It’s easy to think that it’s always been this way. That the downtown neighborhoods have always been recognized as the places where young professionals and trendy Clevelanders live, work, dine and play.
Clevelanders have seen first-hand the transformation of these neighborhoods. What began in the 80s with a group of visionaries and artists has evolved over time and has now become a desirable neighborhood in which to live.
A look in the rearview mirror reveals a worn face that initially looked better with some makeup but ultimately received a face-lift.
What a change 25 years makes. Today, downtown is bustling. Condominiums are the norm, not the exception. Restaurants, bars and entertainment venues are the places to see and be seen. A grocery store caters to its professional clientele with extensive wine offerings and takeout designed for the busy professional.
Perhaps now is the time to look back and remember that things weren’t always this pretty and that there were people who made these changes happen. Perhaps now is the time to realize that it took people who were committed to change to make change happen.
Back to the 80s
Most people knew him as Chuck then. Chuck Gilchrist: fashion photographer. Artist. Former race car driver. Storyteller. Character. Newly appointed senior executive at the May Co., heading its in-house photo department.
Our initial introduction to the Bradley Building was through Chuck. He moved there in 1980 and stayed until 1989. “It was squatting, in a way,” he says in reference to the penthouse loft space he illegally occupied in the building. “The landlord was willing to look the other way.”
His stories about those days include rich, visual accounts of his neighbors. Tales of musicians, the guy who bought and sold rags, and devoted artists. Stories of Kanon, the elevator operator and former mayor from Lebanon always deeply engrossed in political discussions about the Middle East with his cronies as they spoke in foreign tongues.
Then there was the potter who built a huge kiln on the sixth floor, its smokestack unfolding into the alley. He managed to get it going for 18-24 hours one day, until the heat radiated to the window sashes and the building caught on fire. “The pipes were cherry red,” Chuck recalls. “People took hoses and we ran them down the building. It was a miracle there was any building left after that.”
There was the compulsive junk collector whose space, piled high with pieces of airplanes, thousands of books and electrical coils, was reminiscent of a Frankenstein movie. “He was a Renaissance man,” Chuck muses, “a numerologist, kung fu master, writer and artist.”
Chuck was among the first to recognize the immense potential these buildings held for nontraditional souls like his, as a place to stretch without leaving the city. Once built as a home for corporations and manufacturers, these architecturally interesting edifices offered tantalizing lake and city views in a canvas aching to be personalized. Artists and others who eschewed a conventional life in the suburbs were drawn to these spaces that were at once old and new. Over the past 25 years, these residents have redefined what “neighborhood” can mean — helping to preserve Cleveland’s past, as well as its future — and adding a great deal of color besides.
It takes a gallery…
In 1983, Don Harvey, an artist, moved into the Bradley Building, attracted by the raw space and cheap rent. He recalls only a few residents and small businesses were there.
“I lived on the north side of the building. With the lake view, it’s hard to think of how anything could have improved that space,” he says. Harvey had been teaching at the University of Akron, and had been living in a nearby studio when he learned about the Bradley Building. “It was big, neat and clean. It didn’t have much except electrical. I had to install my own kitchen.”
Yet things changed in 1983, when SPACES, an art gallery, opened there. According to Kathleen Barrie, former president of SPACES’ board of directors, the move from One Playhouse Square to the Warehouse District was based, in part, on the number of artists living there.
Harvey later became SPACES’ chairman of the board. “Most of us were regulars at SPACES. Some of us had exhibitions there,” he says.
By 1984, recognizing the need to introduce public art, the Committee for Public Art in the Warehouse District (later known as Cleveland Public Art) was born. “It was about art and urban design and urban planning and integrating art into the landscape,” Harvey explains.
In the meantime, the city of Cleveland was ready to begin a streetscape project on West Sixth Street and hired Seattle artist Buster Simpson for the project. “He had a sensitivity and a love for the district,” Barrie says. “We worked with him for years. He was much more attuned to what we wanted. He celebrated the district’s grittiness.”
“Grittiness” can mean a lot of different things when used to describe the district in those days. Chuck remembers The Happy Apple, a multifloor disco on St. Clair where he would dance the night away amid dealers, hustlers and strippers.
