Ari Maron gives the mammoth steel door in the basement of the United Bank Building a push — not quite a shove, but more than a nudge.
"This is 90,000 pounds, and you can move it," Maron says. Its two enormous hinges budge slightly. "It's that balanced."
Eight feet tall and four feet thick, the open door once secured the bank's massive vault, a wide, low-ceilinged room beyond. Maron, with an urban treasure-hunter's eye and the keys to three neighborhoods' landmarks, takes his iPhone out of a jeans pocket and snaps a photo.
The 33-year-old developer and his family own the United Bank Building, and the vault is the sort of raw material they like working with. Right now, it's empty except for a folding chair and a safe thick enough to deter a blowtorch. But Maron has a plan for it. He wants to remake it as a retro, VIP experience, a special-events and dining room for his new tenant, Crop Bistro & Bar.
Here in Ohio City, on East Fourth Street and in University Circle, the Marons are reinventing the remnants of our big-city grandeur as new urban experiences.
It's mid-September, three weeks before Crop opens, and upstairs, workers are converting the former United Bank lobby, a temple to Cleveland's pre-Depression wealth, into a shrine to culinary creativity. Marble columns the color of money rise above an open kitchen and a massive dining-room floor. The white marble bar top is transplanted from hallways high up in the building. A towering decades-old mural depicts head-kerchiefed peasants bustling around a street stand, evoking the immigrants' market outside the tall windows.
Maron walks onto a platform set off by an old wooden banister. "This will be the farmers market area," he says. Crop will sell local fruits and vegetables at a store inside the restaurant. It fits the artisanal theme of the United Bank Building's redevelopment, Maron's goal of recruiting local food vendors and retailers as tenants. Here, on East Fourth, and at the Uptown development opening in University Circle next spring, Maron has assembled a dream team of Cleveland restaurateurs, retailers, artisans, boutique owners and tattoo artists.
He steps out of Crop and down Lorain Avenue to show off another new tenant's space. Courtney Bonning, local baker and recent winner on the Food Network's Cupcake Wars, is moving her Bonbon Pastry & Café into a storefront next door. Workers are hammering the furnishings into place.
Maron turns back up Lorain, toward West 25th Street, where several tenants have already set up shop: the local-fashion and home-goods store Room Service, the Voodoo Monkey tattoo parlor, the boutique and letterpress printer Salty Not Sweet. But after he passes Crop's windows, where chairs are stacked in twos, anticipating the restaurant's October opening, Maron stops on the corner, across from the West Side Market, and starts to explain why his family bought the United Bank Building four years ago.
"You walk into the bank lobby, and you fall in love with it," he says. Then he pauses, like a master of ceremonies teasing out anticipation as the curtain's edge trembles.
Instead of explaining what else he saw in the building, Maron enters through a side door and into a small elevator lobby unchanged since the '60s. He rides to eight, walks up a floor and steps into a bare room filled with dust and construction debris.
"Here's the thing we fell in love with," he says at last.
A dozen east-facing windows look out at a dramatic 80-year-old vista: the clock face on the West Side Market's water tower, the mile-long Lorain-Carnegie Bridge and downtown's skyscrapers. Windows to the north frame West 25th's shops, banks and bars and beyond them, the lake. The avenue's sweep is inspiring, as if calling on people to envision what more the city could be.
But Maron has done more than dream. Eleven years ago, he graduated from college and went to work for his father, Rick Maron, whose company, MRN Ltd., was redeveloping East Fourth Street's historic buildings into apartments. While still in his 20s, Ari masterminded the street's new atmosphere and handpicked its all-star lineup of Cleveland chefs. Now, he's a partner in MRN, and his father has let him take charge of the big-picture parts of the company's work: putting deals together, buying buildings, designing projects, choosing tenants. Many of Maron's deals are coming to fruition right now: MRN is building Uptown and recently reopened the renovated Tudor Arms, a Gothic-spired 1930 hotel on Carnegie Avenue.
Though a developer, Ari is dressed in jeans and a soft charcoal T-shirt and talks like an urban idealist. He wants to reinvent historic neighborhoods and buildings according to 21st-century ideas about city living, built on shops and restaurants, plazas and patios, crowds and foot traffic.
"There's a lifestyle that I think human beings in general and particularly young people and empty nesters are craving," he says, "built around a sense of community."
But most tight-knit, exciting city neighborhoods, such as Tremont or Collinwood's Waterloo Road, build up organically, as like-minded businesses and people follow one another there. Especially in Cleveland, the change can take a decade or more. On blocks MRN owns, Maron nudges the process along, planning every detail, from the tenants to the street's design.
