Residents and Councilman at odds
by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, August 2006) Ward 14 Councilman Joe Santiago says, “My number one concern is the revitalization of Ward 14.” Santiago, who replaced Nelson Cintron, Jr. as Councilman in January of this year, says his priorities include cleaning up drugs and prostitution in the ward and tackling blight. He points to a map of the ward in his office on Fulton Avenue. Pins mark vacant, boarded-up houses he has documented on walks through the ward.  

In response to interview questions about his vision for the ward and his withdrawal of objections to liquor licenses brought on behalf of residents by his predecessor Cintron, Santiago cites his experience serving on the board of Tremont West Development Corporation.  He says Tremont had residents who had objections to the restaurants and bars moving into the neighborhood. He credits “strong leadership of the director and board” with sticking to their development objectives and “working diligently for the neighborhood” for the success of the bars and restaurants, which he believes helped to drive the revitalization of the neighborhood. “Ten years went by. You now have a thriving, safe community”, he says, citing higher home values, higher rents, and businesses that draw both neighborhood residents and those that come to the neighborhood to party as creating a more vibrant community.

In a number of recent cases, Santiago’s philosophy of development has come into conflict with residents’ expectations that their City Council representative will be their advocate in getting concessions from new or expanding businesses that will protect their quality of life.

Residents of the Lincoln Heights/Scranton Starkweather  Block Club live in the Ward 14 section of Tremont near two such businesses, the Starkweather  Tavern and the Mutt Hutt. They say they would like to see new businesses respect the rights of residents  and they expect their City Council representative to back their efforts. Several have told the Plain Press they feel this has not been the case.

Councilman Santiago supported a variance to allow the Starkweather to expand its capacity by adding an upstairs restaurant and an outdoor patio. Over 70 residents in the immediate neighborhood signed an objection to the variance.

Block Club Chair Henry Senyak says, “The block club’s main goal is to preserve the residential nature of the neighborhood.” Senyak says block club members would like to see The Starkweather Tavern open as the restaurant as promised by the original owner. Members of the Lincoln Heights/Scranton Starkweather Block Club have blocked efforts of the business to operate as a nightclub by educating themselves as to the legal requirements of such businesses and calling for compliance.  Senyak says that a restaurant that lives up to all conditions called for in agreements formed at the Board of Zoning Appeals (BOZA) would be welcome. The BOZA conditions, signed by the Starkweather Tavern ownership, include requiring the business to secure adequate legal parking spaces for their occupancy and outline security measures that the ownership agreed to provide. “If they just do what they said they would do we will be ok,” said Senyak.

Concerning the issue of compliance to the Board of Zoning Appeals resolutions, Councilman Santiago and neighborhood residents are in agreement. The Councilman’s Executive Assistant Sr. Alicia Alvarado said, “If they are not going to be in compliance, they are not going to open.” The councilman seconded her sentiment saying,  “Santiago will make sure of that.”

Block Club Chair Senyak says he is still upset with Councilman Santiago’s withdrawal of the objections to the liquor license of the Starkweather.  He says in doing so, the residents lost their chance to testify as to their concerns about the establishment and have them as part of the public record to help protect residents from future transgressions by owners. He says it took members of the block club a year and a half to convince former Councilman Nelson Cintron,  Jr. in July of 2005 that the problems presented by the bar were serious enough to warrant an objection to their liquor license before the Liquor Commission. Senyak says the hearing was set for May 9, 2006. Neighborhood residents had gathered video and audio tape, and researched other problems at the bar, to present to the liquor commission. They were prepared to testify when Santiago withdrew the objection to the liquor license on April 26, 2006.

Asked why he passed legislation in city council to withdraw objections to the renewal of the liquor license and supported the variance at the Board of Zoning Appeals allowing for the business expansion, Santiago said, “Why would I oppose it? It is a small business owner. We are not here to shut him down. The owner was working with the city. I followed the law. I followed the regulations.”

Georgiann Franko, a long-time resident living near the Starkweather, was disappointed Santiago didn’t advocate for the position of neighborhood residents concerning how the  Starkweather Tavern  was being run.

Franko said at first she believed Starkweather owner Christopher Lieb was sincere about creating a neighborhood restaurant.  However, what the neighborhood got was a nightclub. Entertainment was promoted in the Starkweather’s ads: live music, deejays and “the best juke box in town.”

Franko said nearby landlords couldn’t rent units because of the noise and the happenings in the back of the bar. Prior to Starkweather opening a nightclub, she said,  always occupied. “A whole slew of people, who wanted to sell their houses because of the Starkweather, could not sell because of the noise, traffic and the behavior of patrons”, she said.  She believes that crowds at the Starkweather attracted  drug dealers to the neighborhood, who now, despite the closing of the Starkweather, continue to sell drugs on W. 18th Place because the street is not visible from Scranton.

Franko, a supporter of Santiago in last year’s City Council election, says she is disappointed in his withdrawal of objections to the liquor license raised by former Councilman Cintron, as well as Santiago’s support for the zoning variances. Franko believe the Councilman and Board of Zoning Appeals should pay more attention to the advice and reports of building inspectors and city lawyers when making decisions about her neighborhood.

Another block club member, Linda Dembie, says she gathered seventy signatures of residents living in the immediate neighborhood to oppose a variance requested by the Mutt Hutt dog daycare business to allow the dogs to run in an area zoned multifamily that is close to Dembie’s house. Dembie, whose husband works a swing shift, opposed the expansion on grounds that the barking dogs would keep him awake as he tried to sleep during the daytime operation of the dog daycare. Dembie had hoped that the signatures of seventy residents would persuade Councilman Santiago to support her position before the Board of Zoning Appeals. However,  Santiago gave his support to the expansion of the dog daycare.