But SPACES wasn’t the only art gallery to open in the 80s. According to Thomas J. Yablonsky, executive director for Historic Warehouse District and Historic Gateway Neighborhood, about four galleries opened, including Wolf’s Gallery, renowned for its art auctions, and Brenda Kroos Gallery, which opened on West Ninth Street.
Tax credits provide needed incentives
While the Warehouse District was becoming a neighborhood, legislation on Capitol Hill was about to turn the squatters into legitimate tenants. According to Yablonsky, “in 1981, Congress passed a Rehabilitation Investment Tax Credit,” which provided financing to redevelop historic buildings. “This was a key driving force behind the redeveloping of the Warehouse District and Historic Gateway.”
Additionaly, Mir Liak Ali, who was then Cleveland’s building commissioner, belonged to a statewide task force created to rebuild and modify the building code so that places like the Bradley Building could be considered mixed-use properties, meeting life, health and safety standards.
“A lot of work went into that building code,” says Jonathan Sandvick, an architect whose firm, founded in 1980, moved to the Warehouse District in 1995. “It had impact on national regulations and the national building codes.”
The code was, in fact, the impetus for redevelopment downtown. Suddenly, it was legal to live in the buildings where people had previously lived illegally. Now these once-vacant buildings held promise.
It takes businesses to create a downtown neighborhood
The growing numbers of residents needed places to eat, play and shop. Yablonsky began conversations with convenience store owners in the late 80s, only to be told that 500 residents would be needed in order to make their move a reality and that 2,000 residents would be needed for a grocery store.
But numbers weren’t always the requirement … at least not for some businesses intrigued by the district. In the mid-80s, Nick Kostas saw value in opening Hilarities in the Root McBride Building (now home to RTA). The Hoyt Block, now home to Blue Point Grille, became home to Workbench, the wine store Hinman’s at the Hoyt, and a florist shop. Across the street, Giovanni’s owner Carl Quagliata transformed a pornographic bookstore into an upscale bistro, Piccolo Mondo, a move that Yablonsky credits for being the key force behind the influx of restaurants in the district. But the impact didn’t end there. The renovation of a corner space in the Johnson Jobbers Chamberlain Block also enticed City Bike and China Sea Express to locate there.
In what seemed like overnight, five coffee shops with boutique-y names like Ooh La La! had opened here.
New developers arrive on the scene
In the late 1980s, Bob Rains, president of Landmark Management, entered the picture. According to Yablonsky, Rains purchased the City Mission (also known as the Grand Arcade) and wanted to make it into an office building. Funding for the renovation came from a loan from the Carpenters’ Pension Fund. Tax credits were sold to BP. Rains ultimately became the largest Warehouse District developer.
Rains and partner John Carney were also responsible for the renovation of the Perry Payne Building at 740 Superior in 1995. “The Perry Payne Building was a spectacular project,” he acknowledges. Combined, the Grand Arcade and Perry Payne Building brought 400 tenants to the district. “We thought it would stabilize the neighborhood, and it did.”
Like everyone else involved in the district during that period, Rains has his share of stories. He acknowledges that his tenants in the Waterstreet Apartments – 20-year-old males who didn’t pay the rent on time – were not ideal, especially when compared with the 30-year-olds residing in Perry Payne who were earning $100,000.
His recollection of touring one of his buildings for the first time brought back memories of “walking through and thinking that the homeless find ways of discovering shelter. I heard three or four guys discussing what they were going to do with me … it involved my not living much longer. If you didn’t walk around then, you have no idea how different it is now,” he says.
Suddenly it’s Historic East Fourth Street
Soon the Warehouse District was no longer the only desirable place to live downtown. Bob Zimmer, a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty, was founder of the East Fourth Street Local Development Corporation.
In the early ’80s, Zimmer went downtown to work at his father’s East Fourth Street jewelry store. “Most people, when they heard about East Fourth, would think of drugs and prostitution.”
The merchants thought otherwise. They were persistent, and developed a grass-roots organization.
“We had a vision of a new vibrant neighborhood downtown. We wanted things to be happening here,” Zimmer says.
And so Zimmer took on other jobs. No longer was he only the founder of the corporation, “I was the founder, president, executive director and street sweeper,” he says proudly. “No kidding. There were no garbage cans on East Fourth, so I would get up and sweep. The first positive step in changing the image here was to allow trash cans and keep it clean. It improved the image of being the place for drugs and prostitution.”