Maron creates a neighborhood and an entertainment experience in the same spot. He believes that reviving pockets of a shrinking city takes more than a few hundred residents; it means building welcoming streets and filling them with so many restaurants and stores that people can't find elsewhere, they'll drive in from miles away. He's shown a knack for knowing what his fellow young professionals like, the characters and experiences that get them enthused about living in Cleveland.
"When we moved to Shaker, I couldn't stand the [new] house — it was so normal!" Maron recalls.
His father went into business with Ari's uncle and aunt, buying and renovating old apartment buildings and homes in the East Side suburbs. Small projects became big ones. The company bought the historic Kingsbury Building on Lee Road in Shaker Heights and converted it to apartments. That convinced them they could make the leap to the biggest renovation opportunity around: downtown Cleveland.
Ari first got to know East Fourth Street as a teenager, when his father and uncle bought the Buckeye Building on the street's southwest corner. It was 1995. The windows were blown out. Pigeons were roosting on upper floors. Drug dealers and prostitutes worked the narrow street below. Upstairs, in summer, Ari demolished walls with sledgehammers and did some carpentry — "anything that wouldn't cause too many problems when I screwed it up," he says.
He wasn't handy like his dad. "I was a violinist," he says, "so I was more focused on a potential career in music."
Maron had been playing violin since he was not quite 4 years old, when he was mesmerized by a group of young classical music students performing at a Youngstown street fair. When he was about 6, he met Itzhak Perlman after the master violinist's Severance Hall performance. He and his younger brother took weekend music lessons at the Cleveland Institute of Music and even named their dog Schicchi, after a Puccini opera. He played with the Cleveland Orchestra's youth orchestra and, after graduating from Shaker Heights High, headed off to the prestigious music program at Rice University in Houston.
But with a year left in college, Maron had a change of heart he still can't explain.
"It's a little cheesy," he says. "I decided I wanted to change the world." He didn't know how he'd do that, "but I didn't think that meant playing section violin in an orchestra for the rest of my life."
Unsure of his next move, he came home after graduation in 2000 and started working for his father. "Six months was the idea," he recalls, "to learn enough about the business to be dangerous. But I really wasn't sure this was what I wanted to do."
Maron shadowed his father at meetings with lawyers and City Hall officials, soaking up all he could. Rick Maron was buying more properties on East Fourth Street and converting the former National City Bank building at Euclid and East Sixth into a Holiday Inn Express. He needed help managing the expanding company.
Soon, Maron discovered a way to connect his father's work and his own imagination. He started representing MRN at meetings with Flierl, who consults from the firm Cooper Carry. MRN and other downtown landowners had hired Flierl to create a plan for developing Lower Euclid, the blocks of Euclid Avenue just east of Public Square. Maron went along as Flierl led trips to Denver; Portland, Ore.; and Providence, R.I., to study how other downtowns worked.
At about the same time, a Dutch girlfriend introduced Maron to Amsterdam, Paris, Zurich, Rome, Venice and Florence, cities with busy plazas and streets full of little shops and lots of people. He visited high school friends who'd moved to bigger cities: New York, Chicago, San Francisco.
Maron saw a nationwide trend: Young people from the suburbs were rediscovering cities. "The way a big part of our generation wanted to live was not the way we had grown up," he says.
Those experiences clicked like tumblers opening a lock. For Maron, changing the world now meant making Cleveland a more attractive, vibrant city — starting with the downtown block his father owned.
Maron looked beyond East Fourth's wig shops, jewelry store and Wendy's to the street's intimate scale, historic character and dense collection of storefronts. He thought about the tenants already living in MRN's Buckeye and Windsor buildings. Like iron ore, coke and limestone in our steelmaking past, these would be the raw materials for recreating a bustling urban neighborhood.
Thinking of the Piazza San Marco, Venice's always-crowded central square, Maron imagined East Fourth as a pedestrian street, closed to car traffic, paved with brick instead of concrete, lined with patios full of diners, filled with the sounds of strumming street musicians, illuminated by lights strung from building to building.
With Flierl's help, he created a plan.
"When I saw that," recalls his father, Rick, "I said, 'Oh, wow, is this cool!' "
Now, Maron's vision has become a landmark, those strands of lights spanning the street familiar to thousands of downtown diners and a recurring image in newspaper photos and tourist brochures. About 500 people, including Maron, live in the street's apartments. Eleven restaurants line the block, including Lola and the Greenhouse Tavern, run by local celebrity chefs Michael Symon and Jonathon Sawyer. Stores are opening on East Fourth too — the Dredgers Union, a fashion and home goods shop, and soon the CLE Clothing Co., the local T-shirt makers. Ari Maron recruited nearly all the tenants. Except for the House of Blues, they're all local talent.
