The Delights of Downtown
Mention the concept of downsizing, and most people think of moving into a smaller home or condominium in a leafy suburb or idyllic rural community, maybe a place on some golf course where they can retire and spend their days enjoying resort-style amenities. Not R.D. and Lynlee Nordgren. When they decided to sell their 2,300-square-foot wood-frame colonial in Cleveland Heights, they did so with the sole intention of relocating to downtown Cleveland.
“We both work downtown,” says R.D., a 45-year-old assistant professor of urban education at Cleveland State University. “And we always found ourselves in the city, on the near East Side, near West Side,” adds Lynlee, a 38-year-old support administrator for the Cuyahoga County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.
“When we moved [from Florida] in 2002, we weren’t aware that there was housing downtown — it seemed like everything was just rental [properties], and we wanted to buy. Cleveland Heights was really appealing.”
They were attracted to its architecture, diversity and proximity to downtown. “But with traffic and everything, it can take a while to get there,” she adds.
The Nordgrens aren’t alone. More homebuyers are disproving the notion that settling downtown is solely for the young drink-and-dine crowd.
Jeffrey Kipp, executive director of the Living in Cleveland Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes home ownership in the city, cites studies conducted by Cleveland State University that show a high demand for upscale downtown units among middle-aged empty-nesters. “They’re moving into the heart of the activities, not living on the outskirts of them,” he says.
David Sharkey of Ohio City-based Progressive Urban Real Estate says some buy only after they “dip their toes in the water by renting” and discover downtown residential real estate has become a solid investment.
“If they’re selling a house out in the suburbs somewhere, they probably have a lot of equity in it,” Sharkey says. “They don’t want to wait five, 10 years for a neighborhood to get nice. They want it right now.”
The allure of acquiring a downtown dwelling extends beyond living just steps from restaurants, theaters, museums and arenas, or eliminating the daily drive to and from an East Ninth Street office in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Many homebuyers are downright excited by the idea of chucking the conventional house in the ’burbs for a condominium in a converted warehouse with exposed brick walls, soaring 14-foot ceilings and an open floor plan.
“It’s a type of architecture that you cannot find in the suburbs — it just doesn’t exist,” Sharkey enthuses.
R.D. and Lynlee didn’t waste time testing the urban housing market. The couple was among the first to buy a unit in the Stonebridge apartment/condominium complex, a eye-catching structure of contemporary design on the west bank of the Flats. “It hadn’t even been built — it was just a concept and drawings,” Lynlee remembers. The 1,140-square-foot unit they moved into in March 2005 boasts hardwood floors, granite countertops, views of the Cuyahoga River and a spare bedroom and bath for R.D.’s daughter to use when she visits.
The Nordgrens are certainly getting out more since they took up residence — walking to Jacobs Field and buying tickets to an Indians game on a whim, suddenly deciding to attend the Tremont Art Walk — “things that may have been very inconvenient once you went home at night,” as Lynlee puts it. The lifestyle the couple enjoys in the Flats, however, isn’t exactly what the industrial-turned-entertainment area’s bars and restaurants traditionally dictate. Lynlee enjoys biking to Ohio City for Sunday brunch, taking evening strolls along the river and working with other residents to secure direct access to Lake Erie via a proposed footbridge to Whiskey Island.R.D. good-naturedly complains about the lack of bike racks in the city. (He and his wife’s bikes were impounded the first time they rode to Jacobs Field and chained them to a railing near the ballpark.)
“We have friends who come in from the suburbs, and they’re really surprised to see people riding their bikes and walking their dogs,” Lynlee says. “I cook dinner most nights, something you can’t always do when you’re sitting in the car commuting.”
The Nordgrens are saving on more than just time. Although the couple’s former Cleveland Heights home was valued at approximately $60,000 less than their Flats condominium, their monthly mortgage payments, including association fees, are actually less because of tax abatement. R.D. and his wife also no longer pay additional income taxes, because they both live in the municipality where they work. They sold their second car because they simply didn’t need it anymore.
And for Lynlee, having to drive a distance to a department store is actually a good thing. “When shopping is too convenient, you probably are getting junk you don’t need,” she says. She stresses, however, that they are not paying for those savings by jeopardizing their safety, an issue they considered before buying their condominium.
