Think it’s impossible to revive a downtown? Look at Cleveland. Washington Post Dec 19, 2023

Think it’s impossible to revive a downtown? Look at Cleveland.

(Dustin Franz for The Washington Post)

Welcome to Cleveland, the city that leads the nation — by far — in finding new uses for empty office buildings.

This is Public Square in the heart of downtown.

It used to be a transit hub full of cars and buses. A 2016 makeover turned it into an urban “living room” where people gather to eat, ice-skate and enjoy concerts.

Since 2016, developers have converted five office towers around the square into residences. New restaurants and coffee bars have also opened.

The key to Cleveland’s success? Focusing the transformation efforts on a compact area.

Apartments immediately around the square increased from around 40 in 2016 to more than 1,200 by the end of 2023.

When there are lots of office-to-residential conversions in one place, it changes the neighborhood vibe from “9-to-5” office work to an 18-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week place to be.

Former mayor Frank Jackson, who served from 2006 to 2022, says when he entered office, “you could roll a bowling ball downtown after work and you wouldn’t hit anybody. It was a ghost town.” Cleveland epitomized the Rust Belt; businesses were leaving, and people were fleeing. Initial attempts at revival focused on a new convention center, spruced-up sports stadiums and a downtown casino. But something was missing: a great public space for everyone to gather.

The push to renovate Public Square began in 2011. Anthony Coyne, a lawyer who chaired the city’s Group Plan Commission, carried around a PowerPoint deck with a vision for a square as vibrant — and green — as New York City’s Bryant Park or Chicago’s Millennium Park. He showed it to any business executive, civic leader and philanthropist who would listen.

The Public Square as it appeared in the early 1900s. 

The square started off in the 1800s as a pasture for animals. By the early 20th century, it had become a bustling shopping center. Many remember visiting department stores there such as Higbee’s and the May. By the late 20th century, high-rise office towers took over. The city put two big roads through Public Square that chopped the park into four tiny quadrants. The overarching goal was to make it easier for workers to commute from the suburbs. It typified what so many American downtowns became in the past 40 years: functional but sterile.

When Cleveland won the bid to host the 2016 Republican National Convention, the city rushed to show a rejuvenated face to the world. It completed a $50 million renovation of Public Square, partly funded by donations. The result was a well-lit park that removed most traffic lanes. Half of the square is devoted to a big grassy area with many trees and benches. The other side of the square has a cafe, Civil War historical monument and an ice rink (which turns into a splash pad in the summer).

The makeover had an immediate impact. Families brought kids to play in the water park. Office workers and students came to sit on benches and grab lunch at REBoL, a new organic eatery on the square. Rallies and festivals such as “Pride in CLE” filled the square. And real estate developers began to buy the surrounding (mostly vacant) office buildings with a plan to turn them into rental apartments.

A view of Terminal Tower from the 52nd floor of Key Tower.
A view of Terminal Tower in Cleveland. 
The May Company, Terminal Tower, The Reniassance Hotel and Sherwin-Williams.
Some of the recently converted buildings in the Public Square area.

The Standard, a former union headquarters, was turned into 287 apartments that began leasing in 2018. Cleveland’s iconic Terminal Tower became part office, part residential with 297 units that began leasing in 2019. The May, the former department store, opened with 307 units in 2020. Two more former office towers — 55 Public Square and 75 Public Square — were turned into luxury apartments that began leasing in the past two years.

Young professionals are the main group moving in, especially because all the units are rentals. But empty nesters, judges, athletes and even a few young families have also leased properties so they can be near museums and Cleveland’s sports stadiums. For the first time in years, a yellow school bus makes a daily stop at the square to pick up kids living there. “We’re a neighborhood church again,” said Rev. Stephen Blonder Adams, senior pastor of Old Stone Church, which has been on the square since 1820. His blessing of the animals is a hit with all the dog owners living by the square.

Public Square is luring businesses, too. Paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams is building its new headquarters on what used to be a nearby parking lot.

Urban planners call this focusing on a “node” to get momentum going. Success then spreads: Developers are transforming more old offices nearby.

There are more people out and about in the evenings now compared with before the pandemic, according to Spectus, a cellphone location data solution by Cuebiq Group. Malisse Sinito, the owner of restaurants around the square including Marble Room Steaks and Raw Bar, Marble Room Sushi and Il Venetian, said revenue and the number of diners are now exceeding pre-covid levels. “I’ve never watched downtown grow at this pace before,” said chef Rocco Whalen, who opened the restaurant Fahrenheit at 55 Public Square this past summer.

Some cities have not used this concentrated “node” approach. D.C.’s map of buildings slated for conversion, for example, shows a scattering of sites. That should be reconsidered in 2024. A denser population attracts grocery stores, coffee shops and pocket parks, among other amenities.

Revitalizing Cleveland also took government support, in the form of a 15-year property tax abatement for repurposing an old building. The state of Ohio offered a sizable tax credit for rehabilitating historic properties, as well. Cleveland leads the nation in the percentage of its office space that is being turned into apartments hotels and used for other purposes, according to CBRE, a commercial real estate services and investment company.

“Without the state tax credit, we couldn’t have done it,” said Doug Price III, chief executive of K&D Group which has renovated numerous downtown properties, including Terminal Tower and 55 Public Square.

The city of Cleveland and the state updated zoning codes to address the unique needs of converting older buildings. For example, the city began allowing residents to move in once a floor was completed instead of waiting to finish the entire renovation. Mayor Justin Bibb (D) wants to replicate the success of Public Square with a similar transformation of the nearby riverfront and lakefront districts.

Ice skaters at Public Square’s rink on Dec. 7. 

If there is one mistake Cleveland has made, it is still catering to vehicles in Public Square. A bus lane still cuts the square into two parts. The road is unpopular with city residents and should be removed. There was also a recent shooting in the square that startled the community, and Cleveland, like many cities, is struggling with unhoused people living downtown. Mr. Bibb calls public safety his “first, second, third, fourth and fifth” priorities. He has boosted police pay by at least $8,000 for rank-and-file officers. He is also changing tax incentives next year to try to spur more development in parts of the city that have seen less investment.

Despite the flaws, Cleveland’s Public Square is a beacon to other cities looking to transform. Anna Huttner is one of the young professionals working at a firm on the square and living at the May — the place where her mom and grandfather used to shop. To Huttner and many of her peers, downtown is the place to be.

If Cleveland can do it, other cities can, too.

About this story

The satellite images of Cleveland were captured in June 2023 from Planet Labs. Greater Cleveland Partnership and Cleveland-based City Architecture helped develop the visual assets of the article. The foot traffic analysis of the area around the Public Square was done by Amir Forouhar and Karen Chapple at School of Cities, University of Toronto, using anonymous location data provided by Spectus.

Market District Tour

From CSU Cleveland Historical, a tour of the Market District of Downtown Cleveland:

“This tour was created in conjunction with the Downtown Cleveland Alliance for the Sparx City Hop on September 10, 2011. It is a loop tour that starts in front of the West Side Market on West 25th Street. It not only explores the history of the market but also visits a few sites nearby.”

The link is here

City Hop: Downtown

From CSU Cleveland Historical

This walking tour was created in conjunction with the Downtown Cleveland Alliance for the Sparx City Hop on September 10, 2011. It is a loop tour that begins at 200 Public Square (the BP Building). Skyscrapers, monuments, and civic buildings are among the points of interest on the tour, which offers a look at Downtown’s diverse architecture, its rich past, and its ever-evolving nature.

The link is here

Teaching Cleveland Digital