It’s hidden in plain view — inconspicuous in the shadows of some of Cleveland’s most iconic institutions. Yet its work impacts anyone visiting University Circle to work, enjoy a museum or go to school.
University Circle Inc., the district’s nonprofit community service corporation, says it serves “Ohio’s most spectacular square mile.” Its 40-member organizations are among Northeast Ohio’s most prestigious educational institutions, medical centers and museums: “eds, meds and arts,” as they say at UCI. And, this year, the service organization will celebrate its 60th anniversary.
Founded in 1957 as the University Circle Development Foundation, the early beginnings of UCI were the vision of philanthropist and civic leader Mrs. William G. Mather. She believed that University Circle, and the 34 institutions based there at the time, needed a central organization to administer a master plan for the area’s progress.
One of UCI’s most important functions today — and one of its founding purposes — is to be a land bank for the area, meaning it buys and holds vacant or unused land in the district for its members to use for expansion and for community development purposes. For example, 60 percent of the land on which Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals have expanded over the years was originally purchased through the land bank. UCI’s land bank services also have been used for two of the area’s major new additions — University Hospitals’ Vision 2010 plan, which enabled its main campus expansion for the consolidation and expansion of the Cleveland Institute of Art on Euclid Ave.
Transportation and infrastructure are among the other hidden jobs of UCI, including its free CircleLink shuttle bus system. It also operates a full-time community police department, which works closely with the Cleveland Police. The 40-member institutions pay a voluntary assessment for the services that help keep the area safe. With 25 officers, the department has full law enforcement authority.
But not all of UCI’s work is hidden. It also is the sponsor of high-profile events like Parade the Circle, its signature mega-parade, co-sponsored with Cleveland Museum of Art, held every June. This year marked the arts and culture event’s 28th year and attracted more than 80,000 visitors to the area. UCI also puts on popular seasonal events like Wade Oval Wednesdays, a summer concert series, and the family-friendly Rink at Wade Oval, a winter festival complete with ice skating, fire pits and live music.
University Circle is now the fastest-growing employment district in Northeast Ohio. With University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University and the nearby Cleveland Clinic, the area’s leading employment sectors are health and science, followed by tourism. This amounts to more than 43,000 employees coming and going each day and more than 3 million visitors annually.
One of the driving forces behind all this is UCI’s president, Chris Ronayne, who has served in this role since 2005. Ronayne is quick to share his enthusiasm about the ever-evolving district.
“This is my dream job,” he says from his conference room in the UCI headquarters — an old mansion on a quiet street in University Circle. UCI, like many other organizations in the district, has repurposed an early 1900s house into a cozy office space. Ronayne’s conference room is filled with maps, renderings of future plans and promotional materials galore.
“I’m a city planner, so it is a dream to get to help plan our spectacular square mile,” he says.
Before joining UCI, Ronayne served the City of Cleveland in several capacities, including as the city’s planning director, chief development officer and chief of staff for former Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell, who served one term from 2002-2006.
His public service background serves him well in this job. On any given day, the affable multitasking Ronayne works with myriad groups and interests: member institutions, a board of trustees, special events, committees, developers, donors and a 60-member staff.
Fundraising is a big part of the puzzle for UCI. It is significant because much of UCI’s work, including the land banking, is done with private fundraising, through which it raises several million dollars a year. Private philanthropy funds about one-third of UCI’s annual budget.
“We owe our success to the generosity of our donors,” he says. “Cleveland is a mid-sized city with big-city assets.”
Looking toward the future of the Circle, Ronayne cites a new priority beyond the traditional eds, meds and arts-based district: residential living. Home to almost 10,000 residents, University Circle is also the fastest-growing residential neighborhood outside downtown Cleveland. In 2012, the area even got a Constantino’s grocery store, an essential component to what Ronayne calls “a mixed-use, complete neighborhood.”
All this growth has caught the attention of local developers, who are investing in the unique district. Several residential construction projects are in the works. The largest, by far, is One University Circle, a 20-story mixed-use project on the former site of the Cleveland Children’s Museum. It will offer 280 residential units and ground-level retail. At a projected cost of $116 million, it is the city’s first new high-rise apartment tower in decades. One University Circle is scheduled to open by summer 2018.
“Live where you work,” says Ronayne. “We have come full circle from the early days when this was a residential area … We are looking at a page from the past.”
In the One University Circle deal, UCI retains ownership of the 1.3-acre lot and leases it long-term to developers First Interstate Properties Ltd. and Petros Development Corp. This is a departure from previous land deals in which UCI sold its land to developers or institutions. The new model creates a continued revenue stream back toward UCI’s operating budget. It also gives it long-term control to ensure projects are maintained to expected standards. Funding for the project is multifaceted and includes bond financing via the Cleveland Port Authority, city property tax abatements, private lenders and investment from the builders.
At this rate, Ronayne predicts that future residential development will continue to expand beyond UCI’s square-mile boundaries, creating “a success trajectory” as he calls it. He predicts that the area will have 15,000 residential units by 2025.
With all this growth, Ronayne emphasizes the importance of University Circle as a “walkable” neighborhood — a necessity with the continued influx of employees, residents and visitors.
To this end, UCI’s transportation management team works to improve flow and convenience. In addition to operating the free CircleLink Shuttle, the team planted bike-sharing stations throughout the area, and offers parking guides and even a mobile phone app. Zipcars are rentable for car sharing by the hour or the day.
Public transportation to and from the area is key. Eight RTA bus routes access University Circle, as does the Euclid Avenue HealthLine. However, more conventional car-driving commuters take advantage of more than 30,000 parking spaces throughout the area.
Ronayne lives in Cleveland with his wife, Natalie, chief development officer for Cleveland Metroparks. They have two children, Joseph, 7, and Audrey, 9. Ronayne says his family loves to spend lots of time at Edgewater Beach.
What is his favorite spot around University Circle?
“I love Lake View Cemetery and the Cleveland Cultural Gardens,” he says. “In today’s world, the Cultural Gardens celebrates 30 nations and their diverse cultures side-by-side.”
As a civic leader and former city hall head staffer, Ronayne’s name regularly appears on lists of possible candidates for city and county elected offices.
“I have a good life, and I love raising my family in the city,” he says. “I get to work in the civic space through my work with both the Cleveland Port Authority and Destination Cleveland.”
When pressed about his future plans, he does keep the door open.
“If there is a future calling to public life, I’m interested,” he says.
But with a 60th anniversary to celebrate and lots more development for University Circle on the horizon, for now, Ronayne says he still has much work to do within his spectacular square mile.