Church building owner appeals city’s historic property designation

First Church of Christ, Scientist

Construction of the church began in 1913 and finished in 1922. The building ceased to be used by Christian Scientists around 2004 and was then converted into office space for a short-lived business. It has been vacant for the last few years.

The California-based owner of one of Downtown Lakewood’s iconic structures has filed an appeal in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court seeking to overturn the Planning Commission’s designation of his building as a historic property.

Eric Choi, who controls California Phone, Inc., the entity that owns the First Church of Christ, Scientist church building on Detroit Ave., believes the designation’s preservation restrictions will limit future development of the property and hinder his ability to sell it.

Choi acquired the property for $1.5 million in 2010 and has it on the market for $1.975 million. The structure had been renovated and converted into office space for Maxxum Group, LLC, a plastics commodities company. Maxxum folded in 2009, and the building has been vacant ever since. Its total annual property tax bill is $45,000.

Historic designation mandates upkeep, preservation of property

When a building is designated as a historic property, it essentially becomes frozen in time. The property owner is obligated to maintain its same appearance and must get the approval of the Architectural Board of Review before making any alterations.

St. James Catholic Church on Detroit Ave. and Lakewood Park’s Oldest Stone House have each been designated historic properties.

LakewoodAlive, Heritage Advisory Board recommended church building for historic designation

The formal process of historic designation began in April when the Lakewood Heritage Advisory Board agreed the property fit the qualification requirements.

In May, LakewoodAlive Executive Director Ian Andrews nominated the church building to the Planning Commission as a historic property, claiming the building met eight of the 10 criteria.

The Commission agreed the building was a candidate for the designation. However, A. James Artiano, a lawyer representing Eric Choi, e-mailed the Commission to object to the nomination.

Dru Siley, the city’s director of planning and development, said he hoped he could persuade Choi to appreciate the virtues and benefits of the historic property designation.

“[The property] is well-positioned to be repurposed by the right company,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s here for the next 100 years.”

Lawyer: Church building lacks bona fide historic qualifications

After confirming the property’s eligibility, the Planning Commission met in June to decide if it would bestow the official historic property status upon the church structure.

Artiano flew in for the occasion, and was joined at the meeting by local attorney Kirk Roessler, who presented the Commission with some research suggesting the building didn’t meet the criteria.

Although many of the observations Roessler made were reasonable, an attorney representing the city said it was moot point — the building had already been affirmed as a candidate for the designation. The issue before the Commission was solely whether or not the designation should be granted.

Artiano sat in the front row during the exchange and wore the unhappy look of a man in the middle of a disorganized mess. After a brief huddle with Roessler, Artiano complained he hadn’t had enough time to prepare. “I was misled about the process,” he said. Planning and Development Director Siley denied the allegation.

Artiano described his client as “an unfortunate absentee owner” who acquired the property as a favor to friend. “It is a really difficult property to rent or sell,” he said.

David Berkovitz, who is managing Levey and Company’s effort to revitalize nearby Lakewood Plaza, said his group checked out the church property when they acquired the plaza. He told the Commission a historic designation would be an “additional burden” on the owner. Berkovtiz felt the city had plenty of other laws and regulations at its disposal capable of preserving the building.

Roessler thanked Berkovitz for his support and was careful to point out they had “no relationship whatsoever.”

“To date, there have been no offers received,” he said.

Heritage Advisory Board member Heather Rudge countered Berkovitz and noted that the historic designation is an asset for a developer who knows what he’s doing.

Long-suffering Brian Lenahan, a broker with Ostendorf-Morris who has been tasked with locating a buyer for the property, asked the Commission to hold off on any designations until a new owner can be found. He feared the restrictions would discourage a deal. “Dru, find me someone to take this away,” he said half-jokingly to the city’s planning and development director.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously with one abstention to designate the property as historic property.

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