Bobby George and the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Port Authority, along with the Irishtown Bend Park project partners, have reached a formal deal on the 0.41-acre property at the corner of West 25th and Detroit that will deliver the park group the last plot of land for the planned 23-acre greenspace and end long-standing litigation over the parcel.
The signed agreement between the two sides includes a combination of a cash settlement, an arrangement to move the billboard atop the long-vacant former Royal Castle building to a new location and a deal that will have George operate a 15,000 to 18,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor restaurant and cafe on the hillside, George told Scene.
The Port, in a statement to be released later today, says only that a tentative agreement has been reached pending board approval that will allow stabilization work on the hillside to begin for the "beautiful" park. It will also need final sign-offs by other partnering agencies.
George and the park coalition had for years been in negotiations over the property, which he bought in 2018 for $248,000. But as the coalition scooped up every other property needed for the project, no deal was reached with George, who declined an offer of $360,000 for the land.
As a stalemate continued, the Port in 2021 initiated eminent domain proceedings against the owner, arguing that George had rejected a "good faith offer" and that some $50 million in urgent hillside stabilization work couldn't begin until the property was in the coalition's hands.
George, in turn, sued the group, arguing that the "good faith offer" didn't account for revenue produced by the billboard and that some of the group's own engineering experts had said that the stabilization work was unaffected by control of the property.
The eminent domain action, they argued, had nothing to do with the supposedly urgent stabilization needs and everything to do with time-sensitive funding issues related to the park project. Additionally, they contended that the park coalition colluded in a "civil conspiracy" to create media and public relations campaigns to paint the Georges as obstinate extortionists.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John Sutula agreed on the first two points, ruling in favor of the Georges in granting a series of temporary injunctions against the Port's eminent domain attempt in 2022.
Not only did the judge find that the port's "good faith offer" didn't include compensation for the billboard, he found that work to begin to stabilize the hillside could begin without the Port taking the property and, in the case that it did need to have legal access to the 0.41-acre property to begin work, a temporary easement would suffice in lieu of a permanent acquisition.
"The court further finds that the plaintiff has met its burden of showing that the defendant's actions related to its attempted appropriation of the property constitute an abuse of authority due to lack of: 1) necessity, 2) good faith, and 3) strict adherence to the statutory procedures governing the exercise of the agency's power of eminent domain," Sutula's order read.
The park coalition this winter appealed the decision to the Eighth District, as negotiations between the two sides continued. After a flurry of motions, consolidations involving the various groups involved in the project, and some initial orders, the court was set to begin hearing oral arguments on the case in late March.
With the signing of the memorandum of understanding, the legal fight will now end. (Members of the park coalition, including the Port, the Metroparks and many others, have spent more than $1.6 million in legal fees on the lawsuit.)
The park coalition in December announced it received a $5 million challenge grant from the Mandel Foundation, bringing the total haul for the project to $17 million so far. It will need to raise $28 million more by 2025-2026, around the time it hopes to break ground on what would be a 18-24 month project.
Stabilization work, which will cost $53 million and which is already fully funded by federal grants and other sources, will begin first.
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