CLEVELAND — The former home of one of Cleveland's earliest and most prominent Hispanic advocacy groups won't meet the wrecking ball for at least a month. The Cleveland Landmarks Commission on Thursday suggested a 30 to 60 day delay on the proposed demolition of the Club Azteca building in the Gordon Square neighborhood after several Hispanic and Latino advocacy groups came out against the project at the 11th hour.
Located in the 5600 block of Detroit Avenue, the Club Azteca Building is located on one of more than a half dozen parcels of land that are proposed to become Waverly & Oak, a proposed mixed-use development by local firm, Bond Street Group. For nearly a year, the developers have been in conversations with the owners of Club Azteca and the surrounding parcels, as well as community stakeholders, city planners and the Detroit-Shoreway Community Development Organization.
"Part of that conversation was an understanding that the development should respect the neighboring properties and their occupants and to have a thoughtful public engagement process," said Bond Street Group principal Justin Strizzi. "One of the club’s main concerns for the property was that it go to an end user who understood the club’s history or was willing to learn about the club’s history and neighborhood and would develop it responsibly."
The development, which has the support of city planners, would require the demolition of Club Azteca and a Vietnamese market and barber shop. The owners of the remaining parcels have already agreed in principle to sell the property.
Formed in the 1930s, Club Azteca promoted Mexican culture, heritage and the arts through its annual celebrations around Cinco De Mayo. In 1957, after years of renovations, the club made the stucco-clad building on Detroit Avenue its home. Although the club is still active, membership has dwindled, and the building has fallen into a severe state of disrepair, including a collapsed roof which has led to major water damage throughout the property.
The property has also been in delinquency for more than a decade and has nearly been foreclosed upon twice. Club Azteca leadership saw the opportunity to sell the tax delinquent, structurally compromised building as a way to continue their charitable work while also getting a fresh start.
"We also heard the club's desire to -- going forward -- advance its cultural and charitable missions and how being freed from the burden of the building may be possible," Strizzi said. "Something that we have committed to was to involve the club in an ongoing discussion of how the new development that we are presenting could honor Club Azteca's history and to honor Club Azteca's role in the neighborhood."
The day before Thursday's Landmarks Commission meeting, representatives of many Hispanic and Latino advocacy groups, including HOLA-Ohio and the Young Latino Network, rallied in opposition to the proposed demolition of the club, despite the demolition having the club's blessing.
"If this building is demolished, it would be a terrible, terrible mistake for the city of Cleveland," said Veronica Dahlberg, the executive director of HOLA-Ohio.
The 11th hour effort resonated with members of the Landmarks Commission as well as Cleveland City Councilwoman Jenny Spencer of Ward 15.
"As a council member, I ultimately had a blind spot during this process insofar as not seeing the broader significance of the building for Cleveland’s Mexican American and Latinx community," Spencer said.
Spencer also noted that Club Azteca leadership told Detroit-Shoreway CDC staff that the building did not need to be preserved in order to preserve the club's legacy.
Selina Pagan, the president of the Young Latino Network, said the proposed demolition of the site caught many in the Hispanic and Latino community by surprise. Although she conceded that no firm plans for re-purposing the building are in place -- nor is there concrete financing for its renovation -- Pagan requested that the Landmarks Commission delay any possible action at the site.
"It feels like a punch in the gut to take away one piece of [our heritage]," Pagan said. "I am really requesting time, we need time. This building means so much more to us. We’re not ready for that conversation. We need time. We just found out a week ago. That’s why we’re asking to hold off because we know as a community we can do it. We know that we have some power and there is a possibility, but we need time."
Other speakers at Thursday's meeting, including Margaret Lann of the Cleveland Restoration Society, noted the lack of recognized sites in Cleveland that honor significant Hispanic and Latino sites and the community's contributions to Greater Cleveland. The city's total population is about 12% Hispanic. Citing the continued dialogue with Club Azteca and community partners early on in the planning stage of the proposal, Strizzi said he would absolutely take part in further conversations with the groups that are concerned or opposed to the project. Strizzi also told the commission that as soon as he had heard there was opposition, he reached out to those groups. However, it is unclear if those overtures were returned.
"We have not been given an opportunity to go ahead and try to save this building regardless of the amount of time it has been occupied," said Bella Sin of Cleveland Burlesque. "The history does not leave it."