Repair Shop Wars

Cleveland is sick of its ugly car lots. But nobody knows how to stop them

Carlos Bezares is standing on the apron of his auto-repair garage on Scranton Road near Clark Avenue on a typically chilly Saturday afternoon. Solidly built, with a beard giving way to gray, he's dressed for business in a black wool hat, work pants, and warm jacket with a patch bearing the name of his shop: Tu Casa. A couple of his staff, dressed to match, scurry among a sea of cars crammed on the small lot in various states of repair. There are autos on the lifts in both bays of the garage, which sports a sign that reads "Honesty is our number one policy."

Bezares points to the hulking brown stone church a block away and mentions how the folks there came in when their van broke down and said they had no money. So he replaced their engine free of charge. "Now they refer people to me," he says.

Then he gestures across the street to a tidy yellow frame house. "They had a Super Bowl party, and I let them park on my lot."

In the eight months since he moved his business from the East Side of town to this mixed-use strip on Tremont's north end, Bezares says he's tried to be a good neighbor. If he's had problems, it's because business has been too good. But the customers' cars that crowd his lot violate city codes that allow overnight parking for only four vehicles.

And technically, he and his crew are supposed to be working on cars only in the garage bays, not in the lot. Yet cars parked throughout the pavement in front of Tu Casa sit in various states of mid-repair, most with their hoods popped open.

Just five blocks away from Tu Casa, on the more fashionable side of Tremont, Angel Cuevas' repair shop stands on a triangle of land where Starkweather and Jefferson avenues come to a point at West 10th. The innocuous, weathered building with the boarded-up windows would be easy to miss if not for the lot it sits on — and the old cars, trucks, and trailers, the pile of tires, and the large shed that populate it.

The two businesses symbolize a problem that has cropped up across the city: Ramshackle auto-repair shops in violation of countless city codes, for everything from overparking to unsightliness, are clashing with neighbors and a city government that doesn't seem to know how to police them — or even whose job it is to do it.

If Tremont's problem with repair-shop sprawl is easy enough to see, cleaning it up has been another story. Cuevas and others have heard the cries to straighten up their eyesores — from neighbors, from the city, and from the Tremont West Development Corporation. While Cuevas has claimed that the city and Tremont West are riddled with racism and corruption, it's more likely they're riddled with confusion. Archaic and sometimes conflicting city code makes it hard to tell who is following the rules, or even what the rules are. The sheer number of city departments with a horse in the race speaks to the problem of an evolving city relying on an antiquated playbook.

"License & Assessment has some jurisdiction, Building & Housing has some jurisdiction, the Board of Zoning Appeals has some jurisdiction," says city councilman Joe Cimperman, whose ward includes much of Tremont. But he says Cuevas and others like him are caught between rules made for a Cleveland that doesn't exist anymore. "He's supposed to be cited by the police. But we have a code that was written for a different city, a different time."

Once upon a time, an auto-repair shop on the corner would have been part of a diverse street scene, nestled between homes, apartments, storefront shops, churches, and saloons — each block its own little neighborhood. Since 1946, the site of Cuevas' shop has been a gas station or a repair garage.

But the grocers and butchers, shoemakers and tailors, and others who serviced the blue-collar workers of Tremont are long gone, leaving only vestiges like Cuevas' shop, a small isle of commerce in a sometimes turbulent residential sea.

Tu Casa's Scranton neighborhood, on the other hand, is still redolent of the old Tremont, with its mix of rehabbed historical homes, rental apartments, churches, restaurants, bars, auto shops, and small businesses. There, residents have complained that some garages have blocked sidewalks and filled up side streets with multiple cars and disturbed neighbors by working outside late into the night.

"There are two dozen or more cars parked in a lot the size of a gas station: triple-parked, parked across the street, parked on Scranton, on the street next to the building," Sandy Smith says of Tu Casa. She's the head of the Metro North block club, one of several neighborhood groups that's driving hard to get the pileups cleared at Tu Casa and about a half-dozen other Tremont repair shops. "There are probably times when he has 40 cars parked somewhere around the business."

Metro North has already succeeded in rubbing one neighborhood shop out of Tremont for its volume of cars constantly parked on the street and regular traffic tie-ups caused by tow trucks. But that shop's owner has since reopened around the corner on Clark Avenue.