“The Flats historically was a place for people to just come in and party, not treat like somebody’s home or community,” she asserts. “Stonebridge has a community group that is addressing this very issue. So is the Flats Oxbow Association, an association of businesses down here. Before, there weren’t as many people to cause an uproar if there was a shooting here at 1 a.m. Now this is our home, and we’re treating it like any community would.”
Citizens of the City
Tom and Anita Cook had always dreamed of selling their 3,800-square-foot Solon home and moving to the city of Cleveland after the youngest of their two sons graduated from St. Ignatius High School. “We wanted to move to an area that had more economic and racial diversity,”explains Tom, a 50-year-old National City Bank executive.
But 15-year-old Dan unknowingly accelerated his parents timetable for relocating during a ride to school with his father one morning last October. “He looked over the Detroit-Superior Bridge, and he saw Stonebridge, the apartment and condominium complex in the Flats,” Tom remembers. “He said, ‘What’s that?’ I explained, and he said, ‘That’s pretty cool! I could live there.’ We just assumed that he would want to stay in Solon until he went off to college. But he was pretty excited by the idea.”
The couple, spurred by their son’s enthusiasm, immediately started looking at real estate in the city’s various neighborhoods. In June they bought a new semidetached townhouse in the city’s Tremont neighborhood, one in a row of approximately 16 such dwellings lining West Fifth Street.
“We just woke up one morning and said, ‘We’re not getting any younger. We’d better do this now, before we wake up and say, Hey, it’s too late to do this’ ” says Anita, a 50-year-old stay-at-home mom and community volunteer.
The Cooks are among the growing number of affluent professionals with kids who are calling the city’s neighborhoods home. David Sharkey, of Ohio City-based Progressive Urban Real Estate, observes that the people who moved in as young singles and couples are staying put once their children reach school age instead of heading to the suburbs. The Tremont resident and father says nearby parochial, Montessori and charter schools as well as quality day care make the decision a viable one. He also points out the proximity of kid-friendly cultural institutions such as the Children’s Museum of Cleveland, Cleveland Botanical Garden and Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
The variety of housing options — old and new, big and small, affordable and extravagant — draws interest in revitalized areas such as Ohio City, Collinwood and Hough, according to Jeffrey Kipp, executive director of the Living in Cleveland Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes home ownership in the city. Tax abatement is another. The city offers a 15-year abatement of its 2.02 percent residential tax rate on new construction and qualified improvements made to existing properties (such as the addition of living space and the conversion of a two-family home into a single-family counterpart, for example). Those abatements are passed on to subsequent buyers for the balance of the 15-year period. The Cooks estimate they’re saving $400 a month on property taxes.
“The tax abatement is icing on the cake,” Tom acknowledges. “But it’s not the main reason we moved.”
Instead, the sense of community sold Tom and Anita on their home, a 2,600-square-foot abode with an attached two-car garage, deck off the kitchen and fourth-floor loft with a wet bar and dual balconies.
Sharkey describes Tremont as a neighborhood built by immigrants set apart by its unique street grids, architecture and numerous churches, a place where homes and businesses stand side-by-side.
“We really felt there was a true neighborhood feeling,” Anita says of the area. “It was actually the last place we looked. But once we started looking there, it was like, This is the place.”
Anita is quick to dispel the notion that Tremont is a no-man’s land for everyday services and amenities by rattling off the ones within walking distance of her new home: a coffeeshop, pizzeria, barbershop, dry cleaners, library and Lincoln Park, a big green space where “there’s always people hanging out, picnicking, doing things.”
Tom points out that Steelyard Commons shopping center will open in a little over a year. And the West Side Market and Dave’s Supermarket, both in Ohio City, are less than a mile away.
“It has a wonderful selection,” Tom says of Dave’s. “And we drove more than a mile to get to a supermarket in Solon!”
Indeed, the couple is looking forward to spending more time enjoying the city than driving to and from it. Tom is just minutes from his downtown office, while Anita is a short drive from her volunteer work at University Settlement neighborhood center. And Dan can walk, ride a bike or take a bus to school. “We have subscriptions to the Great Lakes Theater Festival as well as the Cleveland Play House,” Anita says. “So many times on a Friday night, Tom would come home from work, be home for 15 minutes, and we’d turn around to leave for the theater. We won’t have to do that anymore.” The family can also walk to Jacobs Field and Quicken Loans Arena for sporting events.
