building blocks: this is what $4B in downtown development looks like

Think you know downtown Cleveland? Well, take a fresh look. Because this summer, when the windows are all polished to gleaming perfection on $4 billion in new development -- the flurry of ribbon cuttings begins in June -- you might not recognize your own city.

Downtown Cleveland is entering an era that will boost activity to the next level, say leaders, entrepreneurs and developers. With a big-bang effect of public, residential and commercial development happening at once, the area is experiencing growth that’s unprecedented in recent memory and is becoming more dynamic than it’s been in decades. 

“The momentum we have right now is better than Rock Hall and Bicentennial-itis,” says Joe Cimperman, the Cleveland City Councilman who represents downtown, referring to the development boom of the mid-1990s. “Development is not just happening in pockets like it used to; development in happening across downtown.”

“This is not about a collection of big things,” adds David Gilbert, President of Positively Cleveland, the region’s visitor attraction group, which is laser-focused on improving the downtown experience as the area ramps up for more than 11 million visitors this year. “We have 70,000 people coming to town for the Senior Games and Gay Games. It’s critical to show them a good experience so they talk about it when they get home.”

Whether it’s the $465 million Global Health Innovation Center (formerly the Med Mart) or the rejuvenation of PlayhouseSquare as a mixed-use neighborhood that offers fabulous theater and top chef-driven restaurants, to come downtown these days is to see our city through new eyes. Fast-growing companies like Dwellworks are electing to locate downtown, Flats East Bank is prepped for a rebirth, and new entertainment options abound.

Downtown’s residential population is booming, too. With 1,165 new apartment units currently under construction, the number of residents could swell from 11,000 to 14,000 in the next two years. Planners say the long sought-after goal of 20,000 downtown residents is within our reach, perhaps by 2020.

Recently, Fresh Water took an insiders’ tour of the new downtown Cleveland, with stops at PlayhouseSquare, the new Convention Center and Global Health Innovation Center, and the 18-story Ernst and Young Tower in the Flats. Join us for a special sneak peek.

PlayhouseSquare’s Next Act

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you likely know about the redevelopment of the Allen Theatre, a $32 million project that transformed a historic, 3,000-seat theatre into an intimate 500-seater with two smaller venues without mussing up the details.

The lesser-told story is PlayhouseSquare’s gambit is to become a dynamic 24/7 neighborhood that caters to downtown dwellers, office workers and adventurous foodies.

That’s what’s happening on Euclid Avenue between E. 12th and 18th streets. For years, Cleveland’s famed theatre district seemed to roll up the red carpet after the curtain call. Today, however, the neighborhood is staying awake long after the stages go dark.

“Our philosophy was, ‘Let’s just make Euclid Avenue a compelling enough place so people will want to go out there,’” says Tom Einhouse, a representative with PlayhouseSquare Real Estate Services, who has helped enliven a once-quiet block.

Chef-driven restaurants like Zack Bruell’s Cowell and Hubbard and Sammy’s plus a lively new Parnell’s Pub are helping to transform PlayhouseSquare into a thriving, growing neighborhood and not merely a destination for theatre.

This summer, PlayhouseSquare will experience another wave of growth as K&D Group unveils 102 new apartments in the old Hanna Building Annex at E. 14th and Prospect.

That vibrancy is one of the things that convinced Dwellworks, a relocation support company with 80 employees, to move its corporate headquarters from Warrensville Heights to PlayhouseSquare. The company occupies the second floor of the F.W. Woolworth building at 1317 Euclid, an open, loft-like space that offers the perfect perch to watch the world go by through big, glassy windows. Einhouse confirmed that the company, which works with recent arrivals, is considering leasing additional space.

Now that Dwellworks is settled, say company leaders, the staff is loving downtown.

“When you tell associates you’re moving downtown, they complain about the same things: parking, traffic…,” says Senior Vice President John Fischer during a tour of the space. “People say, ‘But it’s cold.’ Right! I’m pretty sure it’s cold in the suburbs, too. If you’re looking for something to complain about, you’ll find it. Now they say, ‘It’s so nice not to [have to drive] anywhere.’”

“There’s a lot available -- you walk out the door onto Euclid and there are places to eat and public transportation," he adds, citing the ease of entertaining clients.

One Million Square Feet

Cuyahoga County broke ground on the Medical Mart and Convention Center in January 2011, right around the time when one couldn’t turn on the news without hearing about the county corruption scandal. It wasn’t at all clear whether the project was a boondoggle -- especially since project leaders seemed to be having trouble lining up tenants.

