After five years of planning, Van Aken District is coming alive in Shaker Heights

It’s not easy to take an historic neighborhood known for its charm, tree-lined residential streets, and opulent architecture and create a brand-new urban downtown.

But, after more than five years of planning, that is exactly what the city of Shaker Heights and developer RMS Investment Corporation have done in building phase one of the Van Aken District. Shaker Heights’ new downtown includes the 103-unit, five-story Upstairs at Van Aken apartments; retail; a park; a beer garden; and plenty of dining options on seven acres of land where Van Aken Boulevard dead ends at Warrensville Center Road and Chagrin Boulevard.

The Cleveland Flea’s new East Side Flea

Luke Palmisano, president of RMS real estate, hopes the new Van Aken District will inspire the same memories many Shaker residents have of the area in its earlier years—going to Draeger’s for ice cream, meeting friends at Sands Delicatessen or Noggins, or taking the family to a movie at the Vogue Theater.

“One of the rewarding parts about this project is we’re, hopefully, creating a place where the community is going to have stories for the next 50 years,” says Palmisano. “They’ll talk about their kids going to Mitchell’s Ice Cream or hanging out in the park here.”

Palmisano likens the District to that of a home where the community can gather. “The park is the living room of the community,” he explains. “The [beer] garden is the patio outside the market hall. Residents can retire ‘Upstairs’ to their home.”

Phase one of the new Van Aken District has been in the works with RMS since 2013, although city planning for the area has gone on since about 2000. The original Van Aken Shopping Center—built in 1953—is now replaced with 64,000 square feet of office space (90 percent of it leased), a 21,000-square-foot food hall with adjacent beer garden and outdoor patio, 80,000 square feet of retail shops, a park with boulders and artificial grass for playing, concerts, and the five-story Upstairs.

With so many features of the Van Aken District becoming a reality this fall, FreshWater takes a look at some of the highlights of the $97 million phase one project that have been five years in the making.

Signs of life

The office space has been open since June, with 18,000 square feet occupied by an insurance company, 18,000 square feet claimed by a law firm, and 7,000 square feet leased by a financial services firm. RMS will take over 12,000 square feet of the space.

Upstairs and Mitchell’s Ice Cream under construction in the new Van Aken District

The North Union Farmers Market Sunset Market opened on Thursday, September 6, just in time for the autumn harvest, and will run through Thursday, October 25. The Cleveland Flea’s new East Side Flea debuted with a Sunday brunch-themed market this past Sunday, September 16, and will return again on Sunday, October 21—further adding to the urban-dense neighborhood RMS and Shaker Heights envisioned at the end of RTA’s Rapid Blue Line.

The half-acre grassy park area is scheduled to make its debut in October, just steps from Mitchell’s, as well as a turfed play area. Next week, large boulders—some very large, according to Palmisano—will take their place in both areas.

Part of the preparation has also included reconfiguring the intersection that once brought Chagrin Boulevard, Van Aken Boulevard, Northfield Road, and Warrensville Center Road together into a congested, chaotic juncture. Now traffic flows more smoothly, and three new streets have been created and named in honor of some of Shaker’s most prestigious names in architecture.

“We’ll maintain them, but they are truly public streets connected to the old street grid,” explains Palmisano. “The whole point is, this place is part of the community and this place needs to be owned by the community. We’re just several buildings as part of a new infrastructure in the city.”

Tuttle Road, running north-south from Farnsleigh Road to Chagrin Boulevard, is named after Bloodgood Tuttle, who designed more than 30 Shaker homes (including two of the Van Swerigen demonstration model homes).

Meade Road, running between Warrensville Center and Tuttle Road, is named after Frank B. Meade of Meade and Hamilton, which designed more than 800 Shaker homes and Shaker Heights Country Club.

Walker Road, running from Farnsleigh to Tuttle, is named after Frank Walker of architecture firm Walker Weeks, known for designing the Cleveland Public Library, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, and Municipal Stadium.

Views of Shaker Hts. from the Upstairs at Van Aken apartments

Rooms with a view

The first 13 residents moved into the Upstairs' second floor—just above the first-floor retail—at the end of August. The third and fourth floor residents will arrive later this month, while the penthouse units have October move-in dates.

The one- and two-bedroom apartments range in size from 600 square feet to upwards of 5,000 square feet in the penthouse. Rents range from about $1,200 to about $3,300 a month, and all the way up to $5,000 for one of the seven penthouses. Tenants can choose from three suite styles and 19 floor plans, all of which feature floor-to-ceiling operable windows, clean lines, and bright, open spaces.

View of Shaker Hts from the Upstairs at Van Aken apartments

Units are named for various Shaker neighborhoods, such as the one- and two-bedroom Fernway, the Malvern, the Boulevard, or the Ludlow units.

