A Canadian landlord who has a history of building code violations has spent the past week scrambling to fix a non-working elevator and fire alarm and sprinkler systems at the seven-story Westgate Plaza office tower where the Rocky River Police Department has leased space since Aug. 1.
City Fire Prevention officer Robert Crowe inspected the building off Linden Road on Sept. 24 and ordered the owner, Dr. Ross Chiaramonte, a dentist in Owen Sound, Ontario, to fix those violations as well as replace missing stairwell lights and resolve backup generator issues. The city gave him 48 hours to correct the problems or it would take him to court.
On Monday, Crowe inspected the building and found that one of the two elevators and the fire alarm system had been fixed. However, city officials are now considering keeping a closer watch on the building’s condition.
“It’s disheartening,” Law Director Andy Bemer said Monday. “This is certainly something we’re going to need to stay on top of and I think going forward because of our vested interest, we’re going to need to do at least a monthly check with the building.”
The elevators had not worked since Sept. 2, Labor Day, when Rocky River firefighters responded to reports at 12:36 p.m. about gray smoke streaming from the elevators shaft on the first floor. The smoke came from an overheated motor, which Rocky River fire officials told building management needed to be fixed immediately, Fire Chief Aaron Lenart said. The fire department did not check back to see if the elevators were working, Lenart said.
The city learned about the building problems from a West Life reporter, who had heard Sept. 18 that tenants were angry and planned to put their rent into escrow because of problems in the building, including the broken elevators.
Several tenants who provide mental health services said building management made a first-floor office room available for therapists to meet with clients who could not climb the stairs. But it quickly became apparent that one office was not enough for the seven therapy practices. They asked for a second first-floor suite, a request that was never fulfilled. One business has an employee with a disability who had to take an extended, unpaid leave because she could not get to the office on an upper floor.
When reached by phone Thursday, Chiaramonte twice said he had no comment when asked about building conditions.
“I’ve said all I wanted to say,” he said, then hung up.
Cuyahoga County records show Chiaramonte has not paid any property taxes for the building this year and owes $95,995, including late penalties.
The building, which was built in 1969 and is nearly 100,000 square feet including an underground garage, has about 45 tenants, mostly insurance offices, mental health therapists and law offices.
Bayview Financial Group LLC, which is Chiaramonte’s company, bought the building in January 2012 for $1.15 million. Building violations soon started to crop up.
On July 10, 2017, Rocky River’s property maintenance inspector at the time, John B. Lamb, issued a final warning to Chiaramonte to fix deteriorated concrete walkways, the driveway leading into the underground garage and structural issues with the underground garage’s fire escapes that were covered with spray-painted graffiti, according to documents. When those were not corrected, the city filed a case against him in Rocky River Municipal Court on Aug. 8, 2017.
Tenants interviewed said they were unaware of these violations.
While the court case was pending, the city on Oct. 27, 2017, issued Chiaramonte seven warnings for more building violations. These violations were: broken exterior windows; inoperable fire doors; leaking, unlabeled containers; unsafe equipment; plumbing issues; electrical issues; and an illegal storage unit in the garage.
Chiaramonte addressed all issues by May 2018 and the city’s law director dropped the case, according to court filings.
Meanwhile, the city was planning to tear down the police station and needed temporary housing for the 44-member department while the new $10 million station was being built adjacent to City Hall. A search team composed of Mayor Pamela Bobst, Safety Services Director Mary Kay Costello and Police Chief Kelly Stillman looked for available space and picked the first floor of the Westgate Plaza building.
Eleven months after the case against Chiaramonte and Bayview Financial was dropped, City Council on June 10 approved a two-year agreement with Chiaramonte to lease most of the building's first floor for the police department. Council agreed to pay Chiaramonte $2,875 a month, or $69,000 over the life of the lease.
Stillman proposed the safety forces move to Westgate Plaza, said Bobst, who acknowledged she knew of the prior issues with the building. She said she urged the search committee to consider other options.
“I took one look at that building and said, ‘Don’t put my police department in there,’ ’” she said. When the search team couldn’t find an effective alternative, Bobst said she wanted to make sure the building’s management corrected all violations before the police department moved there. Council President James Moran confirms that the city gave Chiaramonte conditions he needed to meet before they signed the lease.
“This was the least expensive of all of the location proposals that had been discussed,” Bobst said. “This is a $10 million project and we want to make sure that we’re being cost effective.”
City leaders originally discussed moving the department into trailers outside City Hall, but found that would have cost the city $273,461.
What drew Stillman to Westgate Plaza was the underground garage that would provide the department a place to park. However, in an interview on Sept. 25, Police Lt. Bill Crates said that due to a water leak, the department does not house their vehicles down there.
Tenants said they grew hopeful that continuing problems with the building would be handled with such a high-profile tenant moving in.
“I was hoping it would make the building’s owner more accountable,” said Marjorie Hoelker, a psychologist whose firm has rented space on the sixth floor since 2005. “Since it’s a municipality that’s paying tax money to lease the space, I was hoping the building owner would be more responsible as far as tending to issues with the building.”
Tenants said that once Chiaramonte fixed the elevator on Sept. 26, he went door to door asking tenants to pay their rent even though many had agreed to put it in escrow until the problems were addressed. One tenant, who asked not to be named, said it felt intimidating.
Many of the tenants had met on Sept. 20 to discuss putting their rent into escrow because of the building’s poor condition.
“I paid my rent for last month,” Freddie Sincerney, president of The Insurance Office, said Friday. “I’m not paying this month because of everything he put us through.”
Hoelker notes that while the building’s manager had sometimes acknowledged there were issues that needed to be fixed, there was little follow through. Several requests she made for new lights for her suite haven’t been fulfilled.
Tenants said Chiaramonte told them he fired the building manager last week.
When asked if any tenants contacted the city regarding these concerns, Rocky River Building Commissioner Ray Reich said they received complaints for the elevator but not for the other issues.
Reich has acknowledged that the building suffers from other housekeeping issues; however, unless they violate city building code and pose a health and safety risk, the city can’t do much to help.
“I don’t think this is going to get much better as far as maintenance in the building goes,” Reich said. “At this rate, we’d have to go over there once or twice a week to make sure the building is functioning.”
Bobst said that as a tenant, the city cares about these issues.
“We made sure the building addressed the violations they had before we moved there,” she said. “If there were other issues with the building, we needed to be made aware of them.”
Lt. Crates said that the department has had no problems since moving into the building, except for minor issues with the air conditioning. The phone system has gone down twice since police moved in, but that was because of a problem with the Cox cable company, which provides telecommunication services, not because of building problems, he said.
“I think we’re better off here by far compared to other locations we were looking at,” Crates said. “The citizens will be better served now that we’re here.”
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