Two and a half years later, however, the building is nearly 100-percent complete, and its fate seems to have been righted by a combination of solid stewardship and good luck. Project leaders re-envisioned the Med Mart’s tenants as partnerships focused on health care innovation rather than showrooms that would showcase specific products. That move has attracted the Cleveland Clinic, UH, Phillips Healthcare and Johnson Controls, which have formed partnerships to showcase healthcare’s technology of the future.

The new facility -- now called the Global Center for Healthcare Innovation (GCHI) -- also benefited from the collapse of a Nashville medical mart project, which induced the Health Information Management Society to move its offices here.
According to Dave Johnson of Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., the project co-developer, the GCHI will open this June nearly 80 percent occupied.

The massive project, which has earned a Silver rating from the LEED program thanks to its green building practices, features an exhibition hall with perspective-changing views of downtown. Visitors and residents alike will be treated to views of the lake and downtown skyline that would have made Daniel Burnham, architect behind the original Group Plan, gape in awe.

The GCHI is attached to the new Cleveland Convention Center, a one-million-square-foot space that was built below the historic Malls B and C, which were beautiful but underutilized spaces before the project began. As you enter the convention center by way of escalator, you begin to appreciate the project’s colossal scale.

“There’s space for 17 semi-trucks, including a full semi turnaround,” Johnson says of the center, whose three large exhibit halls will soon replace the cramped and outmoded former convention center. “We’ll be in the ‘regional rotator’ for recruiting events… with Charlotte, Milwaukee and Columbus.”

General contractor Turner Inc. used a Building Information Modeling technique to map out the entire facility on computer before a single shovel ever hit dirt. As they place the final finishing touches on the building, Turner contractors can be seen walking around the building with iPads, viewing constantly updated blueprints.

Best of all for local residents, perhaps, is the overhaul of Mall B. Picture a sweeping, grassy park that rises 28 feet to provide park-goers with picturesque views of the Rock Hall, Browns Stadium, the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie. Add outdoor summer concerts and events to the mix and the picture gets better and better.

The Flats Rises

It’s an odd feeling to gaze from the new Ernst and Young Tower in the Flats and try to recall precisely where on the riverfront Feagan’s Restaurant once stood, but many Clevelanders doubtless will do the same when visiting.

These days, in place of the decaying and debauched collection of Flats East Bank bars that the area became know for is a sleek 18-story tower that rises from the Cuyahoga’s edge to the Warehouse District. It’s an amazing sight that heralds a new post-recession Cleveland, an era during which the same location that birthed the city is contributing to its renaissance.

The 500,000-square-foot building -- the largest commercial building to be built since the BP Tower was completed 20 years ago -- is joined by a smaller structure housing a 150-room Aloft Hotel plus a collection of soon-to-open restaurants. Those restaurants include Lago, a new venue by Akron-based restaurateur Ken Stewart and Constantino's Cafe, to be run by local grocer Costas Mavromichalis.

The tower, now more than 70 percent leased, is commanding some of the highest rents downtown has seen, with Class A space in the mid-$30s per foot. In addition to high-end offices, the tower boasts a private roof deck with stunning panoramic views of the downtown skyline, lake and river.

For the public, the most noticeable feature will be newfound access to the riverfront thanks to a new 1,200-foot boardwalk and bulkhead along the water. Before, access to the East Bank waterfront was limited those who had a seat on a bar patio.

Adam Fishman of Fairmount Properties, co-developer of the Flats East Bank, says the partners are now hard at work assembling the “capital stack” for Phase II. That will include a high-end 200-unit apartment complex and recently-announced riverfront dining and entertainment venues that include a two-story Panini's and The Big Bang piano bar -- as soon as they can close $135 million in financing.

“Most of Phase I is just three acres between W. 9th and Front Street,” says Fishman with the confidence of a developer who's taken on the city’s most challenging real estate project in decades and lived to fight another day. “We’ve got 21 acres to go.”

New Breed of Entrepreneurs

What does all of this add up to for downtown Cleveland? Well, for one thing, the critical mass of development is attracting entrepreneurs who see big opportunities ahead.

“We’re past the tipping point and going in a positive direction -- finally,” says Zack Bruell, who owns two restaurants downtown, five in Cleveland and employs about 220 people. 

“I worked with major chefs early in my career, and I was the only one of my peers not to go to a major market,” he adds. “Now they look at me and they’re amazed: ‘You have five restaurants?’ That’s a testament to the market. There are opportunities here.”

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is a journalist, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in many regional and national publications. He is Managing Editor of Fresh Water Cleveland and Editorial Director of Issue Media Group. He has earned Master's degrees in English/Creative Writing and Public Administration from Cleveland State University. Originally from Cleveland Heights, he lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood with his family.
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