That's why Maron sometimes gets sole credit for East Fourth's success. The design and feel of the street, and the mix of apartments, restaurants and clubs, represent his ideas about what makes cities exciting. East Fourth is a one-block version of what he saw in his travels, the things his friends who left town were searching for.
"So much of what people are seeking out are places that don't remind them of every other place they've been," Maron says. "There's a real market for that in Cleveland."
So when CWRU and University Circle Inc. invited MRN and four other big-name local developers to compete to build a new downtown for the neighborhood, Maron opened with a violin solo.
Maron had taken years of classes at the Cleveland Institute of Music, six blocks away. He wanted the review panel to feel that his development team had an artistic sense of how to improve Cleveland's arts and culture district.
"His point was to say, 'My heart and soul is here,' " says Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc. "I'm not saying he won it on the tune he played, but it gave you complete confidence that they were 100 percent committed."
MRN's bold plan to erect apartments and condos on both sides of Euclid, with stores and restaurants on the first floors, promised a bustling, very urban street. They'd just developed East Fourth, so "people believed they could bring some pretty neat tenants to a place," Ronayne says.
This fall, five years later, Uptown is finally rising along Euclid Avenue. For now, it looks like two long blue boxes, three stories tall, pressing up against the street and sidewalk. The storefronts' 20-foot-tall windows invite people in. Upstairs, communal patios and an irregular pattern of horizontal and vertical windows break up the apartments' facades — a provocative, contemporary design by San Francisco architect Stanley Saitowitz.
South of Euclid, where the new project and the existing Triangle apartments create a sort of urban canyon, MRN plans a new pedestrian street called The Alley, an East Fourth for the East Side. Jonathon Sawyer will open a new restaurant there, as will Scott Kim of Sasa in Shaker Square and ABC the Tavern from Ohio City. Trendy fast food — Chipotle, Panera, Jimmy John's — will serve a college crowd.
The street will face the future Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, a postmodern cube of dark glass now under construction next door. "So it becomes this really vibrant, intimate urban space," says Maron, standing where the street will be, sporting a white hard hat, wearing a fleece jacket to ward off a chilly rain.
Field Operations, the designers of Manhattan's High Line elevated park, designed MOCA's outdoor plaza and Uptown's new street. Even the restaurant patios are designed to create intimacy; they're ringed by drink rails meant to get cocktail-sippers and dog-walkers to interact.
But getting Uptown from blueprints to steel took more than an idea. The project almost died twice, and Maron played a big part in resurrecting it, proving himself a tenacious businessman who can craft unusual financial deals.
"He's a pusher by nature," says Russell Berusch, former vice president for commercial development at Case Western Reserve University, who worked with Maron on Uptown. "He pushes to get opportunities vetted, problems solved, commitments made."
MRN lost its original Uptown partner, Mesirow Financial from Chicago, when the economy faltered. Local developer Zaremba Homes signed on to build Uptown's condos, then dropped out when the economy tanked completely and banks refused to lend on condo projects. Finally, MRN went ahead as the project's sole developer.
The Marons asked Saitowitz to scale back Uptown by redesigning it as an apartment complex with fewer floors. Maron, acting as Uptown's lead financing agent, and his younger brother, Jori, reorganized the deal.
"Cleveland is excellent at this: figuring out how to do what I call 'stupid deals,' " Maron says: "deals that, on the surface, the rent or the income doesn't justify the investment."
The Marons and their partners stacked 11 layers of financing to make Uptown happen. "Baklava financing," he calls it: a multilayered deal with a conventional bank loan on top. Much like Maron assembles a creative mix of restaurateurs and retailers at East Fourth or Uptown, he lines up nearly every tax-credit program and funding source he can to make his deals work.
The Cleveland Foundation and Gund Foundation gave CWRU and UCI low-interest loans and grants totaling $8 million for the project. City Hall loaned $5 million and will spend $2 million to build the new street. Two local investment funds also chipped in. CWRU master-leased the storefronts where a Barnes & Noble and a Constantino's grocery store are moving in, guaranteeing lease payments even if the stores aren't successful.
This piecemeal approach to financing is pretty common for big projects in Cleveland these days. Scott Wolstein's Flats East Bank project is moving ahead thanks to a similar multilayer financing.
