block Club, said, “Mr. Naji presented his case for his zoning variance to our block club.” She concluded, “The block club is in full support of this zoning variance.”
Thomas Schorgl, president and CEO of Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, cited studies that show local economies are positively impacted by the arts and said, “Artists are producing things that (in a knowledge-based economy, which we’re in) we need, and we need venues like Naji’s gallery.”
The Interim Executive Director of Ohio City, Inc., Tom McNair, testified, “In the last 4 or plus years we have not received one—I mean not one—complaint about Loren Naji’s gallery. And if you know a little bit about Ohio City, you know people are not afraid to call our office and complain about things, but we have not received a single complaint.”
Records show that former 2nd District Commander Keith Sulzer emailed Eric Wobser and Jeff Verespej of Ohio City, Inc. on Tuesday, March 12, 2013, saying he received complaints: “THE COMPLAINTS ARE THAT THERE MAY BE A COVER CHARGE, ALCOHOL BEING SERVED, OVERCROWDING, OPEN CONTAINER, IMPROPER PERMITS, ZONING VIOLATIONS, ETC.,” and Sulzer requested a meeting or explanation.
Ironically, Henry Senyak, a neighborhood activist who was among the public safety complaints that resulted in a May 2nd state alcohol agent enforcement on Naji’s gallery, actually testified in support of the variance request. Senyak wanted to discuss the building’s fire safety issues that forced Naji to go before BOZA for this change of use variance. He turned in documentation and also proposed options to speed up any future approval of Naji’s certificate of occupancy by revamping the application or submitting a new application to lower the building’s square footage.
Although Senyak’s testimony followed over a half hour of support statements, jam-packed with praise that wandered far from Naji’s parking lot, Senyak was the first to be advised by the Zoning Board’s attorney to only speak to the parking issue at hand.
Ward 3 Councilperson Joe Cimperman said, “I want to thank each and every person, and I mean each and every person who came down here on behalf of this case. Regardless of opinion, it takes a lot of time to come down here, as you know, and we’re grateful, as always, for citizen input.” Cimperman clarified that this hearing is the first of 3 separate issues for the gallery, including parking, building and housing code violations and liquor licensing. On the latter point, Cimperman said, “Madam Chair, there are many things in the City of Cleveland that divide us. I think the one thing that everybody agrees is that the liquor code in the State of Ohio does not fit the needs currently of the citizens of the City of Cleveland. Period. And we have to deal with that.” He concluded, on the parking issue, “We’re here, Madam Chair, to ask you to support Mr. Naji’s application.”
Following the hearing, Henry Senyak summed up his comments, saying, “I am worried that asking for the extreme with an occupancy of 299, and the basement included in the square footage, computations will delay Loren in getting open anytime soon. [Having] the basement included on the drawings will dictate an expensive sprinkler system per fire code.” He continued, “Loren needs to address the need to apply for a live entertainment variance and install a stage area not right up against the fire doors so he is not blocking exits, something the fire department will surely close him down again for. Everyone at this stage owes it to the process to get it right and do it right.”
Editor’s Note: This report was produced through a content-sharing partnership between independent Cleveland newspapers, Plain Press and The Tremonster.