A tale of two businesses
CITY PRACTICES GIVE UNFAIR ADVANTAGE TO ILLEGAL BUSINESSES

by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, December 2006) Uneven enforcement of laws governing the occupancy and use of buildings often requires neighbors of illegal businesses to devote time and energy fighting the illegal use, and gives an unfair advantage to illegal businesses over those who try to follow the rules. Take the cases of two local businesses that both operated within a half mile of each other in the Ward 14 section of W. 25th Street.


Envy

At a November 13th Board of Zoning Appeals hearing Envy Restaurant and Lounge, 3132 W. 25th, was denied a variance to “expand the use of an existing restaurant/bar with adding a dance club.”  Homeowners on nearby W. 26th street had written letters opposing the granting of the variance. The Board of Trustees of the local development corporation, Ohio City Near West, took a phone vote to oppose the variance.  The Ohio City Near West Executive Director came to the BOZA hearing to read the resolution. Executives from neighboring Voss Industries came to the hearing along with their lawyers to oppose granting the variance.


NEWS ANALYSIS

What is curious about the case, but apparently not uncommon in Cleveland, was that Envy was already operating as a nightclub for months prior to request for the variance to grant them permission to do so.

A Sunday June 18th 2006 note in the Plain Dealer’s PDQ section says “The Envy Lounge, a club on the southern outskirts of Ohio City’s booming entertainment district on W. 25th Street in Cleveland opened its doors June 10 for a hip-hop party to promote Stella Artois beer from Belgium. WENZ FM/107.9 DJ Talus Knight hosted the gig as part of his “Secret Saturday” party series, and the place was packed at midnight with guests who paid $10 admission and came dressed to impress. Partygoers enjoyed free beer samples and reduced prices while grooving to the always-hip sounds from DJ Mick Boogie.”

Nightclub status is required to have a DJ, hold a dance and charge admission. Despite not having the variance, Envy Restaurant and Lounge was operating as a nightclub.

The Monday June 19th Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Anthony Jackson, age 25, a patron of the Envy Night Club was “gunned down” in the Voss Industries parking lot apparently in the early morning hours of June 18th. Voss Industries executives reported at the BOZA hearing that Envy patrons were parking in Voss Industry parking lots despite requests that they not do so.  One of the reasons BOZA denied the zoning variance to Envy was that it did not have the required 21 off street parking spaces.

Voss executives reported at the BOZA hearing that the company has 260 employees working three shifts. Friction between employees and patrons of the club existed over parking spaces. After the June 18th murder in a Voss parking lot, Voss employees were afraid to go to and from the parking lot, reported company executives. Tow truck operators towing cars parked without permission in Voss parking lots were also being harassed by Envy patrons, according to testimony from Voss Industry representatives at the BOZA hearing.

Even more curious, but again not uncommon in Cleveland, was a fact pointed out at the BOZA hearing by Elizabeth Kukla of the City Planning Department. Kukla said that the space that Envy Restaurant and Lounge currently occupies is currently zoned as office space. Using the space even as a restaurant/bar is “clearly operating illegally, “ said Kukla.

Cleveland City Planning Director Bob Brown said he did not know why Envy Restaurant and Lounge was allowed to open without the proper permits. Asked to speculate, he said sometimes existing businesses are allowed to “apply for a permit to see if their use is legal.” He noted that sometimes a variance is needed to get a permit. He speculated that the city, not knowing whether the business would qualify for a permit or not, allows the business to continue to operate while waiting for a permit rather than closing and laying off employees.

Brown said suggested that David Cooper of the Building and Housing Department would be the best person to talk to about why the business was allowed to open without proper permits, as well as what action the Building and Housing Department would take to enforce the BOZA ruling denying a variance for a nightclub. Upon being reached at Cleveland City Hall, Cooper said he could not talk to the press without proper clearance from the City Hall Press Office. The Press Office was unable to respond in time for this issue.


Let’s Wrap

Brent Thompson wishes he would have known that the location at W. 25th and Clark where he chose to open his restaurant, Let’s Wrap, was not already approved for retail use. Thompson said that he and Clark Metro Development Corporation, which helped him find the location, assumed that the location was approved for retail use, since its previous tenant, a retail printing shop, had been in the location for nine years.

While the print shop was allowed to operate without a proper permit for nine years, Thompson said he received a visit from a Building and Housing inspector before he was able to open. Thompson said he was tearing down a non-supporting wall to create a partition when a city of Cleveland building inspector walked in and told him he needed a permit to tear down the wall, that he needed to hire a contractor and an architect for the job, and that he would be fined if he came on the property before the work was finished. The inspector also told him the storefront was not zoned for retail use, he said.

Thompson said it took six months to get the permit to change the use from office to retail. It also took a long time to get inspectors to approve the work done in the building- the installation of six outlets, a sink and the partition by a licensed contractor. While it took a year before he could open, said Thompson, much of the time was spent waiting. He said the actual work on the building could have been done in three weeks. Thompson said he felt that every time he questioned why the process was taking so long, he was moved to the bottom of the list. “I felt afraid to say ‘I don’t appreciate this.’ I thought if I make a wave, I may never open,” he said. Savings set aside to get through rough periods during the first few years of operating his business were depleted.

But it gets worse. Thompson’s competitors, businesses that opened without permits, were allowed to continue operations without the same type of requirements. An August 2005 review of review of restaurants and bars in the Tremont neighborhood by Assistant Administrator Antionette Allen, of the Department of Building and Housing, indicated she could not locate a permit or certificate of occupancy for ten existing restaurants and bars. Four additional restaurants or bars were operating with a permit application pending or with a residential permit only.

Thompson, who recently closed Let’s Wrap, said he believes all businesses should be operating on a level playing field. He also believes the city should be more helpful and walk businesses quickly through the permit process. He said a friend who opened a business in an inner ring Cleveland suburb had a totally different experience. The city’s support staff walked the new business through every step of the process.

Thompson also believes there is no excuse for businesses to be open that don’t have the proper permits. City departments, he said, should cooperate to make sure the proper permits are in place. For example, he said, two fire inspections are required each year. He said the fire department inspectors could easily check if the business has the proper permits to operate. If the proper permits are not in place, the business could be referred to the Building and Housing Department.

 

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