Placemaking puts Shaker residents in the mix of Van Aken District plans

For decades, Shaker Heights residents considered The Van Aken District as a rapid transit station, a couple of shopping plazas and one behemoth of an intersection. Earlier this summer, however, city officials prompted dozens of residents to consider the possibilities of a different, livelier use of the area.
A new downtown is coming to Shaker Heights, complete with restaurants, retail, transit-oriented development, walkability, green space and cultural elements similar to those characterizing other successful communities in Northeast Ohio. This forward vision for the Van Aken District excites residents, perhaps because city officials and developers have given them a say in how the area will look.
Shaker began infusing placemaking – the resident-centric approach to designing public spaces – in March by launching the Van Aken Connections Plan. Then on June 20, nearly 100 residents packed the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Community Building with no shortage of enthusiasm or ideas. In the expansive workshop-style gathering, residents told Shaker officials and primary developer RMS Investment Corp. what matters most to them in shaping a vibrant downtown.
“The opportunity to participate in the future of our community and share our opinions where they’re going to be analyzed shows that we’re participating in community development,” says resident Leslye Arian. “It makes me feel ownership of my city.”

Birds eye view above Shaker Heights Country Club looking southeast
After a presentation from RMS and Ann Arbor, Mich.-based SmithGroupJJR, another partner on the project, participants broke into four groups that rotated around the Community Building for exercises designed to gauge their thoughts on district transportation, gateways, signage and more.
“[District stakeholders] will pull it all together to get results,” Shaker Heights Director of Planning Joyce Braverman says of the responses produced by placemaking activity. “It helps direct what we spend money on and try to build.”
"A downtown for a city with a great legacy"
Whether they dealt with bicycle infrastructure or public art, every residential desire, concern and critique was buoyed by the $100 million plans for phase one of the Van Aken project. RMS, which controls about 18 acres within the district, is planning 100,000 square feet of retail space, 60,000 square feet of office space and 100 apartments for phase one.
The star will be a 22,000-square-foot food hall and retail marketplace, recently named the Orman Building in honor of Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen, the original developers of the city. Luna Bakery Café, Rising Star Coffee and Shinola are all aboard as tenants.

Additionally, James Beard award-winning chef and entrepreneur Jonathon Sawyer agreed to open his fourth Cleveland-area restaurant in the Orman Building. He’ll also serve as a culinary curator for the District, helping decide the dining options that would best fit the Orman Building and beyond.
“As a proud Clevelander deeply invested in the growth of our city, being a part of Van Aken and its vision for the community is a thrilling prospect,” Sawyer told Shaker Life. “We’ll soon be announcing a host of great, award-winning local and national chefs coming to Van Aken. We’re building something really special that will continue to establish Cleveland as one of the up-and-coming food cities in the country.”
The Orman Building will open in the space soon to be vacated by Fresh Market. The rest of the plaza will be demolished this month to make way for other phase one improvements. The Fresh Market initially planned to break ground on a new building at the former Qua Buick site, but the retailer’s parent firm, Apollo Global Management LLC, told the city that it was scrapping that plan.

Van Aken center will be demolished this month to make way for other phase one improvements
The city described that decision as “abrupt,” but noted that The Fresh Market's decision “in no way affects RMS' plans for the Van Aken District phase one development,” according to the city’s Van Aken on Track newsletter.
Residents and visitors should expect phase-one retail to be heavy on food and beverage, service, boutiques, fitness and grocery, says RMS president Luke Palmisano. A 324-car parking garage is also part of the plan.
“We’re building a downtown for a city with a great legacy, great history and beautiful master plan, but what’s missing from that master plan is a true commercial gathering space — a spot that’s connected to the community,” Palmisano says. “[This will be] easily accessible whether you’re on foot, taking the train or riding the bus or driving your car. This should feel like a true extension of the City of Shaker Heights.”
Braverman said phase one should be completed by Spring 2018. However, elements of the long-term vision to make the Van Aken District a vibrant, mixed-use, transit-oriented place could continue to trickle in for another 10 to 15 years.
Long-term visions notwithstanding, phase one improvements, such as a half-acre public park in the middle of the development with a nearby Mitchell’s Ice Cream store, will transform the area and encourage even more development.
“It’s the stuff that you would do every day rather than taking a purpose-driven trip to a regional mall or lifestyle center,” Palmisano says. He adds that Van Aken will differ considerably from those sorts of developments. “You can think about street-level retail, residence or office above, public spaces, events, walkability.”

