Fighting blight in the 'burbs

The phrases “urban blight” and “Shaker Heights” are not typically included in the same sentence, except perhaps as an example of antithesis. Yet there it is: The Shaker Heights Development Corporation (CDC), with its newest -- all right, only employee, Executive Director Nick Fedor.

Yes, leafy, green Shaker Heights, with its historic districts, legacy of wealth and private schools, lauded public schools, parks, city services, the whole idyllic nine yards... has an actionable plan to fight decay, and more, like any aging dame, address her flaws, augment her good points, and work towards relevance in the future.

“Shaker Heights is on the forefront of using the CDC model to enhance and build current assets,” Fedor says. “This is a bold step for Shaker, a non-entitlement community, and very forward looking.” And he would know. A Cleveland Heights native and graduate of Gilmour Academy and Kenyon College, Fedor "wandered in the wilderness" for ten years after graduation, working in marketing, waiting for his wife Barbara to finish her Ph.D., then testing the waters as a community development professional with one of twenty-one Main Street programs in Boston.

Once back in Northeast Ohio, Fedor (now a Shaker Heights resident) became the Economic Development Director for the award-winning Detroit Shoreway CDC, famous for its “overnight success” – 40 years in the making – as the home of the Gordon Square Arts District, an area that now boasts $30 million in investment anchored by Near West Theatre, Cleveland Public Theater and Capitol Theatre. Coupled with the CDC’s involvement in advancing business occupancy and head-turning improvements in its housing market, the organization’s success, Fedor says, is “due to its strong leadership, invested owners, their commitment to collaboration, leveraged assets and new development.”

A quick glance at history shows that Shaker Heights was rooted in the pastoral British Village, set close to – but not part of – the dirty city’s manufacturing core. As one of the country’s first planned communities, there is still much to admire about the layout designed by the Van Sweringen brothers 100 years ago: a convenient commute to downtown via rapid transit, well-defined east/west routes for drivers and emphasis on residential neighborhoods with land for each home. Shaker residents have inherited all this, but also have been handed down little space for retail or expansion of commercial endeavors. (Destination shopping area Shaker Square is actually located in Cleveland.) It’s this lack of zoning diversity, this dearth of flexibility that makes the city wonder about its tax base, and its future, especially how it can compete with other Northeast Ohio cities for residents and businesses.

In its centennial year, 2012, the City of Shaker Heights took the time and energy to update its Economic Development strategy and create the 501(c)(3) CDC, giving it some strength and depth with its 14-person citizen-based board, enhanced with Shaker Heights employees Joyce Braverman (Planning Director), Jeri Chaikin (Chief Administrative Officer), Kamla Lewis (Neighborhood Revitalization Director), Matt Rubino (Finance Director), Tania Menesse (Economic Development Director) and elected council members Tres Roeder and Earl Williams. It was this volunteer but active group that hired Fedor three months ago. While the CDC rents office space from Shaker inside City Hall for $1/year, Fedor is not a city employee. His job, he says, is to build capacity where the city can’t.

“Shaker Heights needs to be better at meeting the needs of shifting preferences,” Fedor says. “For Shaker to be a success, it needs to capture the attention of new residents and keep its current amenities.” His first step is deceptively simple: “I need to talk to as many people as possible, to lay a foundation of action and strategize a planning process built from a simple ‘where’s the pain?’ inquiry.”

Fedor describes some of the tools he will leverage to assist growing companies, starting with the basics: connecting business owners with the appropriate space by relationship building with property owners, and knowing the inventory. He is also a resource for unearthing financing sources, guidance and support, from the Small Business Administration to private lenders. He refers to an additional upcoming program to assist current business owners in Shaker that’s not fully formed yet. Of course, all this connection and coordinating has a cost. Cleveland neighborhoods can take advantage of funding sources such as Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and Community Block Development Grant money. But as a non-entitlement community, Shaker relies on support from foundations and private donations, as well as proceeds from an annual fundraiser in January. The CDC receives no direct financial support from the City of Shaker Heights.

“The city has done a remarkable job under difficult circumstances at attracting and retaining businesses,” Fedor says. “From retail operations like Simply Delicious Pies, Juma Gallery, and The Cleveland Running Company (on Van Aken), to corporations like University Hospitals and Equity Engineering (in Tower East), they have done a good job of changing the perception and reality of Shaker being just residential. It’s momentum we want to continue.”

