container store: small box cleveland announces first tenants

Small Box Cleveland, an effort to lure more retailers downtown by converting used shipping containers into small storefronts, will open its first shop on Sunday, September 14th. The Cleveland Browns have signed on to the project, with the team opening a merchandise store just in time for football season. In a few weeks, two additional independent stores, the Banyan Tree and the Wandering Wardrobe, also will open new ventures inside refurbished containers.

"This is an exciting time for the city with the growth of downtown, and it's important for us to be part of that," says Brent Stehlik, Executive Vice President and Chief Revenue Officer for the Browns. "We see this as an opportunity for us to reach fans with a different approach. It's a way to reach new audiences."

Small Box is a project of the Historic Warehouse District Development Corporation (HWDDC). The new stores will be located on a parking lot at West 6th and St. Clair owned by Weston Inc., a development company that donated nine parking spaces for the project. Small Box is intended to be a creative solution to the retail conundrum in downtown Cleveland -- that is, residents, visitors and office workers say they want more retail options, yet many retailers are not ready to take the plunge until there's proven demand. On top of that, many downtown spaces are larger or more expensive than retailers want.

Tom Starinsky, Associate Director of HWDDC, says that he developed the small box idea after learning about a similar project in Brooklyn. He saw it as a way to seed the viability of new downtown retail, and also to test how feasible it would be to redevelop surface parking lots for new mixed-used development. After a successful crowdfunding campaign -- more than 100 individuals donated a total of $20,000 to the project -- and additional fundraising, Small Box was ready to go.

Each container store costs $20,000 to build. Cleveland Container StructuresWolf Maison Architects and 44 Steel designed and fabricated the structures. Tenants are being charged modest rents that help cover HWDDC's costs to run the project. HWDDC also plans to create a small park at the corner of West 6th and St. Clair using recycled materials to build out the space. The concrete will be painted green to imitate grass, benches will be made from pallets upholstered with AstroTurf, and fencing will be made from pieces of shipping containers. It will have a "front lawn feel" with an urban vibe, says Starinsky.

The 8’ x 20’ shipping containers front the sidewalk. The contractor cut holes in the fronts of them and installed custom-built storefront window systems. The interiors will have electricity to power lighting, heat and air conditioning. The spaces are insulated with OSB board but have no plumbing. Tenants have the ability to paint their own boxes and add creative signage.

Starinsky says the aim was to attract established independent tenants that would add to the downtown area without poaching from other retail districts. He couldn't be happier. "The tenant mix is pretty perfect," he says. "We have a national business, an established small business and an entrepreneurial business."

Small Box is hosting special events this fall and during the holiday season, and additional retailers will be invited to special outdoor markets. The shops will be open five days a week initially, and weekends-only during the holidays. Leases run through March 2015, at which point tenants will have the option to renew. Starinsky wants to grow the project and add more container stores to the mix.

If the site gets developed by Weston or another investor, the shipping containers can be relocated to another site to seed the next wave of downtown development.

Small Box is making it possible for the two smaller retailers to try out new shops downtown. Christie Murdoch of the Banyan Tree says she's thrilled to be opening Banyan Box, a small gift, art and apparel store that will function as a cozier, more selective version of her Tremont location, which has been successful for the past 13 years. "This is such a cool concept, and I'm excited to be part of a surge of retail to go into downtown Cleveland," she says. "There are plenty of great restaurants downtown, but retail is just something that completes a town."

Additional support for the Small Box project was provided by Weston Inc., Downtown Cleveland Alliance, Sherwin Williams, Sign-Lite, Enterprise Community Partners, Ohio Savings Bank and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress.

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.