in the circle: is uptown development living up to expectations?

For years -- decades even -- the intersection of Ford and Euclid was the cryogenically-frozen heart of University Circle, a dead zone that everyone said had tremendous potential as Cleveland’s version of Harvard Square, but was lifeless after 5 p.m.

University Circle, one of the city’s great success stories, had a doughnut hole.

The Uptown project, a $65 million development of new shops, restaurants, a bookstore, a grocery store and 200 market-rate apartments, aimed to change that by becoming a new center of gravity for Cleveland’s cultural district. A partnership between MRN Ltd., University Circle Inc. (UCI) and Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) started the project during the recession, using complex layers of financing to get it off the ground.

The buildings are visually stunning. Even if you don’t like modern architecture, you have to admire Uptown’s sweeping curve, the gracious Toby Lewis plaza and cleverly-branded “Uptown Alley,” and the ways in which the architecture plays off the shiny new Museum of Contemporary Art. The buildings stretch right to the sidewalk, and their big windows add to the street life.  

So, now that it’s halfway completed, how is Uptown doing? Developer Ari Maron of MRN Ltd. says that Uptown is proof of concept that University Circle is alive and thriving. “What separated University Circle from its potential seven or eight years ago were places to live, shop and dine, the fabric that makes a place a neighborhood,” he says. “We’ve taken the things we learned from other projects and applied it here to create a special place.”

Realizing its Potential

Uptown certainly has tapped into unmet demand. The apartments are commanding big rents of $2 per square foot, all but two commercial spaces in Phase I are leased, and more and more spin-off development continues to happen in and around the Circle. According to UCI, about 700 new apartments have come online here since 2007.

There are now 15,000 residents in University Circle, just ahead of downtown, with more new units on the drawing board. Apartment occupancy rates average about 95 percent. 

Aaron Perzanowski is a professor at the CWRU School of Law who lives at Uptown. He pays $1,900 per month for a 970-square-foot apartment and walks to work (it takes four minutes). He loves the open floor plan and windows in his unit. “Sometimes I don’t even turn the lights on because the natural light in the unit is enough,” he says.

Despite those praises, many residents in the area complain that Uptown’s commercial tenant mix has not yet reached its potential. No doubt, the additions of Constantino’s Market and local gems like ABC Tavern are game changers. But with the exception of Anne Van H., Mitchell’s Ice Cream and Cleveland Yoga, the remaining tenants are large chains like Chipotle, Panera and Verizon Wireless.

Sure, students, office workers and doctors need places at which to grab a 30-minute lunch, but where are the restaurant and nightlife spots that will be regional destinations?

Diversifying the Mix

The answer, according to those familiar with the project, is “more to come.” They say that Uptown will deliver on its promise of creating a vibrant district with a mix of fast-casual and fine dining, entertainment and services, from both indies and chains.

“We’ll have a mix of both national and local brands, and that’s purposeful,” says Maron. “Cleveland has a deep roster of talent in independent restaurants, but we also want to be able to meet demand from people from other cities and countries, who may come here seeking brands that they recognize and that they’re already comfortable with.”

While Maron won’t divulge details of tenants he’s courting, he says MRN is actively pursuing another operator for the now-shuttered Accent space. That indie spot won rave reviews for owner Scott Kim’s creative fare, but closed after a year. Kim didn’t return a phone call seeking comment, yet divulged to Scene, “We're not doing the numbers that we were hoping to do… I think the area is still in the early stage.”

Maron won’t comment on why Accent wasn’t the right fit, but promises a “higher energy” concept when he lands the right tenant. “We learned a lot and we’re now heading in a slightly different direction. We want to make it a lively place that becomes an anchor.”

There is one more vacant retail space at Uptown Phase I. It was announced last year that Jonathon Sawyer of the Greenhouse Tavern would open a pizza shop at Uptown, but those plans are now off the table. MRN also has signed a lease for a two-story Corner Alley bowling alley and restaurant in Phase II, along with a Potbelly’s and First Merit branch.

Sawyer says he shelved the Uptown project when he had to buy out several partners that invested in his restaurants, an effort that diverted his time and attention. "I fully believe in that neighborhood," he says.