But it wasn’t only about cleaning streets. There was the concept of obtaining National Register of Historic Places status, redeveloping historic buildings and creating another downtown mixed-use neighborhood, too. In the mid-1980s the corporation began these efforts. This neighborhood became known as the Historic Gateway Neighborhood.
“Bob Zimmer fought to see that this area didn’t get demolished,” Yablonsky says. “Having success in the Warehouse District helped.”
Zimmer says he believes that achieving nonprofit status for the neighborhood resulted in the district’s being attractive to pioneer developers like Jerome Schmelzer. Yet getting the district itself onboard was still somewhat of a tough sell. “It took a few years to get the district involved in a storefront program,” he says. “Because this area wasn’t looked on as a neighborhood, it wasn’t being developed like a neighborhood. We had to convince the city that this is the beginning of a neighborhood.”
The pioneers on East Fourth Street — Dr. John Corfias, president of Dyke College, Schmelzer, and Rathskellar Bar owners Nick Hillman and Bill Lekas — provided the foundation for developer MRN Ltd. and others to create the neighborhood as we know it today.
Meanwhile, back at the park
Bancroft Henderson has lived downtown for 37 years, yet his experience is quite different from that of the pioneers in the Warehouse District and East Fourth Street. Henderson lived in the Chesterfield at East 12th Street for a year and at Park Center (now Reserve Square) for 20 years thereafter.
A former political science professor at Cleveland State University, he owns and operates Bancroft Gallery in the Colonial Marketplace at 530 Euclid Ave.
Henderson opted to live downtown “for the excitement of it. I believed in the future of downtown and I didn’t believe in the automobile as transportation.” (He sold his last car in 1953.)
He was a member of the Downtown Organization of Residents (DOOR), a group boasting about 200 members who held monthly meetings and were the prime force behind Clean Cleveland Day. For 15 years, they led the police auxiliary movement. They produced a monthly newspaper, Door to Door, that they distributed to the main buildings downtown. In the fall, they created a heart-a-thon program. And, they adopted Chester Commons, an area he personally cleaned for 15 years on the Saturday mornings after the Friday-night Party in the Park.
He once lived on the fourth floor of the Old Arcade in “the most magnificent apartment I’ve ever seen, with two huge skylights.” Today, he lives in Huron Square at Huron and East Ninth Street. He’s been there for seven years. “I’m a block and a half away from my business,” he says. “The mix is younger. It’s still a good racial and sexual mix.”
The return to the Main Street tradition
Today, with no malls planned across the country, according to Sandvick, we are experiencing a trend to re-create Main Street. “People want to live, work and shop in a traditional town center,” he says. “Today people are choosing to live downtown. And there is so much in place here … sports … work … amenities along the Cuyahoga Valley Corridor.”
Sandvick says 25 percent to 30 percent of Greater Clevelanders are now reverse commuting, i.e., driving into downtown after working in the suburbs. “People are choosing to live downtown. It’s gaining a sense of place.”
Which brings us to the present
Yablonsky has witnessed the evolution of downtown first hand. He’s been there as developers made their magic, transforming abandoned historic properties into showcase rentals. He anticipated that the day would come when those rentals would become condominiums.
As he details the buildings that have been converted from apartments to condominiums — Grand Arcade on West St. Clair, Water Street on West Ninth Street, the Point at Gateway, the Park Building on Public Square at Ontario and Euclid, and others — the memories of how far things have come are apparent. Soon, he says, the Perry Payne Building will go the way of the rest.
There is more to talk about these days. There’s the Pinnacle and Stonebridge with some remaining condominium units available for purchase.
There’s the Avenue District at East 12th and St. Clair, where Zaremba Inc. is, according to Yablonsky, correctly “combining a mixed-use development with neighborhood retail.”
With its unique variety of housing, downtown living is accessible to many. Price ranges now, from an estimated $80,000 to $300,000 on historic conversions to $250,000 to more than $1 million for new builds, are good entry points for attracting new residents.
It is the glass-is-half-full philosophy that makes Yablonsky’s vision of this journey so promising. “Success builds success.”