Despite the get-in-the-car-and-lock-the-doors mentality some suburbanites still harbor, she isn’t afraid to stroll through Tremont or downtown.
“Because we lived on the Metroparks [South Chagrin Reservation] in Solon, I didn’t leave my street after dark to go out walking, and I didn’t go out by myself early in the morning,” Anita says. “In some ways, I almost feel like I have a little bit more freedom and flexibility than I did.”
Tom certainly isn’t mourning the lack of green space surrounding his urban digs — the postage stamp of grass he now calls a yard requires far less work than the third of an acre on which his previous house stood. He acknowledges, however, that the tall, narrow townhouse that requires so little land to accommodate its footprint has one major drawback — lots of steps. In the end, that may be the only thing that limits the couple’s years in Tremont.
“It depends on how our knees hold up,” Anita says. “We’ll let you know in a year if we’re sleeping downstairs on the couch!”
When Lloyd and Betsey Bell first moved to Cleveland Heights a dozen years ago, they were a young married couple looking for an affordable first home closer to the city. The 45-minute commute downtown from their Solon apartment had become tedious for Lloyd, even though he grew up in Chagrin Falls. And Betsey was just plain bored living in what was then a smaller town.
“It was just so stale, so vanilla,” says the 35-year-old New York City native, now assistant to the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights. “It wasn’t as built up as it is now — there were no restaurants, no bars to hang out at. It was great for families. But when we were first married, there was nothing for us to do.”
The Bells moved into their 1925 center-hall colonial with the intent of returning to the far eastern suburbs in a few years, when they could afford a bigger house. That’s not what happened, however, when the couple and their two school-age sons outgrew the place. Lloyd, a 39-year-old director of corporate finance at the accounting firm Meaden & Moore, was driving to work one day last year when he noticed a for-sale sign in front of a nearby home he and his wife had long admired, a 2,800-square-foot dwelling built in 1913 on a lot-and-a-half.
“It just was one of those houses on a street you drive down all the time that always makes you say, ‘Oh, that house is so pretty!’ ” Betsey says. “We went through it once, and we said, ‘Yep, we’re moving.’ ”
“I can’t believe there’s another house like ours anywhere in the world architecturally,” Lloyd declares. “That’s what you have [in Cleveland Heights] — no two houses really are the same. There are similar styles, but they’re not mass-produced like they are in the newer subdivisions. And you have trees that have been here for 75, 80 years. Sometimes with the newer construction, they cut everything down, build houses and plant saplings. They did that here, obviously, but it was years and years ago.”
The Bells’ story is a tale real-estate agents and homeowners in inner-ring suburbs such as Cleveland Heights and Lakewood tell over and over again. These municipalities are endowed with a wealth of well-tended old homes built at a time when architectural amenities such as hardwood floors, crown moldings and built-in cabinetry were standard issue, not upgrades. According to Mike Fanous, chairman-elect of the Cleveland Area Board of Realtors and a real-estate broker for Coldwell Bankers, the housing stock ranges from modest bungalows to million-dollar mansions.David Sharkey, of Ohio City-based Progressive Urban Real Estate, points out that Lakewood also offers lakefront living in Gold Coast condominiums and gorgeous single-family homes alike.
“There’s a whole area of Clifton Beach where you can get a boathouse — you drive your boat underneath your house, walk upstairs, and that’s where you live!” he marvels.
The lifestyle provided by these communities is as rich and varied as the architecture, thanks to their proximity to Cleveland, the diversity of residents, municipal facilities such as parks and rec centers, and the proliferation of one-of-a-kind storefront retail — specialty boutiques, antique shops, bars, clubs, restaurants, coffeehouses, ice-cream stores, wine shops, you name it. As a result, they often serve as the perfect compromise between city and suburban living.
“We see people coming in from out of town who say, ‘I want to live in the city.’ Then they come down here and say, ‘Well, this really wasn’t what I was thinking.’ They end up in Cleveland Heights or Lakewood,” Sharkey says.
Even after all their years in Cleveland Heights, the Bells still speak enthusiastically about the life they enjoy. Betsey maintains that it is cheaper for Andrew, 7, and Stephen, 9, to participate in baseball leagues and take swimming lessons at the public pool than it might be in another suburb.
