If you're considering a move to Cleveland, there might be no better means to examine the broad range of options than by hopping aboard a City Life tour hosted by Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP). In a few short hours, participants enjoy a deep dive into a number of Cleveland's most in-demand neighborhoods like Tremont, Ohio City, University Circle, Detroit Shoreway and Downtown, to name a few.
These are not tourism tours, stresses Jeff Kipp of CNP. "They are meant to be introductions into the urban lifestyle," he explains. "This is supposed to be a two-hour dialogue about the city between us and our guests, where we talk about what it's really like to live in the city."
The guided tour touches on a wide range of weighty subjects that include arts and culture, architecture and history, urban agriculture and transportation, dining and nightlife, higher education and commerce, and travel and tourism. But without question, the most prevalent theme of the afternoon is housing -- be it rental or for-sale, condos or stand-alone homes, new construction or renovations. Wherever this happy caravan happened to roll, housing that didn't exist last month appeared to spring forth from the earth.
"When you look at a neighborhood from a potential resident's perspective versus a visitor's perspective, it's the housing, small shops, restaurants and coffee shops that you can walk to that translate into a very attractive way of living," Kipp adds.
On a sun-soaked Saturday in April, about 15 of us hopped aboard Lolly the Trolley, which was parked in the parking lot of Dunbar Elementary School in Ohio City. After the obligatory "Please keep all arms and elbows inside the trolley at all times" speech from Lois, our driver, we were off to the races.
Our guide for the two-hour voyage was Genna Petrolla, an effervescent veteran of the Cleveland nonprofit world and a fount of tidbits and trivia. She told those in attendance that the purpose of these neighborhood tours is informational and educational, geared towards people who want to introduce -- or reintroduce -- themselves to the city and its myriad housing options.
On board is a representative group of typical participants, Petrolla says, a mix of young professionals, recent grads, empty-nesters and boomerangs. There also happens to be a sizeable contingent of real estate professionals who want to better acquaint themselves with the urban real estate market.
"A lot of our demographics are increasingly young professionals, so it's always good to know about the different housing options available in the city so when we get clients in we can we tell them," explains Maureen Downey, a realtor with Howard Hanna.
A Howard Hanna colleague, Susan Turner, goes so far as to add, "Because Cleveland has to survive if the suburbs are to survive, we are very supportive of everything that goes on downtown."
Some riders, like Beth and Stan Rosenblum of Beachwood, have no interest in moving anywhere, but still found cause to participate. "We've been reading about all of the new development taking place downtown; we thought it would be interesting to see what's going on in person," notes Beth.
Like paid actors on the clock, residents sit on the stoops of some of Ohio City's most attractive Victorian homes and wave at the bus as we pass. We roll right down W. 25th Street, which on a Saturday feels like the most dynamic place in the region, and learn all about the bars, breweries, restaurants and neighborhood anchor West Side Market.
Off the main drag we spot numerous new housing projects going up, contemporary townhomes situated cheek-by-jowl to old homes, community gardens and pocket parks. It's precisely that blend of new and old, long-time resident and newcomer, says Petrolla, that is making this neighborhood such a hot commodity.
Much of the new residential activity is concentrated on the northern edge of Ohio City, in an area increasingly called Hingetown. "Hingetown is a neighborhood within a neighborhood, and areas like it are beginning to create connections between longstanding regional assets like Downtown and Detroit Shoreway," explains Petrolla.
What makes this tour different from a typical tourism tour is the route. Sure, Lolly makes its way through the heart of Gordon Square, where our guide points out neighborhood amenities like Cleveland Public Theatre, Spice Kitchen and Sweet Moses. But this bus makes a hard right towards the lake and ends up in Battery Park, one of the largest new development projects in the region. Here, an entirely new neighborhood is being built from the ground up, complete with new streets, community green space and direct access to Lake Erie.
A bicyclist riding alongside the tour bus offers the perfect jumping off point for Petrolla to discuss Cleveland's fast growing bike community, going so far as to discuss new bike lanes and the roundly popular Critical Mass rides.
It's well known that University Circle is home to the finest cultural, educational and medical institutions in Northeast Ohio. But what surprised many on this tour was the increasing inventory of sleek new townhomes tucked into hidden pockets throughout the neighborhood, including one showstopper just steps from the Cleveland Institute of Music. A drive through the Uptown development revealed even more contemporary housing options, not to mention new shops, cafes and restaurants.
These City Life tours always include a pit stop, where riders can get off the bus, stretch their legs and check out a residential unit up close and personal. On this tour we stopped at the historic Park Lane Villa, a 1920s-era hotel that has been converted into 95 of the finest apartments in town. No surprise then that the building hovers near 100-percent occupancy, with doctors, grad students and empty-nesters comprising the bulk of the tenants.
Our trip down Euclid Avenue revealed a very different downtown than one filled merely with commercial high rises that cater to suburban commuters. A full 12,000 residents now call downtown home, says our guide, and they'll soon be joined by thousands more thanks to a number of new residential units in the works. Those residents have East Fourth Street for dining, Playhouse Square for entertainment, and soon will have a Heinen's grocery in which to do the shopping. If one of the city's fine museums is on the agenda, the RTA HealthLine can shuttle residents to University Circle in the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee.
End of the Line
Our tour winds through Little Italy and Lake View Cemetery, the Flats and Tremont, through the campuses of Cleveland State and Case Western Reserve. Even though we didn't hit them, neighborhoods like Collinwood and St. Clair Superior are discussed.
Upon disembarking from the trolley, Doug and Linda Parker grab their complimentary t-shirts and head towards their car. But they aren't headed back home to sleepy Aurora -- they're off to discover a new restaurant in Tremont. Empty-nesters from the 'burbs, the Parkers are precisely the demographic that this tour aims to reach.
"We're considering a move into the city and we're looking at options right now," explains Doug. "We are pretty familiar with Tremont and Ohio City, but in a single day to see all these other areas, and have somebody walk you through the options, is very efficient."
Like many of their generation, the Parkers chose the suburbs as a safe and tranquil place to raise their children. But now that those children have moved on, it's time to start thinking about the next phase of their lives.
"I think when people move out to the suburbs, they want to get away from any sort of vestige of Cleveland and the perceived urban risk that comes with it," Doug notes. "The problem is, culturally and entertainment wise, the city has so much to offer that it's crazy not to consider moving back downtown once the kids have grown."
Sign up here for the next tours, which take place May 3, 10 and 31. The cost is $12.
Photos Bob Perkoski