by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, May 2015) At a public meeting on April 8th at Lincoln West High School, Ali Faraj, owner of the Aragon Ballroom building at 3179 W. 25th Street shared more details about his plan to reopen the building as a banquet hall and conference center. Residents in attendance, while expressing appreciation for the good reputation of the Faraj as a business owner and for the rehabilitation of an important building in the neighborhood, raised a number of concerns about the project. Among resident concerns are: the large capacity of the venue, parking, late night disturbance from vehicles loading and unloading, and the application by the owner for liquor licenses for the establishment.
Jeff Ramsey, Executive Director of the Detroit Shoreway Community Development and Program Director of the Stockyard, Clark-Fulton, Brooklyn Centre (SCFBC) Community Development Office, and Ward 14 Councilman Brian Cummins both spoke about how the project was trying to address concerns raised by residents and area stakeholders. Ramsey noted the Aragon project going forward will mean a $1.5 million dollar investment in the neighborhood and is projected to create 30 permanent jobs. The meeting was the second public meeting this year concerning the project.
Faraj is seeking a number of variances to make the project possible and made some adjustments to the proposed development based on public input from the first public meeting held in January. A major concession that resulted from the first public meeting was a decision to reduce the allowed capacity of the building from 1,200 people to 800 people. Faraj estimates that 90% of the events held at the Aragon will have less than 500 people in attendance.
According to documents passed out at the meeting, Faraj, purchased the Aragon building in 2011. Faraj is also the owner of the La Villa Conference & Banquet Center at 11500 Brookpark Road, which he has successfully operated since 2011. Exterior renovations are nearly complete on the Aragon building and planned interior renovations will begin once variances and permits are approved.
Two public hearings on the project are scheduled in May. On May 1 at 9 a.m. in Room 514 of Cleveland City Hall the City Planning Commission will review the project. Adam Stalder, Economic Development Director of the Stockyard, Clark Fulton & Brooklyn Centre Community Development Office, says because the Aragon is located in a pedestrian retail overlay district, the Planning Commission must approve the use of any structure that has more than 40 feet of frontage. Stalder noted “The Cleveland Planning Commission does not place restrictions on the operations of the building. All comments of support or concern regarding the use or operation should be submitted to the Board of Zoning Appeals.”
The Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) hearing on the Aragon project will be held on May 11th at 9:30 a.m. in Room 514 of Cleveland City Hall. The BZA hearing will be held to consider variances requested for restrictions that apply to the property from six sections of the Cleveland Municipal Code. Residents will have an opportunity to weigh in on the proposal at the meeting itself or via written comments sent to the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Three of the variances that the Aragon is applying for have to do with reestablishing the use of the building as a banquet hall. An informational sheet passed out at the April 8th meeting explains that since the building has been not operating for some time, the original use of the building has expired. The Aragon is located in a Local Retain District where banquet halls are not permitted. The city code further states that even in a less restrictive General Retail District, a banquet hall is only allowed if it is located 500 feet away from a residential district. The Aragon abuts a residential district. Thus the owners will have to get a variance to use the building as a banquet hall.
The city of Cleveland code also requires that a ten foot wide landscaped transition zone be created at the rear of the property where it abuts the residential district. The informational sheet says this is not possible “due to the placement of the building and alley behind the building.” So, another variance will be needed to forgo the landscaping requirement.
Another variance will be needed to forgo window and façade requirements recently placed in the city code for pedestrian retail overlay districts. The city requires that “not less than sixty percent of the front façade between two and one-half and seven and one half feet in height shall be composed of transparent windows or doors.” The information sheet at the April 8th meeting indicates that the Aragon already received design approvals for the exterior design and historic renovation of the building from the Landmarks Commission. The design does not include the transparency required by the city ordinance, thus an additional variance will be needed to go forward as planned.
The city code also requires “that an accessory off-street parking area equal to three times the gross floor area is required.” The Aragon, which Councilman Cummins notes in his blog is a “16,698 square foot building” (editor’s note: presumably floor area), does not have any off street parking. To receive a variance the owners must show they have secured sufficient off street parking for the facility.
To this end, SCFBC’s Jeff Ramsey noted that Aragon owner Ali Faraj has worked out a deal with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to be able to use the Lincoln West High School parking lot to valet park up to 500 cars. In response to concerns about patrons using up residential street parking spots instead of valet parking, Faraj said there would be no charge for valet parking so as to encourage its use. Ramsey said Faraj also is working with area businesses with parking lots to secure additional parking places. He noted a number of possible locations including an 80-car parking lot at Dollar Bank, parking at the Kennedy Building, the H. J. Weber Building.