"We've been waiting a long time for this."
After residents at the city’s placemaking public meeting learned about these plans and prepared to give their input on the public spaces, signage and infrastructure that will surround the development, SmithGroupJJR’s Neal Billetdeaux offered advice.
“Don’t think about the area in the context of what it is today,” the senior landscape architect said. “Don’t think about that as far as how you move through the district and what you see there. Think in the context of this type of development, this type of energy [seen in the presentation]."
With that, participants moved to four stations that explored: 1) navigating the district; 2) locating amenities; 3) placing red "heat" dots to indicate the importance of elements; and 4) a game of “Shaker Mad Libs.”
Eight questions and fill-in-the-blank prompts guided the Mad Libs game, including “I think [blank] would give the Van Aken district a unique Shaker Heights identity,” and “The district will be most successful if it feels [blank].” The most common answers for the former were iconic art and trees and gardens. Residents most commonly felt that green space and unique shops would make the district most successful.
Kevin Leeson quickly placed his red "heat" dots next to the Art, Landscape and Bicycle categories during the heat map exercise, indicating that those were the most important elements of the district in his opinion.
“People think of landscape as a visual attractive element, but it also has psychological, environmental and sometimes human health benefits,” says Leeson, a Shaker Heights resident for 15 years. “[The District needs] plenty of trees, rainwater, carbon and all the great things that trees provide. Studies show that we live longer if we’re surrounded by trees.”
Leeson picked art for the uniqueness it could provide the district, not unlike what the city is already doing in the nearby Moreland District. He picked bicycle infrastructure because he felt it was a key element in making Van Aken a true district instead of another hub for shopping centers.
Mulit-use side bicycle pathRMS, SmithGroupJJR and city officials agreed, as much of the initial presentation pushed residents to ponder bike-centric options. They showed residents six variations of bike lane systems that could work in district, including a multi-use side path on the north side of Van Aken Boulevard and Farnsleigh Road, from Chagrin Boulevard to Thornton Park and a multi-use side path on Warrensville Center Road, as recommended by the Eastside Greenway study.
The stakeholders also wanted residents to consider if a bike sharing program would be a good fit for Shaker’s downtown district. They had to look no further than Downtown Cleveland for one such local example. Additionally, residents considered bike cluster racks, bike lockers, repair mechanisms or even stations that would offer riders a place to freshen up after an invigorating ride.
Shaker Heights economic development director Tania Menesse says the city will seek grants to fund these type of amenities should Shaker decide to adopt them. The State has already appropriated $500,000 for Van Aken District Bicycle and Pedestrian Connections as part of the state capital budget. Menesse said those funds would be used to match future grants.
“We’ve been working on the vision for Van Aken as a walkable, vibrant, mixed-use development for a number of years,” Mayor Earl Leiken says.  “All of the road work that we’ve labored through last summer and, to some extent, this year, has been pretty much completed. “We want to strengthen our identity to connect the district to our neighborhoods and surrounding areas.”
In addition to biking and walking trails, the District will eventually include a new street that runs north and south between Chagrin Boulevard and Farnsleigh Road and a short east-west connector from the new road to Warrensville Center Road, between the Orman Building and a future-phase development.
Braverman says placemaking isn’t new to Shaker. In fact, the city hosted three packed public meetings in 2010 for the Warrensville-Van Aken Transit-Oriented Development Plan, which informed the plans being discussed and implemented today.
“We’re investing in our community,” Arian says. “It’s wonderful to offer the citizens of a community the opportunity to have a stake.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

The City of Shaker Heights is part of Fresh Water's underwriting support network.

Read more articles by Brandon Baker.

Brandon Baker is a freelance journalist who has contributed articles to Freshwater Cleveland since 2014. His work has been featured by Scene, The News-Herald, Patch, EcoWatch and more. By day, he is a full-time research consultant with Burges & Burges Strategists, where he provides communications, messaging, strategic and research support for various public, private, and nonprofit entities in Ohio. In the fall, he enjoys working for the Cleveland Browns Scoreboard Operations team at FirstEnergy Stadium. Brandon is a graduate of The Ohio State University and enjoys traveling, exercising, the arts, volunteering, and spending time with family.