Whether a particular shop becomes a sore point is often dependent on where it's located. The more active the block clubs, the more vocal the neighbors get. And it's not just a Tremont problem.

"It's systemic — it's citywide,' says Henry Senyak, president of the Tremont West Development Corporation and a man who can recite city code like Rain Man can recite the digits of pi. "In some wards, they stay on top of it to protect quality of life for the residents. In some neighborhoods, it's not even addressed. So many neighborhoods are having a renaissance, where they want strong quality-of-life ordinances and the ability to enforce them, with everybody on the same page."

Neighbors have also clashed with mechanics on Bellaire between West 117th and West 130th. There, numerous repair shops bolted during lengthy road work, but returned recently once construction was complete. Half a dozen Bellaire shops have been cited, appealed their citations, and lost. Buying time by appealing is common practice. All it does is kick the can down the road, while neighbors get more annoyed.

Tremont, with its hybrid of classes and cultures, is fertile territory for such disputes. The Scranton area, wedged between gentrifying Tremont and the poorer, heavily Hispanic streets to the north, is particularly susceptible to complaints — as well as backlash accusations of racism from owners of the primarily Hispanic-owned shops there.

Councilman Brian Cummins, who represents the Scranton stretch of Tremont, says the controversy signifies more than just a witch hunt for ugly businesses.

"I think part of the problem is residents have some pretty strong issues about the aesthetics of the businesses," he says. "But too often the businesses on Scranton don't feel like they've been all that well represented [by Tremont West]. I think this sets up conflicts; you've got residents or businesses that aren't in communication with each other."

Cummins says he's tried to coach Tu Casa on ways to spruce up without shelling out. He's met with Bezares multiple times, seeking solutions that would be both workable and legal. He believes some problems — like too many parked cars — could be sidestepped with a variance that would supersede the current law, perhaps by double-parking them in neat rows. But others say no way.

"If you let one, you let them all," says Senyak, a lightning rod in the neighborhood's repair-shop wars.

In the summer of 2010, Senyak launched a crusade on behalf of Tremont West, sending an invitation to each of a half-dozen garages to a meeting to discuss code violations. The goal, ostensibly, was to arrive at a set of rules that would apply to all of Tremont's garages. The result was a city visit to every garage, with several citations resulting — over everything from junk parts to peeling paint.

But the aesthetics police didn't cover other controversial elements, such as the placement of Cuevas' shed in front of his business or pleas to build decorative fencing to conceal the mess. Those required a knock on various doors of city government.

Senyak says that the Building & Housing department determines any location's legal use. Assessments & Licenses requests Building & Housing to conduct inspections so that it can grant or deny annual licenses.

Not surprisingly, says Cummins, the many tentacles of code enforcement can be confusing to business owners — and even to city departments and officials.

He says that while he was helping Tu Casa solve its problems, he got two contradictory communications: A zoning official said there was no evidence of a use permit for the shop; the Board of Zoning Appeals confirmed that a use permit had been granted.

Back at Angel's Auto Repair, Cuevas came to an agreement with his detractors that he would move the shed to the rear of his property and put up a "visually appealing" fence with landscaping. He applied for both through the Board of Zoning Appeals. After five postponements — some on his part, some on the part of his opponents — Cuevas withdrew his request in December. He says he can no longer get a fair shake from the city, adding that Cimperman has threatened to send inspectors to his place to harass him with petty citations.

Cimperman says he isn't trying to put Cuevas — or anyone else — out of business.

"Some of these auto shops have been around since before Tremont became Tremont. Nobody discounts that we need them. When people criticize him, he says it's because of gentrification, or he says it's because he's Hispanic.

"I've been trying to get him to understand that nobody wants to shut him down — they just want to see more maintenance. He fixes old people's cars for free. All the teachers at Tremont Montessori go to him to get oil changes. He gives the teachers a discount. He's a good guy. If he would just remove [the shed] and stop parking old cars all over, he'd be fine.

"Just don't make your place look so junkyardy."

Over at Tu Casa, Bezares says he's looking for an overflow location — somewhere nearby and accessible. His wife Marta, the shop's office manager, says they looked at a spot a few blocks east on Scranton, but figure it was way too small.

Cummins is working with them, but admits he often feels like tearing out his hair.

"The residents say it looks like crap," he says. "They say they have too much work. We do need to hold businesses responsible for trying to live within the regulations. I would hope there would be understanding on both sides."

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