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Monday, November 8, 2021

George Family Sues Irishtown Bend Park Group After Port Authority Takes Early Step Toward Eminent Domain on Their Building

Posted By on Mon, Nov 8, 2021 at 8:50 AM

Tthe Royal Castle building at the corner of West 25th and Detroit, which is the subject of a lawsuit against the Irishtown Bend Park project - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted photo
  • Tthe Royal Castle building at the corner of West 25th and Detroit, which is the subject of a lawsuit against the Irishtown Bend Park project

Tony and Bobby George, who own the Royal Castle building at the corner of West 25th and Detroit that has become a hiccup in the Irishtown Bend Park project's goal of acquiring all the parcels needed for a unified 23-acre park, filed a lawsuit on Oct. 26 against the Port of Cleveland and the other groups involved in the project after the Port in September took an early step toward eminent domain proceedings on the property. (Full lawsuit at bottom of article.)

The suit alleges that engineering reports don't support the Port's claim that the building and land on the 0.41-acre site are dangerous and could soon collapse into the hillside, that the park coalition colluded in a "civil conspiracy" to create media and public relations campaigns to paint the Georges as obstinate extortionists, and that the Port's possible eminent domain move interferes with their right to develop the land.

Tony George had telegraphed his plans in September when he told Crain's: "When I'm done deposing all these jackoffs, they're gonna shit their pants," he said. "I'm going to know the color of their diarrhea when they were 18 months old. They are not gonna bully my family like they are, when we were in good-faith negotiations with the city and willing to do a trade for the property. They want to give me property in East Cleveland in exchange for a mansion in Westlake. That's their idea of fairness."

The Georges bought the long-vacant building in March 2018 for $248,000.

As Scene wrote in 2020, part of the reason the building had sat vacant and for-sale for years was because of significant geotechnical issues regarding the hillside that meant any development there would be both difficult and expensive. Prospective buyers who inquired in recent years backed away both because of that problem and because they were made aware of its future as part of the park.

The suit claims the Georges were nevertheless unaware of the park's plans when they purchased the plot.

Though official plans were shared publicly months after the acquisition in 2018, the plans had been widely shared with stakeholders in the Ohio City area and initial proposals had been presented to the city's planning commission. Those involved told Scene in late 2019 that there was no possible explanation for the purchase other than the Georges inserting themselves in the process to collect a payday. At the time, 94% of the necessary plots had been acquired by the coalition. The Royal Castle building was one of the last.

"I love the property. I love the view. I have had a lot of interest from some pretty cool tenants in the building or may do something myself there," Bobby George told Crain's at the time. "We're also in the billboard business and have people interested in that location as well. Or we may redevelop the site. I don't want to be obstructionist. I hope they work with me to move the billboard or allow me to cooperatively develop the site with the park. I love what they are doing. I don't understand why they didn't buy it. It was not hard to close the deal with the seller."

He stood by the claim when he talked to Scene in 2020.

"It's one of two things. Either I'm a liar or I'm telling the truth," Bobby George said. "What am I going to say? Call me a liar. The fact of the matter is that property had been sitting there for years and when I went to buy it... actually to be honest, when we first looked at it I was going to put a marijuana dispensary there."

A site map of the Irishtown Bend Park, including the George property top right. - CLEVELAND PLANNING COMMISSION
  • Cleveland Planning Commission
  • A site map of the Irishtown Bend Park, including the George property top right.

In the months and years that followed, some of the entities involved entered formal and informal talks with the Georges to attempt to resolve the issue. While the building and land itself hadn't been worth much, there was and is a large billboard on the roof that draws significant revenue for the family. Various offers have been made, including billboard and land swaps, and outright purchases.

Nothing has panned out, and according to the Port's resolution in Sept. 2021 for a "declaration of public necessity," new engineering reports show that the hillside is dangerous and the building should be torn down.

“Now that we have more definitive and conclusive full engineering and geotechnical results I’m very concerned about the hillside,” Will Friedman, director of the Port of Cleveland, said in September. “We don’t think anybody should be on it right now. It could slide. It might not, for a long time. The point is nobody knows. It’s not a risk we should be taking. We should declare it a hazard and keep people off.”

The Georges claim that they have offered initial design proposals that would complement the park and that the engineering reports don't back the claim that nothing can be built there.

"The reality is the need for CCCPA’s 'immediate possession' has nothing to do with 'Catastrophic Risk to Property and Life' created by the Royal Castle building and instead has everything to do with a complex funding solution to fix the Irishtown Bend Slope on Riverbed West and Riverbed 007’s Property as well as Defendants’ collective vision to create a public park," the suit says. "This funding solution includes a $9 million federal grant from the United States Department of Transportation. It has been reported that a September 30, 2022 deadline exists for CCCPA to start spending the Department of Transportation grant. Thus, Defendants’ real concern is not an immediate safety concern, but rather a risk that a delayed eminent domain proceeding could jeopardize a funding source."

The suit alleges that a mid-slope retaining wall could be built that would allow their parcel to be developed.

An email among the park coalition group, included as an exhibit in the suit, reads: "The engineering requirements state that any presence of an occupied structure necessitates a[n] increase in safety factor from a 1.3 to a 1.5 this is regardless of the size of the structure. In order to meet that increase in safety factor a mid slope retaining wall would need to be added. Based on previous study that is a $5-6MM added cost. Osborn is currently at 90% design for a factor of safety of 1.3. Any changes would cause the need for the stabilization project to be reengineered, cause significant delays, add design costs and put the $9.02 million dollar federal funds at risk."

But Friedman told in September: “We are not going to spend $5 million in public money so that property can remain. We are going to figure out a fair market value and acquire it, which is going to be far less than $5 million.”

And as's Steve Litt reported that month, stakeholders are indeed concerned about the safety of the hillside on the parcel:

In a Zoom interview on Monday, numerous project partners said that the property has become increasingly important to the project because it’s one of the steepest and most unstable sections, and because it’s critical to the sequence of work needed to avert a collapse.

Cataffa, the landscape architect, said that a portion of the hillside at the site of the billboard building would need to be lowered by as much as 38 feet in order to make it safe.

“We know the north end is the most unstable based on the data we have from our monitoring,’’ said Linda Sternheimer, director of urban planning and development for the port.

The suit also claims that instead of dealing fairly with the Georges, the groups colluded to make the Georges look bad.

"The Defendants and their surrogates orchestrated a publicity campaign against Plaintiff and its members, including Tony George and Robert George," it says. "This campaign has resulted in the Property’s building being vandalized with graffiti stating 'F*&k Bobby George' and a litany of social media posts, such as 'The audacity of this family to continue to try and steal from all of us. F every last George of this blood line.'"

In a brief statement to Scene this morning, Bobby George said, "I hope we can work it out amicably."

The Port and other groups included as defendants in the suit likewise didn't immediately respond to a request for comment this morning. This post will be updated if and when they do.

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