Allison Taller, an attorney who works downtown, loves living on E. 4th Street. Not only is her daily commute a short walk, but she also can enjoy happy hour with friends without worrying about driving home. In the morning, she often jogs across the Detroit-Superior Bridge, taking in breathtaking views of the city before starting her day.
Saira Rahman, an associate with B & F Capital Markets who lives on the East Bank of the Flats, says living downtown is anything but inconvenient. In fact, Rahman and her husband rarely leave the area, she says. Restaurants, nightlife and a small grocery store — just about everything the couple might need — lie within close walking distance.
Alex Cortes, a judicial staff attorney who lives in the Warehouse District, doesn’t mind that his neighborhood is loud. In fact, he loves hearing the barges on the river blow their horns — even at night. After Tribe games, he delights in his short walk home while his suburban friends are stuck in traffic.
These are just a few of the people who call downtown Cleveland home. Long after the cubicle workers make their exodus to the ‘burbs, after the late-night revelers have departed W. 6th Street, they’re still here. They’re largely young professionals who work downtown, yet more and more they also are empty nesters, reverse commuters and young families.
Today, more than 10,000 people live within seven distinct downtown districts: Warehouse District, the Flats, Gateway, Civic Center, Erieview, PlayhouseSquare and the Campus District. Regardless the address, residents say they are attracted to downtown’s growing vitality.
“Downtown is where the action is,” says Cortes, who moved here with his wife a few years ago. “You won’t find what you have here in any other part of the city.”
Despite their unabashed love affair with their urban environs, downtown dwellers say more amenities are needed to transform the area into a truly livable neighborhood. Green space, retail, groceries, long-term residents and a greater variety of housing stock are just a few of the items on many residents’ wish list.
Downtown boosters have long said Cleveland needs to attract between 20,000 and 25,000 residents to create a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood in the heart of the city. To hit this magic number, they’ll need to provide additional enticements for locals to plant urban roots.
Ever since the 1980s when developers began converting neglected factory buildings in the Warehouse District to loft-style apartments, the number of downtown dwellers has been on the rise. In the 90s, new for-sale condos allowed residents to really put down roots. And today, thanks to amenities like yoga studios, coffee shops, small grocery stores, and boutique retail, downtown finally is on its way to becoming a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood.
Downtown’s apartment market has never been stronger. Occupancy rates reached 95 percent this past summer, according to Downtown Cleveland Alliance (DCA), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help redevelop downtown.
Yet high occupancy rates signal a troubling new reality: Very few new buildings have come online since the start of the recession three years ago. This has resulted in an actual housing shortage in many downtown buildings.
“We tell people we’ll put them on a waiting list,” says Jill Gresham, building manager at the Residences at 668 Euclid Avenue, a former department store that was converted into luxury apartments. And the issue isn’t confined to just one or two buildings, she adds. “All of the K&D Group’s buildings in downtown are almost completely full.”
Such high occupancy rates suggest that demand exists for additional market-rate apartments in downtown. Yet Joe Marinucci, President and CEO of DCA, predicts even higher occupancy rates going forward for the next 12 months.
“Up until the recession, downtown was growing by about 500 units per year, but it’s harder to get financing for projects now,” he says. Slight relief may be around the bend, he suggests, as new apartments likely will become available in 2012 and 2013.
The reauthorization of historic tax credits in the state budget also will help developers convert more historic buildings into apartments, Marinucci says. Moreover, the success of 668 Euclid, which boasts granite countertops and stainless steel appliances in every unit, signals the direction that the market is headed.
“Downtown renters have higher expectations now, and developers are building higher-end products because they’re planning to turn them into condominiums,” he says.
Alex Cortes agrees, stating that if developers want to continue to grow downtown’s population, they must offer higher-end apartments geared towards mature professionals.
“We really had to dig to find what we were looking for,” notes Cortes, who ultimately rented a two-bedroom, townhouse-style apartment in Bridgeview on W. 9th. “Many downtown apartments have bedrooms that are open to the living room, and we didn’t want that. Also, what’s listed as a ‘second bedroom’ is really just a closet.”
The Greening of Downtown
Downtown residents have long clamored for more parks and green space. Although creating new parks here may be difficult given land costs and dense development patterns, improving public spaces is critical to many residents’ decision to remain.
“Downtown needs more parks and public spaces where you can catch some rays or take your dog for a walk,” says Allison Taller. “It would help create a sense of community.”
