City in a Box

What is Crocker Park? Just another mall or a real neighborhood? We asked the people who live there. Their answers weren’t always what you might think.
It took a while, but now Christopher Daoust can spot the locals.

They don’t linger to look at the window displays in Westlake’s prefab downtown, Crocker Park. They’ve grown immune to the meant-for-teenagers fashions of Abercrombie & Fitch and the trendy eye shadows of Sephora. Either they’ve seen them so many times that they’ve memorized them, or they’ve just stopped caring.

“You carry yourself a little differently when you live here,” he says. “You know exactly where everything is at. You walk like you’re on a mission.”

Christopher will give the other locals a friendly nod — the kind those in subdivisions give to neighbors they don’t have time to talk to — acknowledging that they live in this surreal world.

Christopher and his wife, Kimberly Daoust, were looking for an urban atmosphere when they moved from rural northwest Ohio to start their professional lives in the big city. But when Christopher looked at places in downtown Cleveland, he says he couldn’t find that busy atmosphere. Downtown felt empty on weekends. What they were looking for wasn’t in the big city. It’s in suburbia.

“I wanted to walk out my door and shop. Eat. I wanted to walk down the stairs and be out,” he says. Plus, in Westlake’s Crocker Park, he has easy access to his car. “This just felt like the best of both worlds.”

No one really knows what to call places like Crocker Park: Downtown. Lifestyle center. City in a box. New-urbanist neighborhood. Mixed-use development. Outdoor mall.

Crocker Park opened in November 2004, and a small community of residents began forming right away. Crocker Park has 162 apartments, all filled except for typical turnover. Townhouses are being constructed that will add another 116 homes. Soon, 102 condominiums will also be up. Even more housing is on its way later.

Residents, such as the Daousts, say they stumble across occasional reminders that they’re living in the burbs. But this is as close as they can find to their ideal urban lifestyle in Northeast Ohio.
Cleveland and its suburbs are going through confusing changes. A stereotypical suburban strip mall — the unwalkable Steelyard Commons — just opened in Cleveland. Meanwhile, a newer suburb builds its future on a dense, pedestrian-friendly project.

Who could have predicted people would move to Westlake for an urban experience?
On the weekends, Christopher likes to leave his third-floor apartment to grab a cup of coffee at the Starbucks across Crocker Park Boulevard. Sometimes he’ll half-read a newspaper or magazine and, from his seat on an outdoor patio, half-watch the passersby.

Early morning shoppers bounce from furniture shops to bookstores to street vendors selling smaller items. Some folks head out to restaurants.
Mothers push strollers. Young couples hold hands. Old folks window-shop and grab coffee themselves. The sidewalks are packed, great for people-watching.

Christopher is 28 years old and slim with slicked hair. He’s approachable — the kind of guy you can tell is quick to make friends. He works in the health care industry. Kimberly, a nurse, is 27. She’s pretty and has the glow of a newlywed. She smiles at her husband when he’s not looking.

Many Crocker Park residents seem to be young professionals, but there are plenty of older folks living there. One neighbor is in his 50s, owns a few businesses and didn’t need a huge home anymore.

Crocker Park has at least one marquee resident: Andrea Vecchio, of WKYC’s “Good Company,” lives there. Others have come and, apparently, gone. The Daousts say Browns lineman LeCharles Bentley’s junk mail still ends up in their mailbox. But folks here are hesitant to talk about any famous neighbors. Indians players have been known to pop up in one of the bars, and it’s rumored that at least one rents an apartment in Crocker Park, though no one could (or would?) confirm it.

They take privacy seriously here. Security walks the area and will approach outsiders who look like they don’t belong, such as a Cleveland Magazine reporter working a callbox in hopes of meeting residents.

Ray Bednar, a 61-year-old mechanic who lives in Crocker Park, says he’s gotten to know the community better since staying at home recuperating from open-heart surgery. He’s met some of his neighbors by talking to regulars at his favorite spots and learning they also have apartments here. Perched above the retail stores, just like those on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights or Madison Avenue in Lakewood, they are easily overlooked by outsiders.

The apartments are high-end. The prices mirror those in downtown Cleveland. One-bedrooms start at $905 a month, plus heat and electricity. A three-bedroom goes for $2,100 a month. They have a homey feel. With the crowd noise below and a view of another tall building across the street, it almost feels like New York City.

Granted, most of the stores and restaurants are chains. But if you’re attracted to a place like this, that probably doesn’t bother you very much.
Christopher and Kimberly say it doesn’t feel like they live in a shopping plaza, but it does lack something intangible that makes a place urban.
Another resident, Cassandra Vasu, 29, says the retail really does define the place.