But the Marons are especially experienced at it. They learned the skill on East Fourth. They built the House of Blues with historic tax credits and special city tax financing because banks wouldn't lend on it.
Without community financial support for its projects, MRN would "probably still [be] trying to build homes in the Heights," Maron says. "Or I'd still be a violinist."
In fact, it's clear he's thought about the connection between the two many times.
"When you're a violinist, you start with a piece of sheet music," he says. "You understand what it's going to sound like or feel like when you're performing. But you have to go through this process of working with people, whether it's collaboratively in a chamber music group or an orchestra. Sometimes those are difficult times."
The conflict sounds more rock star than the recital-room austerity that's the refrain of Maron's personality. But he's not afraid to fight for the smallest creative detail, either — say, for example, nixing an unwritten dramatic pause during a performance of Beethoven's Opus 18 No. 1 on East Fourth Street last summer as part of a classical string quartet.
With development, "You start with an old building or a piece of dirt, and you work with a whole bunch of people, collaboratively," he says. "Sometimes there's arguments, but you work through them, and eventually, something opens. And it's a really wonderfully satisfying feeling when it happens."
Like many who butt up against the political process, some of Maron's frustration comes from the slow tempo of bureaucracy. "We're more, 'Let's get a deal done,' " he says.
Maron's biggest political conflicts flared up years ago over his design for East Fourth Street. Many of his most innovative ideas — the brick pedestrian street, the strings of lights instead of lampposts, even the space for street musicians — violated Cleveland's conservative city code. He says MRN needed 15 code changes or variances to get the street done. Former mayor Jane Campbell's administration invested $10 million at East Fourth — lending $3 million to the Corner Alley, creating the tax financing for the House of Blues, spending $1.5 million to revamp the street as Maron envisioned. But Cleveland's Division of Fire battled Maron's plans to close East Fourth to traffic. The firemen would still rather open it up.
"You can readily see we do not have access down the street," says Capt. John McKenna, Cleveland's fire marshal. Fire trucks can't get up East Fourth because of the patio rails, the low-strung lights, the poles marking off the pedestrian zone. Though the city's fire-truck hoses reach 800 feet, almost twice the length of East Fourth itself, the barriers could still slow a rescue.
City councilman Joe Cimperman, who advocated for Maron in the dispute, says it's a classic trade-off between regulation and economic development. "If Ari is able to do more work, we can hire more firefighters," he says.
Maron got what we wanted at East Fourth through a mix of willpower and compromise. For instance, every Cleveland street has to have a curb, so Maron got the city to agree to a granite curb flush with the brick-colored concrete pavers, like a dotted line in stone, marking off a path for emergency vehicles.
Making the street into a nightlife destination took a different type of tenacity. Maron patiently courted the street's lineup of Cleveland personalities — Symon and Sawyer, Zack Bruell of Chinato and Danielle DeBoe of the Dredgers Union. Like a careful curator, he turned down a lot of prospective tenants, waiting for businesses he really wanted.
"He's committed to playing out the dream he has for this street," says DeBoe. "He wants it to be a well-rounded neighborhood." The Dredgers Union space stood empty until this year as Maron said no to various interested businesses, including a lingerie store and bars and restaurants that he thought didn't fit the mix. "He's gotten close on lots of deals he walked away from," says DeBoe, "because his instincts were telling him to be patient and hold out."
Maron's company has become a patron of the city's culinary and retail adventurers. Often, MRN is not just their landlord but also their investor and silent partner, taking an ownership stake in addition to rent or instead of rent. Maron's younger brother, Jori, MRN's numbers guy, offers them advice on staying in the black.
Not every young creative endeavor has been ready for MRN to promote it to the big stage. The Bang and the Clatter Theatre, a daring, edgy Akron theater company, took over a Euclid Avenue space four years ago after Maron promised them free rent if they fixed it up. Today, the Bang and the Clatter's storefront, decorated with the enigmatic slogan "Sometimes in the Silence," itself stands silent. Blame it on the economy, or a historic tax credit that didn't come through, but the move to Cleveland proved fatal for the theater company. It and its founders ended up penniless and closed both locations in 2009.
But the big danger to projects like Maron's isn't a failed experiment, but a bad tenant. Maron knows this. He says his goal is "to control a critical mass of buildings, so that we can help control the destiny of a neighborhood." That way, he explains, "you don't get the wrong uses that mess with a strategy."
MRN faces that problem in Ohio City as it tries to extend the bourgeois-bohemian vibe around the West Side Market south along West 25th Street. Just a block from Maron's budding street of cupcakes, popcorn and letterpressing, a man was shot to death late one night this September outside the nightclub Envy.
