Soon, downtown's apartment boom will reach 29 stories. Skyscrapers, left empty by bankers and gas company workers, are finding new careers as high-rise apartment towers. From the top windows of the Ameritrust Tower, where construction crews will soon build luxury apartments, you can see every corner of Cleveland's fastest-growing neighborhood. To the west, the classic National City Bank building now houses the Lofts at Rosetta. To the north, the glassy, 21-story East Ohio Gas building is being reborn as the Residences at 1717. The sandstone Hanna Building Annex in PlayhouseSquare has become the Residences at Hanna. Farther east, the Langston, a collection of colorful, townhouse-like apartments, has risen along Chester Avenue.
Ten years ago, a pedestrian strolling by the Ameritrust Tower could've reasonably wondered if the talk of a downtown living revival was just hype. Euclid Avenue was still empty and forlorn at night. East Fourth Street's three apartment buildings seemed like an island. Today, a metropolitan buzz has returned to lower Euclid after decades of quiet. East Fourth's seven residential addresses form a chain that extends around the corner to the 668 Euclid building and the Rosetta lofts.
Downtown's population spiked from 6,000 to 9,000 people between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. census says. It's surely past 10,000 now — 600 more apartments have opened up in the last 18 months alone.
Yet that doesn't come close to fulfilling the surging demand. The Residences at 668 has kept a waiting list of 100 people or more since it opened in 2010. Many other new properties also keep waiting lists, though some buildings have a few vacancies. When downtown apartment living is advertised on Indians radio broadcasts, you know the trend has truly caught on.
Patrick Manfroni, 33, has watched the boom from his fifth-floor apartment in the Osborn, a flatiron-style building on Huron Avenue. He's lived at the Osborn since 2005.
"When I moved downtown, there were so many pessimists from the baby boom generation," Manfroni says. " You're moving downtown? Is it safe? Are there grocery stores?' I can't believe the mind shift in the last eight years."
As more high-end apartments open, older residents are moving in to enjoy the easy walk to Progressive Field, Playhouse-Square, the casino and some of the region's best restaurants. Still, young professionals like Manfroni are driving the trend. Millennials, born in the 1980s and 1990s, are reversing the suburban migration of older generations. They're more likely to want to live and work in a city. Manfroni walks to work at OnShift, a software company in PlayhouseSquare. About half of downtown residents also work in the central city, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance estimates.
Downtown is more green than it was a few years ago. Perk Plaza, once an isolated space, reopened in 2011 as a grassy park filled with blazing columns of light. Downtown's Mall B, the convention center's roof, has reappeared as a green slope with an amphitheater feel. Mall C, across Lakeside Avenue, hosts Ultimate Frisbee games on warm-weather Wednesdays.
For a decade, City Hall has pegged 25,000 as the magic population number, the critical mass needed to make downtown a complete 24-hour neighborhood with all the stores and services and takeout restaurants a big-city dweller expects. That'll take years more and depend on economic changes we can't predict.
Developers will have to build more new apartment complexes to go with all the readapted historic buildings. The condo market, which receded during the downturn, will need to revive. Meanwhile, civic leaders will need to find money to realize their ambitious plans to remake Public Square into more of a neighborhood park. Good new schools will need to open to keep married couples downtown after they start families.
But unlike other urban dreams, which often elude Cleveland's grasp, this one is actually showing results. The digital designs of five years ago have become girders, glass and brick. And more is on the way.