Baby boomers are flocking to downtown for amenities, community

The story of young professionals moving to downtown Cleveland is nothing new, yet what may be shocking is the number of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) who are also looking to ditch the suburban doldrums and get in on the urban excitement.

According to Downtown Cleveland Alliance (DCA), boomers have become the fastest-growing group of people flocking to downtown. From 2000-2013, there was a 98 percent increase of the number of people ages 55-64, who now make up more than 1,000 of downtown’s 13,278 residents.
“We see this generation on a national level remaining more active as they age and wanting to be near amenities like arts, culture and theatre in much the same way millennials do,” says Michael Deemer, the vice president of business services and legal affairs for the Downtown Cleveland Alliance (DCA). “We have all of our major sports venues and theatre and entertainment districts all within a very close walk of each other or trolley ride.”

Deemer says that one of DCA’s biggest initiatives is finding ways to enhance downtown’s walkability and bridge the gap between residential and retail clusters, so that residents can be closer to the city’s burgeoning bar and restaurant scene. The Step Up Downtown plan is designed to foster the kind of small-scale improvements that lead to a more livable urban core. 

Although the city’s growing nightlife scene is attracting more visitors and foot traffic, some think the lack of downtown real estate catering to empty nesters is impeding the growth of the baby boomer population in the area. David Sharkey, president of Progressive Urban Real Estate (PURE), says that while there are sturdy condo markets in nearby suburbs like Shaker Heights and Lakewood, boomers who are looking for a condo downtown will find themselves dealing with limited options.

“The empty nester typically wants to buy, and the only new things going up are apartments,” says Sharkey. “Since the recession, banks just don’t want to do condo projects. Condo building is a different animal, so this lack of product comes from a lack of financing.”

Despite the slow growth in homebuilding, two of downtown’s recent retail additions could attract more empty nesters and baby boomers. The opening of Heinen’s in the historic Cleveland Trust Rotunda and Metro Home Furniture and Mattress’ downtown location at The Residences at 1717 bring a newfound convenience for residents who would otherwise have to drive to the suburbs for that kind of shopping trip.

“Heinen’s is more than shopping. It’s a feeling of pride,” Sharkey says. “It harkens back to that era where Cleveland was a booming place and a real center for banking and manufacturing.”

‘We didn’t want to downsize to a golf course’

Tim and Linda Long are a pair of empty nesters who moved from their home of 17 years in Highland Heights to a luxury condo in Stonebridge Plaza in the Flats after frequent visits to their sons’ homes in New York and Chicago.

“We didn’t just want to downsize to some nondescript golf course,” Tim Long says. “Cleveland is not Chicago or New York, but we really took to the urban environment and style.”

The decision to make the move was almost instant once the Longs peered out of their prospective new home and saw the gorgeous view of the nearby waterfront and Terminal Tower. Their home’s scenic location puts the Longs within walking distance or short car ride of Tower City, Playhouse Square and Tim’s job as an Associate Vice President of Finance at Cleveland State University.

The condos at Stonebridge Plaza come with a slew of new amenities, including a concierge, exercise facility and laundry pickup. Their summers are filled with the sounds of live music from the nearby Jacobs Pavilion and fireworks from Progressive Field. Restaurants, festivals and theatre performances that were once a hassle to attend have become easier than ever to enjoy.
“For the first year, if we hadn’t stopped ourselves we would have weighed 400 pounds,” Tim Long jokes about all the new restaurants they’ve frequented since the move. “It really felt like we were on vacation.”
Living in a village

The allure of Cleveland’s entertainment scene is a huge draw for couples like the Longs, but for many empty nesters making the switch to urban living, it’s the newfound sense of community that has them moving closer to downtown. Irene Bellomo and her husband left their seven acres of land in the small town of Kirtland to downsize and build a 2,000-square-foot home in Tremont in 2009. The Bellomos’ contemporary new home is one of many popping up in Tremont.