Fanous says Cleveland Heights is known for its schedule of recreational events. “If you go to [the city’s] Web site, there’s a monthly calendar of all the activities,” he says. The family can walk or bike almost anywhere, whether it’s to church for Sunday services or Shaker Lakes to walk the dog or Lee Road for dinner at one of a variety of eateries.
“Our kids walk to school,” Betsey adds. “We can see from our window the only street they have to cross.” What they can’t get to quickly on foot is only a short drive away — Severance Hall and Cleveland Museum of Art in University Circle, for example. The Bells also appreciate the variety of people who live in their neighborhood.
“You have families who have adopted kids from different countries, you have biracial families, you have homosexual families and heterosexual families,” Betsey enumerates. “You have people who have been in this community forever, and then you have people who have just moved in. It’s just such a combination. Even your block party is entertaining!”
Ryan and Kim Sinclair moved from a Sagamore Hills apartment — “a really cool area for a young married couple without kids,” as Kim describes it — to a home beyond the fringes of the Cleveland metropolitan area because of their family.
They bought their first house, a 1,500-square-foot split-level in Reminderville, to be closer to Kim’s mom and dad, so they could help out with the children they planned to have when Ryan, 31, was on the road in his capacity as a field marketing manager for Baskin-Robbins. And when they moved to Aurora in May, it was for the top-rated school district and small-town atmosphere. The Sinclairs wanted their three daughters to grow up in a peaceful little speck on the map, a place where they could graduate from the same school system they started in and develop lifelong friends in the process.
“The graduating class [of 2006] had just a little over 200 kids,” says Kim, a 31-year-old preschool teacher-turned-stay-at-home mom. “With a smaller school system, there’s more opportunities for the kids to play sports or participate in any activity. And you get to know the families, the brothers and sisters. It’s not so big that you’re seeing new faces or you don’t know who people are. The kids that they’re in kindergarten with, they’ll go all through school with some of them.”
The sentiment is often repeated by those who choose to live in the exurbs, those far-flung communities such as Hinckley and Kirtland. Like Kim and Ryan, many folks are attracted by the excellent school systems and small-town or country living within a commutable distance of Cleveland, according to Phil Chalmers, a Realtor with RE/MAX Traditions in Aurora and Chagrin Falls. He observes that these municipalities have managed to maintain their individuality and charm, unlike counterparts closer to Cleveland that have all but disappeared in the bustle of suburban sprawl.
“Even out toward Solon, it’s very busy,” he says. “It’s tough to get through town during rush hour. Aurora, Hudson and Chagrin Falls, in contrast, all have a sort of New England feel to them.”
David Sharkey, of Ohio City-based Progressive Urban Real Estate, says some homebuyers are lured to the exurbs by the standout properties they find there. He cites two Victorian farmhouses in Columbia Station that his company sold last year as examples.
Mike Fanous, chairman-elect of the Cleveland Area Board of Realtors and a real-estate broker for Coldwell Banker, notes that lower real-estate taxes are another draw. “As you go outside of Cuyahoga County, you find a lot more reasonable assessments to the properties,” he says. The exurbs, of course, are often the only option for those desiring large tracts of land where they can maintain their privacy, pursue such hobbies as raising horses, and/or build resort-style compounds with swimming pools, tennis courts, putting greens and fishing ponds.
“Where could they find a 5- to 10-acre lot in Cuyahoga County?” Fanous asks.
Kim raves about Aurora’s little shops and picture-postcard beauty. Although she and her husband aren’t exactly outdoor people, they appreciate the privacy afforded by their 1,900-square-foot colonial, which is situated on a half acre at the end of a road next to a bird sanctuary where they take Gracie, 4, Emma, 2, and Lily, 3 months, for walks. Yet the family is just minutes away from freeway access.
“We looked at Hudson, I had talked about Stow,” Ryan says. “But really, from a location standpoint, Aurora is right close to Interstate 480. It’s an easy way to go to the airport or, when are kids are a little bit older, to go out and do things. I can get downtown to a ballgame in a half hour, 45 minutes.”
The Sinclairs admit that there wasn’t a lot in their price range when they were looking for homes in Aurora this time around. But they persevered, spurred by the knowledge that they could eventually buy or build a more expensive house without pulling their daughters out of school and leaving the immediate area.
“We love our house,” Kim says. “But we also love all the new subdivisions going up. In seven to 10 years, we’ll want something bigger and better. There’s room to upgrade in this community.”