In the Skylight Concourse at the Avenue at Tower City, the fountains still gurgle. People lounge on the green marble ledge, checking their phones or watching the foot traffic as smooth jazz echoes up toward the glass-domed roof.
But for each thing that’s the same, another has changed. Near the fountain, a store called A Dollar sells a two-piece plastic soap dish for $1.50. There are no major designer stores. McDonald’s has abandoned the food court. The Hard Rock Cafe departed earlier this year. Passers-by wear headphones, intent on getting to downtown’s streets or the transit station.
The Terminal Tower has always been a family business — 52 stories of civic and personal aspiration anchored deep in Cleveland’s bedrock.
When the enigmatic Van Sweringen brothers built the Union Terminal complex in the late 1920s, it was the crown atop their railroad empire, a symbol of Cleveland’s industrial might.
But by the time the Ratners and Forest City Enterprises took over in the 1980s, the train station and the town needed more than a little parental attention.
“They not only picked up a legacy, but they bought the symbol of the city,” says John Grabowski, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University. “Whatever the terminal was or is or wasn’t, it’s still the landmark for the city.”
Founded by siblings Charles, Max, Fannye and Leonard Ratner as a series of lumber and building supply companies in the 1920s, Forest City has become a national real estate firm. And the Ratner family — Albert, Charles, James, Ronald, Ruth and her ex-husband, Sam Miller, among them — has been deeply devoted to Cleveland’s philanthropic, civic and political life for decades.
Their grand plan was to reimagine the terminal complex as a draw for suburban families to mingle, shop and dine in the city. They even made a movie about it. The Memories and the Dream begins with a shot of the Terminal Tower, the brilliant orange sun overhead. As the music swells, a narrator cuts in.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says, as a 1930s-era family tumbles out their front door. “We were all dressed up in our best clothes, and dad had the car all shined up. We were going to see what he said was one of the biggest buildings in the world. It was the opening of the Terminal Tower.”
They pile into the vintage car. ”Gosh, we were all so excited,” says the narrator. “You know, that wonderful memory has stuck with me … all these years.”
Quickly, we’re in the present. A family in 1990s pastels makes their way from a suburban house to the car. “Man, we were so excited,” says the teenage son in voiceover. “We were all going to the Disney Store. Dad wanted us to see this huge bunch of buildings built right under the Terminal Tower. What a neat building.”
Scenes from Tower City’s 1990 opening ceremony show the Skylight Concourse. Dancers frolic and choruses clad in teal, maroon and mustard sweaters sing, “Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate, a new creation!” Balloons and confetti stream from the ceiling.
We leave the hoopla for Ruth Ratner Miller, president of Terminal Tower Inc. and the public face of the project. “When I was a young woman, one wore white gloves and a hat to come downtown, to know that it was a very special place,” she says. “But even today, coming downtown, that trip of coming downtown, heightens one’s awareness, heightens one’s energy.”
It’s been a quarter century since then. Suburbanization and sprawl pushed residents farther from the central city. The high-end stores departed. Forest City, the company the Ratners founded, found fertile markets for mammoth projects in Denver, New York City and elsewhere. Ruth Ratner Miller passed away.
But, something else happened too. Public Square rediscovered its New England roots. A grocery story opened in the former Cleveland Trust Co. rotunda. And an estimated 14,000 looking for that heightening found it by living downtown.
Just as the city center seems to be inching back to a version of that black-and-white urban ideal, the Ratners and Forest City are moving in the opposite direction, selling off downtown assets. The Terminal complex has been quietly chopped up like a station wagon broken down for parts.
Forest City sold the Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland in 2011 and the Higbee Building two years later. The Skylight Office Tower was offloaded in 2015. This year the fire sale continued. In March, Forest City sold the Avenue at Tower City Center to Detroit billionaire Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services.
In September the company sold the Terminal Tower itself to K&D, a Willoughby-based real estate firm, for $38.5 million. K&D plans to take the unprecedented step of converting several floors of the tower to apartments — an apex to the downtown boom.
For Dick Pogue, longtime civic leader and senior adviser at Jones Day, Forest City’s sale of the Terminal Tower is an indication of something else as well. “[The Ratners] feel that the city is in good shape, and they don’t need to be major investors in that particular property any more,” says Pogue, who is close with Forest City co-chairman emeritus Albert Ratner. “It’s time to move on and capitalize on their investment without worrying that the city’s going to flop back into the horrible state it was in, in the ’70s.”
As downtown rises, the sale of our iconic skyscraper represents a tectonic shift to a new Cleveland.