The Solon city administration is pursuing the rezoning of about 11 acres on Aurora Road without the support of the primary property owner Liberty Ford.
The Solon Planning Commission opened a public hearing last week on a proposal to create a mixed-use planning district which currently is zoned C-4 Motorist Service Commercial. The majority of that area was the home of a Liberty Ford dealership which moved to the city of Aurora in May of 2018. The land has been largely empty since.
The new mixed-use plan calls for a combination of residential and commercial on the site. Residential units would include townhomes, apartments and residential over retail. Residents must approve the zone change, and the administration is targeting the issue for the November ballot.
Planning Director Robert S. Frankland last week outlined details of mixed-use zoning, a classification that is new to the city. A major part of the proposal includes expanding the scope of the zoning to apply not only to the Liberty Ford site, but also to the larger vicinity. This is defined as the “Aurora/Solon Road Planning Area,” he said.
The mixed use nature of the new zoning plan recognizes the development requirements of Liberty Ford, the principal property holder within the planning area, Mr. Frankland said, and addresses recommendations in the city’s master plan. Those recommendations include addressing the need for more housing in the city and following the preferred development model for commercial investors in the current proof of “bricks and mortar building” retail market uncertainty.
The proposal states that the residential component of the mixed-use zoning cannot be more than 33 percent of the planned area and must be limited to 200 units. Michael Herrick, son of Liberty Ford founder Jim Herrick, has advised the city that the proposed residential percentage is too small and would not make for a successful development.
In expressing his disapproval of the current plan, Mr. Herrick suggested earlier this month that the city administration table the current proposal and work with him to create a collaborative plan that meets the goals of all involved.
“We don’t look at things on the timeline of election cycles but rather in decades,” Mr. Herrick said of the real estate arm of his business. “There is no reason to rush this. I’d rather get it right.”
Mr. Herrick noted that his property sitting vacant does not impact him in any way, and it will remain vacant if the city moves ahead with the current proposal, he said.
“I am just trying to help, and I want what is best for the greater good,” Mr. Herrick said. The goal is to leave behind something the city and his family can be proud of, he said.
“The city is not embracing the reality of the business community, and that’s why they lost us in the first place,” Mr. Herrick said.
Liberty Ford pulled out of the city last spring after nearly 20 years, moving its operations 4 miles away to the city of Aurora as part of a $13 million redevelopment project on the former Geauga Lake Amusement Park site. Liberty Ford officials left the city after reaching an impasse in negotiations with former Mayor Susan A. Drucker’s administration to expand the site.
“I thought I could help them understand the mistakes of the first administration and not walk down that same path, which they are” doing, Mr. Herrick said.
Mayor Edward H. Kraus said at the planning meeting that 200 units “was probably on the conservative side.”
Mr. Herrick said it is not conservative, but rather “unrealistic.”
Mr. Frankland said some property owners are asking for a higher density, but 200 units is a reasonable number and developers have given the city feedback that they can work with that number.
Mr. Herrick has expressed the opposite view. In order for a project to work in that location, he said, the land likely would have to be sold at a loss. That’s something he is willing to do for the success of a redevelopment plan, he added. The current asking price is $3 million.
Councilman Douglas A. Magill asked Mr. Frankland if Liberty Ford’s approval is needed to move this forward and rezone the property. Mr. Frankland said no.
City Prosecutor Lon Stolarsky added that the city has the right pursuant through its police powers to propose reasonable zoning changes. Liberty Ford also has certain rights as the primary property owner, he added.
The only downside would be that new zoning would not allow Mr. Herrick to bring back a business related to automotive sales, Mr. Frankland said.
Mr. Herrick said he has no use for the site.
While Liberty Ford would have the right to protest the rezoning, Mr. Herrick said he is not sure of his next step. He will wait to see the planning commission’s next move.
“I don’t want to see it vacant any more than the city does,” Mr. Herrick said, adding that his team went through a lot of trouble to put together a proposal that made economic sense and he does not appreciate his time wasted.
“We have done this before,” Mr. Herrick said of transforming a car dealership location into another successful development.
Mr. Frankland explained that the new zoning district would cover the 6 acres owned by Liberty Ford as well as land from the Solon and Aurora roads intersection to Melbury Avenue. Some of the businesses now in that area include the Burgers 2 Beer, First Merit Bank, Solon Motel and Solon Creative Playrooms, among others.
Commission member William M. Mazur asked why Jim Alesci’s Place was not included in this. “They’re not likely to redevelop,” Mr. Frankland said.
Mr. Mazur said they should be included if they ever decided to in the future or if a developer takes interest in their building and Alesci’s was agreeable to it.
Mayor Kraus said that Mid America Corp., which owns the Solon Square Plaza, is well aware of this plan and supports bringing more traffic to their plaza.
The proposal is to apply this new zoning by referendum then council and the planning commission would oversee any proposals for the planned unit development as they come in, Mr. Frankland said. This mixed-use zoning would give the city flexibility and the ability to support redevelopment, he added.
The public hearing will remain open at the commission’s next meeting at 7:30 p.m. on June 11.