best face forward: storefront renovation programs add sparkle to streets

Storefronts dot our avenues and thoroughfares from W. 117th to E. 185th. Some sparkle with inviting merchandise, while others languish behind a layer of dust. For the latter, Cleveland's Storefront Renovation Program (SRP) has been lending a helping hand to neighborhoods and developers for almost two decades.
The program offers rebates of 40 percent on a qualifying project's total cost, with a maximum of $25,000 for an exterior renovation and $3,000 for a sign-only project. The citywide program meshes with smaller neighborhood efforts, with results ranging from powerful change to much-needed splashes of glimmer.
A leg up in a trendy locale
Tremont has enjoyed its share of traditional projects associated with the SRP, including the renovation of the previously condemned Tremont Theater, which was completed last year, and the revival of the W. 14th Street space that housed the unpopular Rodeo Bar. Tremont Animal Clinic and the Ta' La' Che' salon have displaced that nuisance nightspot, while Nana's Southside BBQ still is in the works. These days, however, traditional SRP projects in Tremont are rare as vacancies become more and more scarce.
"It’s a very hot real estate market," says Tremont West Development Corporation Marketing and Fund Development Director Michelle Davis. "In Tremont we struggle with not having a lot of storefront available," she adds, noting that when space does become available, it's often pricey.
In order to promote small business in the crowded Tremont retail scene, the organization is offering up a portion of its own storefront on Professor Avenue office via the Tremont Storefront Incubator Program, which is accepting RFPs through February. The selected business will enjoy 10 months of free and adjusted rent on the 370-square-foot space, along with professional business coaching from the Hispanic Business Center.
Previous program participants include the Beck Center for the Arts and pet boutique Tremont Tails. Although both were well received, neither endured. And that's okay. "It was a learning process for all of us," says Davis. "We were excited to provide opportunities."
The space also housed the pop-up shops Yellowcake and Cosmic Bobbins. Although both went on to establish retail locations in other parts of the city, Davis and her organization were happy to be part of the success.
"It's exciting to see all of the retail and small business and entrepreneurship happen throughout the city," she says. "The more that it happens -- not just in Tremont, but in Ohio City and Gordon Square and Shaker and Larchmere and Collinwood -- the more it adds to the vibrancy of Cleveland. It only benefits Tremont to be part of that."
As for this year's program, Davis has high hopes.
"The economy is growing. There are so many people working out of their homes doing creative things. I believe it might be the right time for some of these people to want to step out and see if they can make a storefront work for them."
Citywide project, local impact.
In Slavic Village, one storefront renovation has morphed into a long-term relationship.
In order to accommodate the Villa Montessori School at the historic intersection of Broadway and E. 55th, the Slavic Village Development (SVD) organization has embarked on three separate projects. The partnership started back in the late '90s with a three-story vintage bank building, which houses the SVD offices, and has spread to two additional storefronts. The last portion of the project was completed in 2011.
"They've become an institution in the neighborhood; they're kind of a regional draw," says SVD Commercial Development Officer Ben Campbell of Villa Montessori, noting that students hail from Slavic Village and beyond. "It's such a nice little school. They offer a great educational opportunity in the neighborhood."
The school's success has been a boon to SVC as well. The organization owns all three properties and rents to the school. "They're a great tenant," says Campbell, "and we've been able to progress and fix up three buildings along the way."
That's no small benefit in the beloved but challenged historic neighborhood.
"If you start losing too many buildings, you lose the character and flavor of the street," says Campbell. "You want to preserve and improve the buildings and keep [the area] walkable and so on."
Other Slavic Village projects associated with the SRP include the Jayber Building (5746 Broadway), which was completed in 2012 and currently houses a sub shop and a contracting business. Plans for office space in the upper floors are ongoing. Looking forward, yet another SRP sponsored project will come to fruition when Thee Six5 Bistro opens this spring. The new eatery will feature a rooftop bar.
"It was originally a storefront with apartments above," says Campbell, noting high hopes for the endeavor. "It will be the kind of place that will bring people in from outside the neighborhood."
Sign of the times
For downtown districts, the SRP extends only to sign projects. Considering the focus on downtown retail and commerce, the policy limitation might seem austere, until you talk to Tom Starinsky, a self-proclaimed "full-fledged signage geek" and the Associate Director of both the historic Warehouse and Gateway District Corporations.
"One of my wife's biggest complaints is that I take too many pictures of urban planning and sign stuff while were on vacation," admits Starinsky.
Here at home he's got his favorite signs (Brasa Grill), signs that he touts as helping to establish a business' brand identity (Phoenix Coffee), signs that literally drive business into the door (Nauti Mermaid) and signs that work together in order to achieve success for an entire street lined with storefronts.
"All of East Fourth Street has storefront money in it," he notes of the now-bustling entertainment district. "The Gateway District was kind of born on Fourth Street; it was born to save East Fourth from demolition."
Save for the House of Blues sign, all the signage on Fourth was part of the SRP. "We paid a lot of attention to creating a sense of place thru signage," explains Starinsky. "It could have been really ugly and crazy, but because we were kind of paying attention as we went along, it ends up being really kind of wonderful."
Not every sign must feature giant bowling pins or come-hither mermaids to make an impact. Earlier this month, the striking Pour Cleveland sign debuted in front of the 5th Street Arcades.
"It's a very simple sign," says Starinsky, noting the clean look. The sign cost a few thousand dollars, less than half of what more elaborate signs cost. "You don't need to spend that much to have a great sign." To be sure, Pour's new sign imparts subtle sophistication to the newly reborn arcade.
"When we start talking to people about signs, we start talking about the experience they want to portray about what's happening on the inside," says Starinsky. "Going the extra mile for signage is financially beneficial to a business."

Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.
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