In response to resident expressed concerns about what would happen to the valet parking when the planned rebuilding or rehab of Lincoln West is underway, Councilman Cummins responded that the school district has pushed back the construction for Lincoln West to 2018-2019 which he said would give the Aragon ample time to secure additional parking spots. The availability of land on W. 25th would be complicated by Metro Health’s needs as it rebuilds its main campus, said Cummins. He also noted that the repaving on W. 25th Street would be complete by the time the Aragon opened for business so it won’t interfere with the proposed valet parking.
Some residents expressed concern about the use of valet parking on W. 25th Street. Sandy Smith noted the proposed valet parking route to Lincoln West was a mile round trip. She expressed concern that valets would opt to find parking places closer in order to get back faster and get more tips – parking on nearby residential streets. She also expressed concern about valets dashing across a busy W. 25th Street at night. Others expressed concern about traffic jams due to valet parking during big events.
Loading and Unloading
Another resident expressed concern about large trucks loading and unloading on Althen a one-way street next to the Aragon. She noted there were a lot of kids on Althen and it would be unfair to allow truck traffic at night in a neighborhood populated by children. She asked if delivery trucks could be required use W. 25th saying it is a short walk from W. 25th to the side door. She expressed particular concern about bands breaking down after late shows and loading up equipment.
Councilman Cummins suggested some possible solutions – insulating the building for sound and scheduling deliveries for morning times. Owner Ali Faraj said he uses small vans for most of his deliveries from wholesale suppliers.
Gloria Ferris also expressed concern about noise late at night. She suggested perhaps bands could break down and leave their equipment till the next day to pick up. She also suggested signs telling patrons to “respect the neighbors.”
A number of concerns were expressed about the Aragon Ballroom’s application for D-3 and D-6 Liquor Licenses. The two licenses would allow the Aragon Ballroom to serve liquor seven days a week until 1 a.m. Faraj said the hours of operation for the Aragon will be from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and no later than 2:30 a.m. on Thursday through Sunday. He said most events would be over by 11 p.m. on weekdays and 1: 00 a.m. on weekends, with no more than ten events a year scheduled to end at 2:30 a.m. on weekend evenings.
Faraj said Aragon Management would be present at all events. He said his company would not lease the space to third party operators. He also offered to share his cell phone number with area residents so they can reach him directly if there are problems. He said any events with over 150 people would have off duty police officers employed as security.
Faraj said there would be no regular bar in the Aragon that is open to the public, but there will be liquor for sale at events.
Several people questioned why a liquor license was needed for the proposed banquet hall and conference center. Faraj said while he opened his other banquet hall without a liquor license and operated for a while without one, Faraj says 80% of his clients at that location were Muslim and didn’t drink. He says he now has a liquor license and had received different requests for liquor to be served ranging from corporate clients to boxing shows. He noted other banquet facilities such as Brennan’s Party Center, VFW Halls, and the Landerhaven all have liquor licenses. Faraj noted his business plan is to serve as a banquet and conference facility for corporate and community events. He mentioned a theatre group from the Cleveland Museum of art that had already expressed interest in having rehearsals at the Aragon.
A number of residents said they had heard good things about the quality of Faraj’s establishment on Brookpark Road and they were in favor of the Aragon being rehabbed as a banquet facility. However, they were against the establishment having a liquor license. They expressed some concern about the possibility of an establishment with a liquor license changing hands and becoming another Moda or La Copa.
City of Cleveland Planner Trevor Hunt said the facility would be a banquet or assembly hall. He said he checked with the Cleveland Building and Housing Department and the Aragon did not need to apply for a dance hall permit. He said the Aragon would need to apply for a Change of Use Permit to have a nightclub.
Resident Henry Senyak disputed that interpretation of the law. He believed that if there would be public dancing during events at the Aragon, the facility would have to have a Dance Hall permit. He suggested that Hunt check with the City of Cleveland Licenses and Assessments to verify that requirement.
SCFBC’s Jeff Ramsey said Faraj was a good man with good integrity that could be relied on to run a good business. He said that if the establishment were to change hands and become a problem, residents have the power through a local option to dry up a precinct and take the liquor license away.