Santiago said he was satisfied with the promise of the business owner, Tremont resident Becca Riker,  that dogs with a barking problem would not be accepted, and that dogs would be trained and called inside if persistent barking occurred. Santiago says his support would “allow the business to grow.” At the Board of Zoning Appeals hearing on the Mutt Hutt, Ms. Kukla, representing the city of Cleveland,  testified that the city did not feel that the dog daycare was appropriate in such a dense residential neighborhood and that there were plenty of industrial properties in the city that would be more appropriate for the business. Asked why he didn’t support the city’s position, Santiago responded that the business owner wanted to be in Tremont.

Resident Nina Swerdlow, whose home is about 50 feet from the dog daycare,  says she has joined in a lawsuit in Common Pleas Court challenging the BOZA ruling in favor of the Mutt Hutt expansion, based on support. She said she joined the lawsuit because the presence of the dog daycare affects her property value. She cited the experience of a neighbor who put his house up for sale because of the dog daycare and has had three prospective buyers lose interest when told about the presence of the dog daycare.

Swerdlow believes the ruling was affected by support of Councilman Santiago and Ward 13 Councilman Joe Cimperman for the Mutt Hutt expansion.  “I think Santiago wants in this area what they have down in Tremont and we don’t want that. They say that since Santiago was elected there are no boundaries between Ward 13 and Ward 14.  We don’t want all the bars and entertainment around here. They seem to think everything has to revolve around commercial. There has to be a balance. Unfortunately the balance has turned everything toward commercial. If you are a resident they turn a deaf ear.”

Junkyard expansion

Millie Bellamy is concerned about Santiago’s support changing the zoning to allow a junkyard to expand in the area of her daughter and grandaughter’s house at W. 20th near Potter Court. Bellamy says despite residents’ letters and testimony against the expansion, Councilman Santiago supported the expansion. She reported that one woman testified that a fire in the junkyard scorched the back of her house.

Santiago said he was unaware of why the city originally denied SASS Auto Wrecking’s request for a variance to expand. Santiago says he testified in Common Pleas Court on behalf of SASS Auto Wrecking in its appeal of a BOZA decision made during his predecessor’s council term. Santiago introduced legislation in City Council calling for a change of zoning from light industry to general industry to allow for the change. Asked about residents concerns about the safety of having a junkyard so close to a residential neighborhood, Councilman Santiago said the residents were misinformed. He said the variance would allow the business to build a building to move its office out of a trailer.

Former Ward 14 Councilman Nelson Cintron, Jr. said the city originally opposed the expansion of SASS Auto Wrecking when he was in City Council, as part of an effort to relocate junkyards away from residential neighborhood and into industrial parks.

Cintron noted that as councilman, he worked with the city, Clark Metro Development Corporation (CMDC) and the business owner in the early talking stages of a plan to move the service and repairs part of SASS’s business to a commercial strip in the neighborhood and to move the junk yard to an industrial park. Cintron says this fit with CMDC’s overall Business Redevelopment Plan. He also noted that the eventual removal of the junkyard would enhance proposed housing for the White Ash site (near the Animal Protective League). Cintron said it would be much easier to market the housing if people didn’t have to look down at a junkyard.

Cintron said the business also had a number of violations concerning how and where vehicles could be stored. When the building housing the  junkyard’s office burned down, city codes would not allow the owner to build another structure on that site. At that point, Cintron said he helped the owner secure city land fronting on W. 25th where the trailer is now.

Liquor licenses

According to the The City Record, which is the official record of legislation passed by Cleveland City Council, a number of other liquor license objections made by former Councilman Cintron have been withdrawn by Councilman Santiago in Santiago’s first six months in office. In addition to the Starkweather, Santiago withdrew the liquor license objections raised by his predecessor for Envy at W. 25th and Chatham and Latin Touch at W. 50th and Storer.

Councilman Santiago said he didn’t know the nature of the original objections to the Latin Touch before initiating the withdrawal, but had not received any complaints about the club since he took office. Santiago blames his lack of information on the reasons for the liquor objections on his predecessor, whom he said left him no files in the office. Santiago also said that the neighborhood around the Latin Touch has no active block club so it was difficult to get information about how residents felt about the club. Explaining how he made his judgment, Santiago said, “I go into every bar.”

Former Ward 14 Councilman Nelson Cintron, Jr. shared his approach to filing objections to the renewal of liquor licenses. When deciding deciding whether to object to the renewal of a liquor license, Cintron said he would call the Second District Police Commander and find out if a lot of police officers were being called to the bar for various problems. If the Second District had documentation to suggest there was enough evidence of serious problems to go before the liquor commission with enough teeth in the charges so the law department could negotiate an agreement with the bar to improve their behavior or face the loss of their liquor license. If the bar broke the agreement designed by the Law Department, Cintron says he could then request another hearing with the liquor commission. Cintron credits former Ward 17 Councilman Tim Melena with teaching him how to do this.  Melena, prior to coming to City Council, worked as a lawyer for the city law department designing contracts between the city and bars when council members filed objections to liquor licenses.

As for Santiago’s charges that there were no records in the office when he arrived, Cintron says all the records are computerized. He also said that the law department brings a packet to the Councilman with the background information for hearings before the liquor commission. Cintron says it is the councilman’s responsibility to organize a public meeting to get input from residents surrounding an establishment.

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