MRN is Envy's reluctant landlord. The Marons inherited the lease when they bought the building; it doesn't expire until 2014. That's a long time to live with a tenant with a history of noise disturbances and fights among patrons, especially when Maron wants to bring round-the-clock activity to the street. His newest tenant, a 60-bed hostel for international travelers, wants to open on West 25th next year.
Maron is not likely to wait three years to control the block's destiny. He's quiet about this, probably for legal reasons, but others suggest Cimperman, City Hall lawyers, Ohio City's neighborhood organization and the block club are going to band together to try to get Envy's liquor license revoked. If so, Maron says, he's willing to testify.
"No!" Maron says. "Josh got married." The worker knows who Maron is, but he has his personal life confused with another bespectacled guy in a hard hat.
"You scared me for a second!" Maron says.
Maron doesn't even have a serious girlfriend at the moment. "I've been dating Uptown," he quips.
Maron lives an extreme version of the bachelor lifestyle, amplified not just by money but by the fact that he lives on the very street he redesigned. He has a two-bedroom apartment ("that's too big for me," he says) in one of MRN's rehabbed buildings on East Fourth Street. He doesn't cook, so he mostly grabs take-out from the street's many restaurants. When he needs new clothes or gifts, he goes to the Dredgers Union and hands his credit card to DeBoe, who picks stuff out for him.
"Shopping is not his favorite way to spend time," she says. "I think he'd rather be jogging."
Maron's usual work outfit is intensely casual: blue jeans, a T-shirt (often charcoal), and maybe a checkered shirt over that, unbuttoned. But up close, his loafers are a deep chestnut brown, and that charcoal T-shirt looks very soft and expensive. His casualness is that of a businessman who makes his own rules.
Though he lives just above the city's busiest nightlife district, Maron is not quite the man about town. At night, he's more likely to be up in his apartment practicing the violin than down at the House of Blues seeing a show.
"I'm astounded by his utter lack of knowledge about popular music," says DeBoe. A conversation about the Rolling Stones will stump him, but he can name a classical piece after hearing a snippet of it. "He can talk endlessly about breaking down the science of classical music," she says.
For years, Maron has been MRN's spokesperson, a task his father, uncomfortable as a public figure, was happy to cede to him. But Maron is only comfortable in a public role in comparison to his dad; he is quiet in person, his speaking voice low. He deflects questions that attempt to identify his individual accomplishments, tries to spread the credit around.
"He is a very introverted person," says Joe Cimperman. "It's hard for people to believe that. He's also very deferential when it comes to praise."
Maron is a good public speaker, but not an overwhelming one, more intellectual than flashy, more classical soloist than rock star. The power of his delivery comes from precise arguments, focus and confidence.
Sometimes, Maron sounds like a guy who's trying to remake the entire city, not just the blocks MRN owns. In September, Maron gave a talk sponsored by the Urban Land Institute at MRN's Tudor Arms Hotel. Though it was billed as a "Meet the Developer" discussion, Maron talked a lot about how MRN's projects fit into the neighborhoods around them. He used the word "we" in constantly shifting ways, sometimes as if he meant himself or MRN, sometimes as if to mean all civic-minded Clevelanders.
He's been thinking that way for a decade, since he took part in the Lower Euclid planning project. That study looked way beyond its corner of downtown and embraced what Maron calls a "global strategy for Cleveland." It argued that the city's next comeback will come from building up its most successful neighborhoods and connecting them to one another.
Inspired by that idea, MRN has focused its development near stops on the Red Line. From the ninth floor of the United Bank Building, Maron looks at the workmanlike, graffiti-decorated train route and sees a "strand of pearls," a thread that could unite the town.
Urban dreamers in Cleveland have to contend with a harsh reality: The city has been shrinking fast. But MRN has cast its bets in downtown and University Circle, two neighborhoods whose populations grew in the 2000s, and Ohio City, a stable neighborhood whose population has shrunk only slightly.
Maron argues there's a pent-up demand in Cleveland for the sort of places he tries to create. "What we've found so far is that the more density you put in a place, the more demand there is for living in that place or visiting that place," he says. "People visit and they go, 'This is where I want to live. This is where all the people are.'"
He seems well aware that dense, lively neighborhoods are still pretty rare in Cleveland. Perhaps that's why it's hard for him to imagine working in a bigger city. If changing the world really means making a difference in one place, this is his opportunity.
"In a place like Cleveland, you can really have an impact that might change the destiny of the city," he says.