Teeming masses of humanity flowed up and down the street on their way to and from the arena. They walked, they talked, they tweeted, an estimated 50,000 of them skittering dutifully along the brick street. From the MSNBC set, the cameras captured the blitz.
Down a street lined with vendors selling Donald Trump pins and bumper stickers, the sheer facades gave way to a square, occupied by an ever-shifting political menagerie. A Second Amendment activist spoke to reporters from underneath a camouflage “Make America Great Again” baseball cap, his unloaded assault rifle slung across a shoulder. Nearby a man hawked whoopee cushions. And somewhere, a man dressed as Waldo roamed. But where, exactly, could this weirdo wanderer in a striped sweater and pompom cap be found?
Cleveland. Inside the secured boundaries of the event zone, the fever dream of the Republican National Convention offered a gauzy glimpse at what could be the future of downtown — one of a full, active city.
Just a few months after the convention, the neighborhood is at an inflection point. It has two full-service grocery stores, a YMCA, a rejuvenated public commons, a bike share and about 14,000 residents.
But to establish a self-sustaining retail economy, the population has to hit 25,000. Downtown Cleveland Alliance president Joe Marinucci thinks that could happen in as few as five years. Downtown is a desirable place to live. But what’s needed to make it a full-fledged neighborhood?
More apartments, of course. There are 1,000 under construction now, says Marinucci, with about 2,300 more in the planning stages, he says. “If those units can come online, that will put us, we think, at the end of 2018 with a population of about 18,000.”
With a residential occupancy rate of 97 percent in the first quarter of 2016, and expected to remain at that level, the demand has never been greater.
But downtown cannot live on renters alone. “The way we get to 25,000 is to see if, as a community, we can work more on the for-sale sign,” says Marinucci.
In 2015, DCA saw a 10 percent increase in condominium and home sales, but there are still few buying opportunities downtown. Condos that go on the market are snapped up almost instantly. In the first quarter of 2016, there were only 12 units sold.
Rents are also increasing. One study commissioned by DCA from the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University found that the rental price per square foot had increased by 47 percent from 2010 to 2015. In the first quarter of 2016, DCA reported the average one-bedroom apartment rent would cost $1,140.
“At the prices we’re paying for rent, we could buy McMansions out in any part of the suburbs that we’d like. When you’re paying that portion of your income to that type of housing, I think it does change your mindset,” says Joseph Giuliano, president of the Downtown Cleveland Residents Association, who has rented at the Statler Arms for almost eight years. “That’s why I think that condominiums would be the natural next step.”
City councilman Kerry McCormack, who represents the area, would like to see greater ownership too. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, he explains. Developers can’t build condos until a majority of the units are sold, but residents don’t want to buy without seeing what they’re purchasing.
“Instead of it being, I’ll be here for two years out of college and then I’ll go out to the exurbs, there’s now more and more people who are talking about, I could settle here, I could live here, I could purchase here,” says McCormack. “With that changing mentality, having that supply of for-sale property will be important.”
Ownership will lead to a harder question: kids. Conventional wisdom says downtown residents are millennials and empty nesters. But, according to DCA, the number of children 0 to 14 living downtown spiked from 477 in 2010 to 899 in 2014. That’s an 88 percent increase.
There are schools for them, including Campus International School and a school expected from Cumberland Development and Trammell Crow on the lakefront.
But budding families are facing one glaring hole — enough quality infant day care. “If we want to retain young families,” says Terry Schwarz, Kent State Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative director, “I think that piece of the puzzle should be filled.”
Downtown’s public spaces should also be tailored to better accommodate growing families. “Ohio City has 10,000 people in it. That’s 4,000 less than downtown. But we have a pool, splash pad, two or three playgrounds. And we should,” says McCormack, who lives in Ohio City. “A playground is something that I’ve heard people want to see downtown.”
He’d like to forge ahead with one, maybe on existing green space such as Willard Park.
In addition to playgrounds, the residents association’s Giuliano would like to see more green incorporated into upcoming developments. The nuCLEus project, a 54-story abstract Jenga-block tower that would include about 500 apartments, could be built on what is now a parking lot in the Gateway district. Beside Public Square, on what is now another swath of parking, developer Weston floated the possibility of building two city blocks worth of glassy towers, which could result in another 1,200 residential units.
And in July, the Cleveland City Planning Commission OK’d a design that would add 187 units atop the parking garage at 515 Euclid Ave., just across the street from East Fourth Street. The bronze-toned addition will be named, appropriately, the Beacon.
Now that most of the available historic buildings downtown have been renovated, developers are beginning to build from the ground up. Such projects are an opportunity to push for new family-friendly places.
“There’s a strong desire to increase and promote density. I understand that, and that’s a valid goal. On the other hand, at what cost?” asks Giuliano. “If the cost is not being able to have your children within eyesight to play and have a good time in a safe manner, I think that we’re defeating the purpose.”
Downtown must also wrestle differently with another fact of Cleveland life: rain and snow. Although DCA clears some downtown sidewalks during winter, neither public or private architects have wrestled meaningfully with how to make Cleveland’s wildly varying weather patterns livable for pedestrians. Indeed, dealing with weather is one of downtown Cleveland’s next big design challenges, says Kent State’s Schwarz. “How do we make the city not just seven days a week but also 12 months out of the year?”
For instance, the stretch of Euclid Avenue sidewalk in front of the Cleveland Athletic Club building becomes a slush slip-and-slide during winter months. And too often, small mountains of snow form against bus shelters. With a critical mass of walkers and cyclists, creatively tackling the small things would make for a more livable neighborhood.
As Cleveland gets closer to 25,000 residents, downtown is undergoing a transformation. What was once barely a destination is becoming a neighborhood. And with that growth must come a fresh mentality, one centered on not just attracting residents downtown but on sustaining them there.
“I think that what we’ve been struggling with, and quite honestly I don’t want to be derogatory toward anyone, but I think that our city fathers forget that there are 14,000 people living here. It’s not just a business district, it’s not just an entertainment district,” says Giuliano. “This is a neighborhood.”