Marinucci says that in addition to existing parks such as North Coast Harbor, Perk Park and the riverfront, plans currently are progressing to redevelop Public Square and the historic malls that lead to the lakefront. Recently, the City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and Neighborhood Progress each committed $200,000 to completing an engineering study of Mall C. The long-term goal is to create a signature park that overlooks Lake Erie with a pedestrian bridge connecting to North Coast Harbor.
Yet with a total price tag of $95 million, efforts to re-do Public Square and the malls will likely take many years to reach fruition. Developer Matt Howells, who in 2006 purchased the landmark Park Building on Public Square and has converted it to condos, says that redeveloping Public Square is critical. “This is downtown’s missing link,” he says. “It’s one of the most underutilized squares in the country.”
DCA and other stakeholders are in the midst of completing a study to determine the feasibility of rerouting traffic and closing Ontario Road through Public Square.
Improving riverfront access also is critical, says Tom Yablonsky, Director of the Historic Warehouse District Development Corp. and the Historic Gateway Neighborhood Development Corp. Currently, he is working on efforts to redevelop Canal Basin Park in the Flats, which is slated to become the northern terminus of the Towpath Trail.
While adding new green space is important, advocates stress that programs exist to encourage residents to use existing public parks. Yablonsky leads the popular “Take a Hike!” treks to Canal Basin Park every Sunday through September 18. And DCA along with NineTwelve District recently revived Party in the Park events.
Which Comes First, Residents or Retail?
Downtown residents invariably long for more retail, yet without a larger population base — so-called critical mass — national retailers like Target are unlikely to locate here. In the interim, DCA and other organizations are working to attract more boutique retail.
“You’re basically in a chicken-and-egg scenario,” says Marinucci. “Yet I think there are opportunities for more small retail downtown. I believe you’ll also see new restaurants being opened around the casino, and Tower City’s retail will also be upgraded.”
Among the top items on residents’ wish lists are a full-service grocery store and a national clothing retailer. The recent opening of Dredger’s Union, a 5,000-square-foot boutique on E. 4th Street that features home goods and original clothing by Sean Bilovecky of Wrath Arcane, is filling a hole in downtown’s retail market.
Saira Rahman, for one, is already a fan of the new shop, which opened in June. “I’m super excited about it,” she says. “I’ll definitely shop there.”
Fostering a Sense of Community
Despite downtown’s reputation as a place where 20-something professionals live for a couple of years before moving on, advocates say the number of long-term residents has grown in recent years, contributing to a newfound sense of community.
Helping to foster that sense of community is DCA’s City Advocates program, a two-year commitment that gets young leaders actively involved in shaping downtown’s future.
“You meet like-minded people that care about Cleveland and want to make a difference,” says Cortes, a recent graduate of the program.
Cortes and other City Advocates currently are working on a resident-led tour of downtown that will promote living options and amenities in the area.
Marinucci says that the growth of resident-led programs such as City Advocates is an indicator that downtown residents are taking ownership of their neighborhoods.
Puttin’ Down Roots
Ultimately, downtown’s growth will be closely aligned to an expansion of the condo market. The addition of more homeowners, advocates say, is what will propel downtown to the next level.
“To attract 25,000 residents, we’re going to need to create more for-sale opportunities,” says Marinucci. “More people will need to buy into downtown.”
Although sales at the Park Building have slowed dramatically since the housing slump began, Howells is encouraged by the buyers who have purchased thus far. He says they are mostly mature professionals who have lived in other urban areas and understand the market. As the for-sale housing market slowly improves, Howells is confident that downtown’s growth will convince more people to buy condos here.
“The investment that’s taking place downtown will ignite other developments,” he says, citing the medical mart, convention center and casino as signs of transformation.
Although downtown resident Allison Taller isn’t quite ready for homeownership, she says buying downtown is definitely an option. She loves her E. 4th Street apartment and has met her neighbors at area events and through the City Advocates program.
“You have to make an effort to find a sense of neighborhood here, but because I’m out and about, I’ve met people,” she says. “I love seeing the crowds when I come home.”
While Taller misses having easy access to green space, she loves the energy of her downtown neighborhood.
“If developers could figure out a way to incorporate green space into their projects,” she says, “then I’d consider buying downtown.”
Fresh Water Cleveland, 8/25/11