filling gaps will be city's ongoing challenge

Cleveland is changing, a makeover that was part of the impetus for the Step Up Downtown report helmed by Downtown Cleveland Alliance earlier this year. The next phase of the alliance's plan is to determine what the city is still missing, and help fill those gaps.

As part of its "Step Up" study, DCA published a market assessment conducted by Colorado-based consulting firm Progressive Urban Management Associates (PUMA). According to the assessment, the Cleveland market is trending in the same direction as urban centers worldwide: High-talent millennials and women are rising in the workforce, while millennials and empty-nest baby boomers are driving a resurgence in downtown living. These populations are seeking jobs, housing and activities alongside a heaping helping of alternative transportation, health and wellness options, and diversity.

"What's unique about 'Step Up Downtown' is the way it marries market assessment with placemaking concerns," says Michael Deemer, DCA's vice president for business development and legal affairs. "Economic development and placemaking used to be separate worlds. Now the market is showing us how people want connected, amenity-rich environments."

Downtown working and living

Businesses will continue to move close to downtown’s skilled workforce and active neighborhoods, DCA officials maintain. In September, Inforce Technologies relocated its headquarters from Garfield Heights to downtown, joining technology intensive businesses like Rosetta, Dakota and BlueBridge on Cleveland’s Health-Tech Corridor.

Available office space will be occupied by service and creative class workers, tabbed by the PUMA assessment as the two fastest growing employment sectors in Cleveland. While older office buildings become housing units, tech and other creatively minded firms are moving into empty space in other parts of downtown.
Vacancy rates are still hovering at 18 percent, though DCA is encouraged by the Ernst & Young Tower at the Flats' east bank, which proves Northeast Ohio businesses are willing to pay a premium for modern office space within city limits.

Meanwhile, new housing units are being filled as fast as the city can offer them, the market study reports. Downtown apartments are at 95 percent occupancy as high-end locations like The 9 and the Residences at 1717 open to the public. Conversion of historic structures is adding to downtown's residential pool.

Additionally, 1,100 new living units are expected to open by the end of 2016, boosted by $125 million in historic tax credits and private developers eager to take on new projects. Within downtown's remaining tax-credit eligible historic buildings, there is room for another 2,000 to 2,500 apartment units. 

A tale of retail

Young professionals ages 25 to 34 make up 50 to 75 percent of new residents, closely followed by baby boomers, according to DCA. Keeping them downtown will require adding retail, ever a difficult proposition for Cleveland. The city's retail environment needs to be consolidated in activity centers and along connected pedestrian streets, a finding from the PUMA assessment that was backed up by a retail survey the alliance conducted for its third-quarter 2014 report.

Restaurants and niche shops comprised much of Cleveland's retail growth this year. Local boutiques populate the 5th Street Arcades, while downtown grocers Constanino's Market in the Warehouse District and Simply Foods in the NineTwelve District continue to serve residents as Heinen's prepares to open a store in early 2015.

Though retail vacancies are not expected to change significantly, the DCA survey is clear about what high-downtown patrons want: Walkable retail where they can find everything from home goods to clothing to hardware.
Evelyn Burnett
Evelyn Burnett, vice president of economic opportunity at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, has been living in her Warehouse District apartment for two years after four years in Manhattan. Though she understands that smaller retailers are more likely for a downtown the size of Cleveland's, a Gap or Banana Republic would be most welcome.

Burnett, 30, doesn't mind driving to Steelyard Commons, but the lack of diverse retail downtown, including at Tower City, could harm the growth Cleveland has worked so hard to develop.

"You need larger retail to draw crowds to the smaller stuff," says Burnett. "People come downtown to work, but a mix of retail will keep them here after 6."

Charlie Eisenstat, owner of Pour Cleveland, lived in Washington, D.C. and Chicago before opening a pour-over coffee shop and espresso bar in the 5th Street Arcades last November. When he thinks of an ideal downtown, he envisions a place where you can walk to get a hammer or a pair shoes.

"Too many people believe Cleveland is still a Monday-to-Friday city," Eisenstat says. "I hate to go (to the suburbs) to shop, but there's really nothing around here."

A city finding its way

The city is in better shape when it comes to sustainable mobility, notes the entrepreneur. Several of his employees living downtown take their bikes to and from work, and view the addition of a city-run bike station and an independent bike-sharing program as signs Cleveland is serious about two-wheel travel, even if more protected lanes and bike storage would be nice.

Youngstown native Burnett loves to walk or take the free trolleys that run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day of the work week. Wayfinding is a challenge, as is the idea of neighborhood connectivity so heavily espoused by the "Step Up" report. She is glad to see the city taking steps in both of those directions, with something as simple as extra lighting making the stroll from one district to another all the more safe and comfortable.

Walkable communities would be further bolstered by health and wellness amenities currently lacking downtown, notes the PUMA report. The assessment calls for bike lanes, waterfront access and park recreation facilities as ways to improve Cleveland's healthy, green amenities.

Burnett is excited by the prospect of a new downtown branch of the YMCA at the Galleria at Erieview.  She would also appreciate a further emphasis on drawing residents to Cleveland's public spaces. Mall B hosting a massive Believe in CLE  yoga event is just the kind of happening that charges young minds with excitement, she says. Rec events, intramural leagues, outdoor movie showings and any other activities that connects Clevelanders would be a boon to the city's ongoing upswing.

Where Cleveland's renaissance too often fails is in diversity and inclusion, says Burnett. She may enjoy dining in one of downtown's trendy eateries, for example, but finding a person of color either as a patron or at the front of the house is sometimes a dicey proposition.

"I don't like going to a restaurant and not seeing anyone that looks like me besides the dishwasher," says Burnett, who is African-American.
Dr. Mark Giuliano
The recommendations enumerated by "Step Up Downtown" will ideally link the city to all comers, says Dr. Mark Giuliano, head pastor at Old Stone Church on Public Square. Giuliano has lived in a condominium near the venerable house of worship for over five years, and has seen Cleveland make great strides in that time.

There is a place at the table for those who desire a direct connection to that resurgence, Giuliano notes. The pastor is a founder of the Downtown Cleveland Residents Association, which fosters communication among residents, primary city stakeholders and businesses. Giuliano also serves on the boards of the Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corporation and the Downtown Cleveland Improvement Corporation (DCIC), the parallel organization of DCA.

As Cleveland continues to evolve, fortifying the bond between residents and change-makers can bridge any gaps left.

"Cleveland is a city that will allow you to be part of that wave," Giuliano says. "It's an awesome thing."

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.