Ari Maron, partner in MRN Ltd., flashes a boyish smile as he admits to not playing the violin these days. Although Maron majored in music at Rice University — to study under a particular violin teacher — he is too busy now re-creating the face of Euclid Avenue and East Fourth Street.
Maron draws an analogy between the urban facelift and his musical training: "There's a creative process involved with both a violin performance and development," he says. "With violin, you start with a piece of music. You know what it should sound like. You have a vision, but you can't play it yet. Although it might involve a solo, typically it involves working with others ... a chamber group or an orchestra. Even though it is a long and arduous process, there's a certain satisfaction when you give a performance and it goes well.
"The same is true with development. You take a piece of ground or an old building. It could be the same creative process. You're working with a group of architects, builders, the city, finance people, construction people. ... You work together to realize a vision. One day, a restaurant opens or the construction of a street is complete. There's satisfaction with that, too."
And again, that smile.
His analogy works to an extent, falling short only because most musical compositions are the product of a single composer — as compared to the nearly 325 developers Maron has had to deal with in order to begin the groundwork for MRN's urban dream.
Things got rolling in 1995, when the Maron family purchased the Buckeye Building at East Fourth and Prospect. The 48,000-square-foot, five-story, 36-unit rental property was the first housing renovation project in the Gateway district. Flannery's Pub and Restaurant remains its street-level tenant.
The Marons continued from there. In 1998, MRN purchased the Windsor Block at Euclid and East Fourth, creating an additional 52 units of housing. In 1999, purchase of the old National City Bank Building resulted in the creation of a Holiday Inn Express and additional downtown office space.
Rick and Ari Maron have a dream. Recognizing that their East Fourth properties were "catty corner to the ballpark and a focal point for Cleveland," Ari says they were convinced that there were "opportunities ... synergies which came together on East Fourth Street."
But there was an obstacle — a huge one at that. Some 325 different property owners had stakes in real estate on this one relatively small block.
The Marons weren't fazed in the least. Instead, they approached then-mayor Michael R. White to request the power of eminent domain. White refused unless certain criteria were met.
"In retrospect, he was absolutely right," Maron admits. "He told us we would have to acquire property from May Co. to the W.T. Grant Building, along Euclid Avenue to the Colonial and the Euclid Arcade before he would do anything."
In addition to redeveloping the upper-floor spaces of the Windsor Building and the Commercial Building, the Marons were also interested in street-level retail space. In other buildings where they controlled the first-level floors, such as the Woolworth Building and the Sincere Building, they found other developers to address the upper stories. Recent and current projects include the Commercial Building on East Fourth, creating 35 units of rental property; and the Woolworth Building, where they created aÉ400-car parking garage out of the lower level and the upper floors above the retail space. They also combined the McCrory, Frederick and Graves buildings to create another 37 units of rental propery.
As MRN's master plan took shape, the underdeveloped retail properties once owned by nearly 325 individuals were consolidated under the control of only three: MRN Ltd., Argent Ventures (The May Co.) and David Goldberg of Ohio Savings (668 Building, a parking garage and 575 Euclid Ave.). The intersection of Euclid Avenue and East Fourth Street was about to become an entertainment, restaurant and retail district.
"We don't want to compete with malls," Maron says. "We want to bring something totally unique to the market."
Designs for East Fourth Street reinforce his belief that "a cool destination requires a cool street." The short street will be paved with bricks. Its two anchors, Pickwick & Frolic Restaurant and Club and House of Blues, will set the tone. Bulb-style lighting will be strung on wires across the street, creating a ceiling effect, while 10-foot-tall poles with fiber optics will be used as accents. Huge sculptures with a phoenix motif, symbolizing the street's rebirth, stand like sentinels at both ends of the street. Sidewalks will be wide enough to permit cafes with alfresco seating and street performers. Whether open or closed to automobile traffic, the street has designated space to accommodate two stages.
Yet even with plans in place and a hubbub of construction activity in the area, Maron recognizes that most Clevelanders believe nothing is happening downtown. "At the street level, things are not as apparent, but if people would look up, they would see a lot of changes," he says, alluding to the many rental properties and condos becoming available.
Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corp. executive director Tom Yablonsky agrees. "Neighborhood retail to serve the housing will come first," he says. "As for Fourth Street, this is not just a regional project. This is a unique environment, creating a major retail district with major national anchor tenants."
The Marons are selective about their tenant mix. "There is definitely a planning component involved in making this successful," says Ari, noting once again the need to introduce unique opportunities to the marketplace.
Pickwick & Frolic fits his strategy perfectly. Opened in September 2002, the 27,000-square-foot entertainment/restaurant venue houses Hilarities 4th Street Theatre comedy club; the Frolic cabaret, featuring Vegas-style floor shows; Kevin's Martini Bar; and, of course, Pickwick, a two-story restaurant. In all, the complex accommodates 900 people.
According to Pickwick & Frolic director of marketing John Lorince, owner Nick Kostis developed the $5 million-plus concept over a five-year period.
"This is one of a kind," says Lorince. "We have raised the bar by offering quality food, a comedy club and a theme restaurant."
The venue occupies the site of what once was the Euclid Avenue Opera House. Chandeliers and replicas of the gas-burning jets hearken back to the opera's heyday. The lobby was hand painted by Lakewood scenic artist Jim Todd, who acquainted himself with the property through his and the building's involvement in shooting for the movie "Welcome to Collinwood."
Fourth Street's other anchor, House of Blues, is currently slated for completion by the end of this year. The 30,000-square-foot venue is only the ninth of its kind in the country. It will feature a 1,000-seat music hall, a 230-seat Cajun restaurant and a retail store. The House of Blues will present live, national touring artists, special events and a display of American folk art.
According to Maron, "House of Blues loves what Euclid Avenue could be. They saw the synergies and saw themselves as an anchor to an exciting retail/entertainment project." They also appreciated the separate entrances created for the music hall (off Euclid), the restaurant (off Fourth) and retail (also off Fourth).
Maron advises Clevelanders to look at Euclid Avenue today and again a year from now.
"They won't recognize the place," he promises.