Drawing the Independents

One early Uptown adopter says creating a mix is critical to Uptown’s long-term success. “Until we get destination level places there and fill up all the empty spaces, everybody’s going to miss the mark they’re going to hit in future years,” says Alan Glazen of ABC Tavern, who says he’s been profitable “since Day One” and believes in the future of Uptown. “The place is sleepy right now; it has not yet delivered nearly what it’s going to.”

MRN will have to attract the right indie restaurant or entertainment venue, says Glazen. Uptown rents are in the $30-35 per square foot range, significantly higher than Shaker Square or other entertainment and retail districts that are located nearby. “You need a powerhouse local operator with a following that will cause people to go the extra mile.”

Sam McNulty, owner of the Bier Markt, Market Garden Brewery and other restaurants in Ohio City, considered opening a space at Uptown but ultimately decided to concentrate on Ohio City, where his group owns their buildings. Still, he believes Uptown is a strong market. “That’s definitely a very high-value location, so I think the high rent is justified.”

Cleveland Beer Cellars owner Greg Goodrich, who just opened his space a few weeks ago, also is confident in the area’s future. “It’s an up-and-coming neighborhood," he says. "You’ll see more opening up and filling in the tenant mix to make it a real destination spot.”

Although Uptown likely will never be University Circle’s hipster district, planners say there still will be plenty of "hip." UCI bought the Euclid Tavern building earlier this year, and plans are underway to reopen the historic music club and restaurant under new management. Already, new development activity is migrating towards the Circle’s northern edge.  

Spin-Off Projects

There are several housing and retail developments underway that are feeding off the energy created by Uptown. Developer Russell Berusch has nearly finished fixing up the Euclid 115 building, a former senior housing facility that he’s converted into market-rate apartments for Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) students plus two new retail spaces. (The affordable housing was relocated nearby, so no residents were displaced.)

“What’s impressive -- and also a great challenge -- is that we’re doing Euclid 115 without any subsidy except for tax abatement,” says Berusch. “So often, that just doesn’t work.”

It works because Berusch is able to charge $1.75-1.85 per square foot to rent an apartment. That amount would have been unheard of a few years ago before projects like Park Lane Villa and Uptown, which established new high watermarks for market-rate apartments in University Circle (and indeed, for the entire Northeast Ohio region).

Not only has Berusch transformed an unsightly building into a residential asset, but he's also added to the district’s street life with the addition of two new street-level retail tenants. Before the end of the month, Coquette Patisserie, a fine French bakery and café, will open at Euclid 115, adding 25 new dining seats along with a patio. Owner Britt-Marie Culey says that she and her husband, Shane Culey, decided to open in University Circle because it’s the cultural heart of Cleveland.

“All these cultural institutions that are landmarks, they have longevity, they’re not going anywhere,” she says. “We knew that if we set up shop here, not only do we have our target demographic of cultured people, but they’re going to be there for a while.”

Of Uptown, Culey adds, “The price point is a tough pill to swallow for small businesses. But we are still finding our way into the Circle -- it’s just happening around the edges.”

Feet on the Street

Those who frequent University Circle report that Uptown already has added much-needed street-level vibrancy to the area. If you take a stroll down Euclid Avenue these days, you’ll see a veritable United Nations of diversity: grad students from Asia, docs from Pakistan, Glenville residents carrying shopping bags. And Uptown will become even more vibrant when Phase II wraps up next year.

The partnership that developed the project also hosts events in Toby Lewis Plaza during warm weather. Last year, the plaza played host to cornhole and ping pong tournaments, free concerts, an interactive waterfall swing, an art installation called the Blue Maze and yoga classes.

The new RTA station currently under construction at Mayfield and E. 119th also will be a game changer for the area. It will better connect University Circle and Little Italy and make transit a more viable option for employees, residents and visitors to the area.  

Chris Ronayne, Executive Director of UCI, says that Uptown not only is a model urban development, but the benefits are spilling over into adjacent neighborhoods. Nearby residents who didn’t have a grocery store can now shop at Constantino’s. Music students can be seen crossing Wade Park with cellos strapped to their backs.  

“We’re trying to bring forth what we call the complete neighborhood, and we hope that University Circle is a model community for what we call the ’20-minute neighborhood,’” he says. “Can you live your daily life in a 20-minute walk? I think we’re getting there.”

Photos Bob Perkoski

Lee Chilcote
Lee Chilcote

About the Author: Lee Chilcote

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.