For instance, the upgraded Moreland units comprise two-bedroom corner apartments ranging from 1,550 to 1,950 square feet, andhave upgraded gas appliances, walk-in closets, in-suite laundry rooms, bay windows, and Juliet balconies overlooking the park or the rest of Shaker Heights. “The Juliet balcony lets in natural air,” explains Palmisano. “These will be fun when you have an event going on—it’s very European.”

All apartments feature include Mecho window shades and blackout shades in the bedroom; Container Store closet systems; double-bowl sinks and backlit mirrors in the bathrooms; luxury vinyl plank flooring in the living areas (with neutral carpeting in the bedrooms); white speckled quartz countertops, textured teak melamine cabinet, and stainless steel appliances are in the kitchen; and Nest smart thermostats.

The fifth floor houses the penthouse units and a social area and rooftop terrace for all residents. Other amenities at Upstairs at Van Aken include bicycle repair and storage area, 24-hour secure package pickup, pet park and pet wash area, and a community fitness area.

The penthouse balcony at the Upstairs at Van Aken apartments

Palmisano says the convenience of having RTA outside the door is appealing to many people, but for those who do drive, 81 spaces are reserved for Upstairs residents on the lower level of the apartment building. “We spent a lot of time studying parking,” says Palmisano. “We wanted to build an urban-dense environment, and structured parking is important for us to do that. We decided we didn’t want to see a sea of parking lots in the District.”

The Upstairs qualifies for LEED Neighborhood District certification for the environmental considerations made in the design and construction. Last month, RMS completed a bioswale off the rear parking lot, which drains all water runoff from the roof and parking lot.

Collective soul

Retailers and food hall tenants begin opening their doors this month and will continue to roll out through 2019.

Tenants opening this month include Eddy’s Barbershop, Double Rainbow girls clothing boutique, Mitchell’s, Bonobos, SEE Eyewear, and Andrews Colour Atelier. Next month, Restore Cold Pressed, Xhibition, and Whiskey Grade will debut, while GrooveRyde, Cleveland Clothing Co., Manifest, and STUMP Plants will round out 2018 openings. Shinola is due to open in early 2019.

Mitchell’s Ice Cream under construction in the new Van Aken District The Van Aken Market Hall—modeled partly after Union Market in Washington, D.C.—will feature a range of retail, food, and drink concepts. “We want it to be a place for the community to gather, says Palmisano, “a place where you’d hang out, rather than shop and leave.”

The Craft Collective, a offshoot of Brian Benchek’s two Bottlehouse Brewing House locations in Cleveland Heights and Lakewood, will anchor part of the Market Hall with a brewery highlighting not only the Bottlehouse meads, ciders, and sour beers, but also 80 of the region’s smaller breweries and distilleries that don’t distribute their products to the mainstream market.

“We want to highlight these other small breweries and distilleries who don’t get exposure because they don’t distribute, along with our own meads, sour beers, and clean beers in our 30-taps,” Benchek explains. “We can expose a whole new market.”

Craft Collective will regularly bring in experts with some of the partners they feature for talks about their trades and processes. Some of the local companies Benchek works with are Tom’s Foolery distillery in Chagrin Falls and Bent Ladder, a cider and wine maker in Doylestown.

Artist Augusto Bordelois will be designing and painting a 32-foot long mural in the space that Benchek says will have a “minimalist feel with the mural being a big focus.” Inside, the Craft Collective will house 12-foot-long communal tables, and a large garage door will open onto a 1,000-square-foot beer garden that Benchek hopes to keep open year-round.

“One of the walls is essentially our beer garden—that’s going to be a big part of our summer fun,” he says, adding that he also has visions of customers sipping bourbon and mulled cider around the fire pits on a snowy evening.

Customers can bring in food from other vendors in the Market Hall, Benchek says, and Craft Collective will select a rotating list of various vendors to stay open and serve food after the Market Hall closes at 10 p.m. With a full liquor license, Craft Collective will stay open until 1:30 a.m. or 2 a.m.

Craft Collective should open by mid- or late-December, Benchek says, if all goes well. Palmisano says he is pleased with Benchek’s vision. “Mainly he wants a place for the community to gather, which is resonates with the rest of what we are doing at Van Aken,” he says.

Also opening in the Market Hall are Rising Star Coffee, On The Rise Bakery, Banter, and Spice For Life—all slated to open in November. Genuine Pizza, Brassica, and Jonathon Sawyer, who is still working on his concept, will all join the group in 2019.

Palmisano says planning for phase two of the District’s remaining 11 acres will likely begin in the next couple of months. A master plan was created way back in the initial design stages to ensure smart growth across the land controlled by RMS and the City of Shaker Heights.

“Our next project will likely be apartments or possibly condos on the parking lot north of Farnsleigh,” he explains. “Market permitting, we would like to continue building density into the district inclusive of apartments, office, and possibly additional community-based retail.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.