With the freedom of building a new home, Irene Bellomo was able to implement design ideas that she'd been collecting for six years. The Bellomo home is full of sleek amenities, including Silestone quartz countertops, a second-floor deck overlooking downtown, a small room made for ballroom dancing, and plenty of gorgeous natural light flowing into the home from all sides.
“We felt very isolated in the suburbs,” says Irene Bellomo, who still teaches at a school in Mentor. “When you have kids and you’re doing things with the school, you see people but you’re driving everywhere. Now, it’s like we live in a village. We felt like we lived here forever.”
Bellomo and her husband were immediately charmed by the friendliness of Tremont’s bustling community. Tremont’s tight-knit neighborhood has made it nearly impossible for the Bellomos to walk anywhere without seeing a familiar face. They’ve even added a ground-level patio to their home so they can always chat with passersby in the neighborhood.

Parking and retail are challenges
Another major boost in Tremont’s community involvement comes from the strong association of block clubs that keep community members engaged and aware of all the issues, opportunities and announcements happening in the neighborhood. Dick Gray, a Tremont resident who moved here with his wife from Willoughby Hills in 2013, said the local block clubs act as key players in many of the changes that occur within the neighborhood.

“It’s amazing how much influence they can wield,” Gray says. “We had nothing like this in the suburbs. If the city wants to do any building, almost nothing can done if the neighborhood doesn’t approve.”
Despite opportunities to become a mover and shaker in the community, making the leap from the suburbs to the city isn’t without a handful of setbacks. The Bellomos and Grays agree that the city have been slow to respond to issues pertaining to parking and the quality of the roads.
“When I think about my friends coming in from the suburbs, their biggest complaint is how bad the potholes are and how the streets aren’t clean in the winter,” Bellomo said. “Parking is also an issue, but change is in the works because they’re building a lot under the new bridge.”
Bellomo is referring to the Inner Belt Bridge project, which includes two 50-spot parking lots in Tremont and will also offer easier access to downtown. Not having certain retail stores or services in the immediate vicinity has also been an issue for couples used to the strip mall convenience found outside of the city. The Longs would like to see more downtown retail stores and easier access to drugstore chains like CVS and Rite Aid. Bellomo overhears neighbors discussing how they’d never leave the neighborhood if only there was a dry cleaning service in Tremont.
Still, the Longs and Bellomos agree that living in the city has actually brought them closer to businesses like theatres and grocery stores. With the opening of Heinen’s, it’s gotten even easier. Being without major retail has allowed them to explore many of the local shops in Tremont and support the area’s local businesses. One of Bellomo’s favorites is Banyan Tree, a women’s fashion and housewares boutique.
“When I go shopping with my friends in the suburbs, I usually can’t find anything I like and I end up finding everything I want in Tremont,” Bellomo said.
A mix of restaurants and cultures

Perhaps one of the biggest make-or-break factors for baby boomers considering this kind of move is the amount of diversity one finds when living closer to downtown. For Vic and Leslie Selig, the move into Ohio City and eventually Tremont from their home in Broadview Heights was a bit of a culture shock from what they experienced in the suburbs. Vic Selig said the number of panhandlers he witnessed when he and his wife lived in Ohio City would have been a huge deterrent for many people concerned about downtown safety, but it has never been a problem for the couple.

“We lived on a block where all the homes were nearly identical and the demographics and income levels were about the same,” says Vic Selig. “Now there’s a mix of restaurants and people from so many different cultures.”

For the Seligs, the best decision the couple made early on was choosing to rent their Ohio City apartment so that they could feel out the neighborhood before making a major commitment. They would also tell any couple still on the fence about moving downtown to volunteer and meet with current residents to see what neighborhood is right for them.
“I’ll be upfront and say it’s not for everybody, but it’s a way to be a part of your community and help foster change,” says Leslie Selig.

Read more articles by andrew poulsen.

Andrew Poulsen is a writer based out Northeast Ohio. His work has appeared in numerous regional  and national outlets such as Ohio Magazine, Belt Magazine, the Athens News and more. He holds a B.S. in Journalism from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps College of Communication. When not behind his computer or in front of a Cavaliers game, Andrew enjoys playing guitar and banjo while touring with various bands in the area. He is an insatiable history buff, comedy nerd and bitter Cleveland sports fan.