President of the CDC Board is Shaker native Scott Garson, a commercial real estate professional currently with NAI Daus, who worked in non-profit economic development in the Warehouse District in the 1980s and the Mid-Town Corridor in the 1990s. For Garson, the point of re-launching the CDC is not only to take some of the burden off the city, but also to start laying the foundation for an improved Shaker Heights. “While the city is working on the ‘monster project’ (the redevelopment of Chagrin/Warrensville intersection), we need to be sure other commercial areas get attention. Everything is long term, so we’re methodical in our approach. Nick is as impatient as any of us, but we work incrementally in the short term so we can be impactful in the long term.”

The “other” area that is quickly becoming the first priority for the Shaker CDC is the commercial corridor at Lee and Chagrin. Garson would like to build on the success of the business incubator Launch House, housed inside a former car dealership at 3558 Lee Road. “The average resident goes through that corridor, but not to it,” Fedor says. “There are good, service-oriented anchors there – car repair, insurance offices, but we’re looking to increase the number of people there during the day. So, we’re actively seeking businesses with several employees that will create traffic – law offices or a design firm.”

Fedor talks optimistically even as he admits the corridor faces challenges including the constricted thoroughfare, the lack of common ownership among the 70-80 buildings scattered along Lee south of Chagrin, and the absence of a unifying look or feel as a business district.

But unlike some cities that are happy to host any business, Shaker Heights is a little more selective. Fedor refers to this as “special sauce,” a mindset that makes his job somewhat harder. Sure he could recruit a national fast-food chain to set up shop in one of Shaker’s commercial zones, but long term, is that what’s best for the area? Is it the best tenant for the available space? And most importantly, is it sustainable? He points to the recently completed Cedar Center North in South Euclid (another inner-ring suburb) in which two commercial blocks on Cedar at Warrensville were bulldozed down to the nubs so an entirely new retail district could be created. Fedor suggests Shaker would not want that kind of hyper-invasive model, but would rather use what’s already in place to generate the activity the city seeks.

A precedent for maintaining the complexion of a neighborhood comes from neighboring Cleveland Heights. Deanna Bremer Fisher, Executive Director of FutureHeights, notes that her city’s grassroots CDC came about in 2000 when plans for a big box grocery store jeopardized the historic character of the Cedar-Fairmount neighborhood. Citizen response turned the plan away, and since then, the membership-based CDC has expanded into a variety of issues, most prominently a community-building program that engages and empowers residents to create events and action plans, and the Heights Observer, a printed citizen-journalism newspaper that also appears online. She also points to the upcoming annual Music Hop which features local musicians playing in non-traditional settings, all organized by FutureHeights.

Regarding their Shaker neighbors Fisher says, “We share a lot of the same values -- independently owned businesses and walkable neighborhoods. We would love to collaborate with Nick and the Shaker CDC. We need to look for opportunities to work together.”
<span class="content-image-text">Ian Andrews</span>Ian Andrews
Ian Andrews is executive director of LakewoodAlive, also a grassroots CDC, founded in 2004. “I think it’s wonderful that Shaker is making this effort,” Andrews says. “People, residents don’t realize that most inner-ring suburbs have the same issues as Cleveland neighborhoods. There’s this incorrect assumption that once you cross from the city to a suburb, everything is magically wonderful. There are some really dynamic Cleveland neighborhoods, and parts of suburbs that need attention. The other thing people need to understand is that there are gaps in what the government, even in what the private sector can provide. It’s the public/private/nonprofit CDC partnership that creates so many successes holistically, here in Lakewood.”

Among Lakewood’s recent successes is the new community engagement in Birdtown, empowering residents and connecting the owners of historic housing stock to resources. Andrews also points to a special project in the Detroit-Shoreway area that reclaimed two former boarding houses from nuisance properties into block-stabilizing single-family homes. “Shaker Heights and Lakewood are dense cities with all the moving parts of a bigger urban landscape,” Andrews says. “We are diverse in every sense of the word. We’re a microcosm of the American experience.”

Ironically, Fedor’s hiring and the relaunch of the Shaker CDC has little to do with Shaker Heights' most visible project, the reinvention of the Chagrin/Van Aken/Warrensville intersection. “The city has been working with [developers] RMS for years,” Fedor says. The CDC is not involved in the decisions the developer makes. However, the aspiration is to “use what’s in place to guarantee activity.” Once RMS makes some decisions, there may be an opportunity for the CDC to help organize public spaces, possibly something as permanent as a unique venue for local arts performances.

Above all, Fedor and his board are aiming for “creative placemaking,” he says. “Our intent is to create walkable amenities, services and entertainment, plus places to live, and places to work throughout Shaker Heights in a way that is respectful and contextually complimentary to the existing city in every way."

“I’m excited to be in this job,” he adds, “and excited by this possibility and the committed board and partnership with the city."

This story was made possible through a partnership with the City of Shaker Heights.