“It feels like a city like Disney feels like a city,” she says. “A lot of people treat it like a mall, which makes it feel like a mall.” She says it would feel more like a downtown if there were a place of worship, a school or a post office.

Vasu and her husband hope to move to Europe. Until then, she’ll probably stay at Crocker Park. Even with its failings, it’s still the closest place here to what she’s seeking.

“In downtown Cleveland, there’s not really anywhere to shop or eat. There is also a safety concern,” she says. “We’ll probably stay here until we leave Ohio.”

Westlake voters approved the construction of Crocker Park in 2000. It was a big deal. It meant allowing retail, residential and office space to mix in the same property.

The hope was that Crocker Park would become “Downtown Westlake,” says Bob Parry, the city director of planning and economic development. He says after 2 1/2 years, it’s starting to fit that role.

Parry loves seeing people walk around Crocker Park. The Friday night concerts and Fourth of July celebrations reinforce that community quality, he says.

“It is a real place,” he says. “It’s a location people recognize. It is a gathering place, a retail place and a residential place. And it’s only [two-thirds of the way] done. When it’s fully completed, it will be an even bigger success.”

Older neighborhoods have little hole-in-the-wall treasures that only locals know about. Here, there’s no such thing. But there are oddities that outsiders might never get to truly appreciate.

In one of the large medians, three pairs of people sit across from each other, playing chess on the outdoor boards. It’s no Washington Square Park, but it is starting to attract regular players. It’s dusk. Two people arrive early for a movie and decide to play chess while they wait. They don’t notice the time until it’s too late and miss their show, then decide to hang there until the next showing.

On the ground behind them is a chessboard with knights and rooks the size of 3-year-olds. Teenagers slide them in a giant, dreamlike game, like something out of the mind of Salvador Dalí. Instead of dignified deaths, chess pieces are captured through vicious collisions.

Scenes like this just didn’t happen in Westlake before. The place may be prefabricated, but it is a community.

Christopher and Kimberly Daoust’s apartment overlooks the chessboards. Christopher says visitors don’t always notice all that makes this place feel like home. They don’t notice the field where you can chuck a baseball or football around.

“A lot of friends have said, ‘He lives at the mall!’ ” Christopher says. “But then we take them around, and they see that there’s a whole lot more than that.”
Katie Bloom, 22, relocated from Michigan to work at the Cleveland Clinic. When she moved in a few weeks ago, she wondered if it would feel like a shopping plaza, but she says that’s not the case. “I wanted a place that was safe, and it just looked safe.”

Though some residents see competition between Crocker Park and downtown Cleveland, it’s not really a fair comparison, says Terry Schwarz, a senior planner at Kent State’s Urban Design Center in Cleveland.

“It is unhealthy to say Crocker Park is killing our city,” she says. “For many of the people who live in Crocker Park, no matter what you did in Cleveland, these people would want to live in Westlake.”

Schwarz says a more authentic urban area has a lot more surprise than Crocker Park, which is really a simulated urban experience.
Looking down some streets, it does almost feel like you’re looking at a movie set. While buildings use different construction materials, everything looks like it goes together — new and shiny and plastic. It’s Hollywood without the drug overdoses.

“Some people really like it,” Schwarz says. “It feels almost like ‘The Truman Show’ to me.”

Meanwhile, in a bizarre blending of the urban and suburban, Crocker Park developer Robert Stark is looking at downtown Cleveland for his next project.

Bear with me on this: This suburban model, which replicates an old urban model, will now get an urban twist and be placed back in an urban setting.

Joe Mazzola, director of development at Stark Enterprises, says the plan is to acquire land in the already-thriving Warehouse District — parking lots, for instance — and redevelop it with retail, office space and residences. He says the idea is to create “street scenes” like those already in Cleveland: Market Avenue in Ohio City, East Fourth Street — not to put a Crocker Park downtown.

“I’ve heard people refer to Crocker Park as neo-urbanism,” he says. “It is neo-suburbanism. This is different.”
At 9 p.m. on weeknights, people head for Crocker Park’s parking garages. It looks almost like a high school fire drill. It’s the time when many stores shut their doors. Unless they grab a bite to eat, most shoppers and workers are heading home.

Christopher Daoust likes to come out at this time of the evening. He’ll call it a night, just like everyone else, but he gets to swoop past the crowd and press his keys against the security system. With a beep, he’s home.

Christopher and Kimberly say they never really get annoyed by the shoppers. That would be hypocritical. After all, if Christopher goes to buy a cup of coffee, doesn’t that make him a shopper, too?

Still, he likes people knowing that he lives here. He’s proud of his home, even as he knows what others must think:
That guy lives at the mall!
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