Unfinished Business

James Caldwell Jr. left a trail of unsatisfied customers. The city kept approving his projects anyway.

Aberdeen Investments
Francis Guido's troubles with the developer next door began last winter, when he was in the hospital for knee surgery. Workers for Aberdeen Investments began digging holes for a cluster of new townhouses next to Guido's Old Brooklyn home.

Problem was, they also dug out dirt that held up Guido's driveway. Then they tore out half his fence, propping up what was left with wooden planks. Guido's wife, Olga, was afraid the driveway would collapse under her car.

Nine months later, the driveway is solid again, but the fence is still a makeshift wooden contraption covered with orange plastic. After much legal wrangling, Aberdeen has agreed to build a new one -- eventually. But the Guidos aren't satisfied.

After all, they know how many others wait in line for Aberdeen to make good on its promises.

The company and its president, James Caldwell Jr., are fighting off a string of lawsuits accusing them of failure to finish one project, nonpayment of subcontractors on others, and defaulting on a mortgage. Moreover, Lorain Police recently arrested Caldwell for kidnapping a drug dealer. (The charges were later dropped.)

Yet he's still building in Cleveland -- with the city's blessing. In August, the Board of Zoning Appeals approved zoning for the project next to the Guidos' home.

"We don't know how the hell this guy gets away with this," Guido says.

Tax breaks and cheap land -- that's what city leaders brag about when they lure builders to Cleveland. Mayor Jane Campbell often touts the nearly 500 new-home permits issued last year; she spent much of her reelection campaign trotting from one groundbreaking photo op to the next.

But city leaders don't mention companies like Aberdeen Investments, which owns at least 19 properties in the city, according to county records.

Caldwell says he started building in Cleveland because of cheap land, minimal competition, and the tax abatements offered to any new-home buyer.

"I thought it was a good opportunity to make a difference," says Caldwell, a red-faced man with a close-shaven skull. "They don't tell you about all the bullshit."

At first, city leaders liked him. Two years ago, Aberdeen was featured in one of Campbell's model-home shows in Hough. Caldwell's first major development in the city, a subdivision of houses starting at $270,000, attracted well-heeled families back to the East Side, including a police commander, a municipal judge, and the president of the Urban League.

But the project also prompted loud and lengthy complaints. Creekside Reserve residents said that curbs were cracked and parts of their private cul-de-sac had caved in. The landscaping, adds resident and Botanical Garden chief Brian Holley, was "worse than my grandson's Chia Pet."

It was somewhat less than they expected for their money.

"He did quality work on the homes," says resident Sharon Dumas, assistant city finance director. "He just kind of didn't finish."

But Creekside homeowners were well connected. When they screamed, the city listened. Caldwell eventually repaired the road, and in January the city blocked him from building more houses in the development.

Yet the problems continued. A concrete drive leading up to some of the homes still turns into a lake when it rains. Victoria Joyner, a widow who moved to Creekside this summer, says that siding has flown off her house in heavy winds. Her backyard deck shook until she had it reinforced.

When she called Caldwell, he would promise to come out, but never showed up. Now the company that installed an elevator in Joyner's house -- back pain makes it difficult for her to walk -- is suing Caldwell for not paying them $15,400. The case is headed for arbitration.

"It's terrible to have someone like that out there," Joyner says. "They build a house for you, and then they don't care."

At least Joyner got her house. Another developer is suing Caldwell for never finishing a city-backed project he was supposed to build in Collinwood.

Last September, the nonprofit Cleveland Housing Network signed a contract with Aberdeen to build 6 of the 16 homes in a new subdivision on Lake Shore Boulevard. The city pledged $100,000 for the project.

Since Caldwell owned the land, the Housing Network agreed to buy it if he built the roads and infrastructure. The work was supposed to be done by the middle of January.

But Caldwell never finished the job. And he stopped paying some of his subcontractors, who then filed liens that the Housing Network was forced to pay off, the nonprofit alleges. It also had to hire another builder to finish the houses. Families waiting to move in had to be put up in temporary housing. In August, the Housing Network sued Caldwell for more than $125,000 in damages.

"We weren't happy with his performance," says spokeswoman Damita Curry.

Caldwell says he was fired before he could finish the work. He also claims that the Housing Network didn't fulfill its promise to buy all the land. "We are trying to resolve this."

But he is less diplomatic about the other complaints lodged against him. "All it does is run my legal expenses up. Puts me in court for stupid, stupid things."

The Guidos didn't park in their driveway last winter by choice, he says. At Creekside, standing water is normal after a heavy rain, and so is a deck that shakes and plastic siding that flies off in the wind. To prove it to a reporter, he used a screwdriver to pry the siding off his own shed.

He insists that the Creekside homes passed city inspection and that any complaints now should be directed to subcontractors. To explain why residents call him instead, he plays the race card.

"They don't want to give him a hard time because he's black," Caldwell says of one subcontractor. "Instead, they're up my ass because I'm white."

He points out that some customers are happy with his work, and even those who complain admit to his skilled craftsmanship.

"From my perspective, I think he did a great job building the house," said Brian McEntee, a policeman who bought a three-bedroom home from Caldwell on the West Side.

But Caldwell must also defend his criminal record. In 1991, Cuyahoga County prosecutors indicted him for passing bad checks, though they decided not to prosecute. Four years later, he pleaded guilty to insurance fraud in Lorain County, after he faked having his Ford Explorer stolen. Then, in September, he was arrested in Lorain after what police described as a botched drug deal.

According to their report, a dealer named Anthony Rodriguez said that Caldwell paid him $500 for OxyContin and Percocet. But Rodriguez failed to deliver the drugs. So Caldwell grabbed Rodriguez by the neck, choked him, pointed a gun in his face, and dragged him into his pickup. Rodriguez's friend talked to the police, who stopped the abduction.

Caldwell was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and improperly handling a firearm, but the case was recently dismissed. He says the police report is "blown out of proportion," though he won't say why.

"I didn't kidnap anybody," he says. "I don't know how you can kidnap a friend. All I did was rough somebody up."

As Caldwell defends himself in court, the townhouse project in Old Brooklyn is progressing slowly. A wooden frame for the first house is up, but the rest of the site is a mess of concrete foundations and pipes.

City Planning Director Robert Brown says the townhouses and the Housing Network development were all under way before the city learned of Caldwell's criminal record and his problems at Creekside.

And since Caldwell had already begun to build, Brown didn't think it would be good for the neighborhood to pull the plug. That's why more zoning was approved.

"The city would certainly have serious reservations about starting anything new," he says.

Councilwoman Emily Lipovan Holan, who represents the Guidos' neighborhood, just wants to see the homes finished.

"Sure, there's lot of complaints about Jim personally and professionally," she says. "We just need to get the project done."

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