Rick Maron points out one Cleveland landmark after another from his penthouse atop the Holiday Inn Express Hotel at East Sixth Street and 629 Euclid Avenue. To the west, almost directly below, is the dead-end of East Fourth Street at Euclid Avenue, the white bowling pin of The Corner Alley’s neon sign clearly visible at the southeast corner. The frequently photographed pedestrian thoroughfare lined with destination restaurants and entertainment venues — once a strip of pawn shops, wig stores and vacant storefronts — is the signature project of MRN Ltd., the real-estate development and property-management firm Maron founded with brother Paul.
Since its inception three decades ago, the company has grown from three to over 500 employees and added divisions in construction, food service and hospitality management. While Paul oversaw its suburban apartment buildings and rental homes, Maron built a portfolio of impressive urban projects. “We look at projects for the influence they can have on the area, not just one building,” the amiable 69-year-old points out. That approach illustrates the family’s commitment to the community, according to Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish.
“They have a great vision for urban areas, they have worked hard to fulfill that vision — and [they] have accomplished it,” says Maron’s friend of over 20 years. “And they’ve taken huge risks along the way.”
The first thing Rick Maron built was a home in Cortland, a contemporary abode cantilevered over a stream inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. The South Euclid native had earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from The Ohio State University before getting his master’s degree in business administration and purchased a construction-equipment-rental business from his sister-in-law’s family. But he had no experience in the building trades. He jokingly calls the undertaking with wife Judy Eigenfeld a result of “more guts than brains.”
“I hired a carpenter who would come out on the weekends, teach us what to do,” he says. “We’d do it all week. He’d come back the next week and tell us we screwed up. That’s how we learned.”
In the late 1980s Maron sold his business and moved Judy and their two sons to Shaker Heights so their older boy, Ari, a promising violinist, could be closer to his lessons at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Plus they were starting the business in that area. He and brother Paul began buying Shaker Square and Coventry Road apartment buildings on land contracts and fixing them up. When they’d built up sufficient equity in one of their properties, they’d secure a bank loan on it and pay off the owner. Soon they did the same with houses purchased at auctions and HUD sales.
“I did a lot of the carpentry work myself,” Maron says. “But as we got bigger, I did less and less of that and did more managing and running jobs.”
He began his foray onto East Fourth Street in 1996 by purchasing the Buckeye Building, on the corner of East Fourth and Prospect Avenue. “Somebody actually had teed up a broker saying, ‘Maybe this is something you want to start with [downtown],’” he recalls. “When I went through the building, it needed a ton of work.” But Maron loved the architecture — he had developed an interest in architecture while building his own home — and saw opportunity in rehabbing a 90-year-old property on a rundown street infested with prostitutes and drug dealers, mainly because of its location off busy Euclid Avenue near the new Quicken Loans Arena and Progressive Field, then called Gund Arena and Jacobs Field, respectively.
“I figured a bunch of developers would come right after me and buy up the rest of the buildings on the street,” he says. But nobody came, and he soon found out why. “Each building was owned by about 30 different people. Nobody could get site control.”
Maron, driven by his vision of East Fourth Street as a dining and entertainment mecca, patiently began the decade-long process of tracking down the owners, building by building, and buying them out, an effort sustained by tax credits, and public and private financing. As he acquired each of the 16 properties, he converted the upper floors into apartments. approximately 225 in all. “We said, ‘We could probably make [the street] safer if there were people living on it,’” he explains. The exception was the old National City Bank building, where he now lives. Maron moved the commercial tenants in the 1895 structure to the 1920 addition behind it so he could convert the original edifice into the city’s first budget-chain hotel. Landing a 141-room Holiday Inn Express franchise allowed him to buy out the building’s previous owners.
Maron and Ari, who had chosen the family business over the violin, then carefully curated tenants for the retail spaces, including the Pickwick & Frolic and House of Blues entertainment complexes, Jonathon Sawyer’s Greenhouse Tavern and Michael Symon’s Lola.
“We would hold out for the best of the best and not lease to anybody that wanted to come there,” Maron says. At the same time MRN entered the restaurant and entertainment businesses to strategically augment the tenant roster, opening Zocalo Mexican Grill & Tequileria, Erie Island Coffee Co. and The Corner Alley — an enterprise national bowling-alley chain Lucky Strike wanted to install in the same space.
“We were negotiating with them, and the deal became so ridiculous we said, ‘The heck with it! We’ll just do it!’” Maron remembers.
In 2006 Maron turned his attention to University Circle. MRN, under the direction of Ari and his younger brother, Jori, along with Rick, had won a bid submitted to University Circle Inc. and Case Western Reserve University to build Uptown, a mix of apartments and retail flanking Euclid Avenue north of Mayfield Road. The project proved difficult: Two successive developers with whom MRN planned to partner pulled out when the economy tanked. Maron’s response was that MRN would go it alone again.
Maron worked with Ari and San Francisco architect Stanley Saitowitz to plan the development and supervised construction of Saitowitz’s strikingly edgy designs. Saitowitz discovered Maron “wasn’t the typical model of the developer, very pushy and arrogant,” when Maron first traveled to San Francisco to tour some of his projects.
“He was actually very kind and warm and friendly as well as being very sharp about what he wants and what he sees,” he remembers. “He was very interested in the way that our urban units…were conceived, the kind of efficiency and simplicity, the openness, of them.”
Maron’s passion for developing East Fourth Street was perhaps best matched by his desire to rehabilitate the Tudor Arms at East 107th Street and Carnegie Avenue. He was mesmerized by the decorative tower on the 11-story brick-and-limestone structure, built as a private men’s athletic club in 1929 and used as a CWRU dorm and Cleveland Job Corps location after its conversion into a Tudor Arms hotel. He saw a need for more lodging near University Circle and neighboring suburbs. MRN bought the building from the university and opened it as a 157-room Hilton DoubleTree in 2011. He talks about turning the tower into a luxury apartment and restoring the two second-floor ballrooms.
“The one ballroom reminds you of Versailles, and the other ballroom reminds you of a ‘Harry Potter’ room,” he rhapsodizes.
In January Maron will begin converting two floors to 25 apartments in the former United Bank Building they purchased at the same time as the Tudor Arms, one of eight structures along Lorain Avenue and West 25th Street that constitute MRN’s Marketplace in Ohio City. The newest retail tenants to augment Crop Bistro & Bar in the indie boho enclave include pizza shop Citizen Pie pizza shop and Bakersfield Tacos, Tequila, Whiskey. They’re not actively seeking another location to turn into a showplace. Maron notes that they “try to develop neighborhoods. We are a diversified company and like to find the right project that will benefit an entire neighborhood rather than just an individual building.
“It’s pretty cool, adding bowling alleys and opening up all this to the public,” he says. “It just feels real good.”