Disappearing Asphalt: Cleveland’s Downtown Building Boom Is Making Parking Lots Vanish

After decades of unproductive use, surface parking lots in the city’s core are finally giving way to development.

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

When news broke two weeks ago that Sherwin-Williams, the world’s highest-revenue paints and coatings company and one of the largest employers in northeast Ohio, had chosen to remain headquartered in downtown Cleveland, it was continuing a recent trend.

When the company, which has has occupied the Landmark Office Towers complex since 1930, builds its new 1-million square-foot global headquarters just west of Public Square, the symbolic center of the central business district, the development will rise on the site of what is now surface parking lots. 

This is just the latest example of a building boom that is taking a sea of unproductive asphalt and turning it into a renaissance of sorts for downtown Cleveland.

Filling in the gaps

Like a smile from a mouth missing several teeth, Cleveland’s central business district has spent much of the past 70 years seeing buildings razed and replaced by parking lots. As the city’s economic fates spiraled downward and local leaders leaned into urban renewal theories, once densely-built corridors watched as office space and housing disappeared to make way for more and more cars.

Today, though, as jobs and residents have made their way back downtown, a building boom is rising from that sea of parking.

The Beacon, a 29-story building completed in late-2019 featuring 187 apartments on 19 new residential floors and a top floor Sky Lounge, with restaurants and a new lobby for the apartments on the ground floor, is the first new apartment tower to appear in downtown Cleveland since 1974.

It was built atop a pre-existing 8-level garage on Euclid Avenue adjacent to The Arcade, a Victorian-era structure of two nine-story buildings, joined by a five-story arcade with a glass skylight spanning over 300 feet, between the Huntington Building and East 6th Street.

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

A mere half a mile away down Euclid Avenue, in the historic Playhouse Square District, The Lumen, the largest new residential development in the city in more than 40 years, also rose on a site that was formerly parking. The 35- story building contains 318 apartments in a location amidst the largest performing arts center in America outside of New York.

The two towers add over 500 residential units to the downtown neighborhood, in addition to bringing a new dimension to the city’s skyline, which hadn’t seen any major additions since the 23-story Carl B. Stokes United States Courthouse building was completed in 2002. They have also helped build on the city’s momentum for further construction.

The much-maligned nuCLEus project should also be discussed. Initially proposed as a 54-story mixed use development with a science fiction-esque design, nuCLEus has since been scaled back. 

Now the project is comprised of two 24-story towers, with nearly 300 residential units, office space, and some 80,000 square feet of new retail, to be built upon yet another parcel currently being used as surface parking across the street from Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

Most recently, a proposal for yet another residential tower was submitted to the city’s Downtown/Flats design-review committee, an advisory body to Cleveland City Planning Commission, for a location adjacent to the City Club of Cleveland near the corner of Euclid and East 9th Street. The plans call for a 23-story building with a mix of uses on the site of a surface parking lot.

A growing neighborhood

These new buildings are part of a plan some thirty years in the making to transform what had become a hollowed-out central business district into a thriving neighborhood once again. The Downtown Cleveland Alliance, a 501(c)(3) organization that basically operates as a community development corporation for the district, set a goal of 20,000 residents by 2020 back in the 1990s. At the time, the neighborhood’s population was just barely above 5,000.

“Reaching 20,000 residents is an important milestone for attracting more retail amenities to a downtown,” according to Michael Deemer, the organization’s executive vice president of business development. 

“National retailers looking at downtowns across the country really want to see 20,000 residents within walking distance in a central business district and as we progress across 2020 we’re going to hit that goal.” 

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

In addition to all of the new construction, two historic downtown buildings have been converted into residential developments as well. The Athlon, formerly the Cleveland Athletic Club, located on Euclid between East 9th and East 12th Streets, opened in 2019 and added another 163 apartments to the downtown housing stock.

More notable, the Terminal Tower, the crown jewel of Cleveland’s skyline since 1930, had 10 of its 52 stories converted into apartments which opened in late-summer of 2019. The 297-unit Terminal Tower Residences now makes living on the doorstep of the newly redesigned Public Square in what was once the second-tallest building in the world a possibility.

What’s next

The author does not want this piece to sound overly boosterish for his hometown. New development, particularly development that takes formerly unproductive land like surface parking lots and converts them into needed housing, office, and retail space is an objectively good thing for any city. That said, there are challenges inherent in this building and population boom for downtown Cleveland.

Chief among these is the question of affordability. The rental rates for the new luxury apartment towers chronicled above are not exactly cheap, reaching north of $3,000 per month in some cases. While the central business district is the largest jobs hub in Ohio with 105,000 workers, less than two percent of those workers actually live downtown, according to a study completed by Urban Partners in 2018. 

The analysis goes on to report that “most downtown renters making between 30 and 80 percent of the median area income were ‘cost burdened,’ meaning they spent more than 30 percent of their pay on housing,” and that only about five percent of downtown residents own their homes.

Photo by Julian Rivera on Unsplash

One potential remedy to this situation can be found in the Prospect Yard development, a 42-unit project housed in the former Stuyvesant Motor Company Building on Prospect Avenue, a stone’s throw from the more high-profile luxury towers. At Prospect Yard, residents are eligible for rental rates based on how their annual income compares to the Average Median Income.

Residents will pay rents starting between $330 and $1,247 per month, depending on how large the apartment is, and must qualify based upon their income. Using a blend of affordable housing credits and historic preservation tax credits, Woda Cooper Companies is opening up the downtown housing market to people who would not otherwise be able to afford it.

“A lot of the time, those lower-income people are actually the people that perform the services that we need and we require,” said Woda Cooper’s Russell Brown. “It still gives you that ability to live downtown, and to be able to afford it.” 

Prospect Yard is a project that local leaders should pay attention to and seek to replicate in an effort to build a more inclusive downtown residential population.

Increasing home ownership should also be a priority. A 2018 Downtown Cleveland Alliance housing study showed that, “While there are signs of a strengthening Downtown’s for-sale market, Downtown Cleveland’s homeownership rate of 5.1 percent is extremely low compared to the average rate of 22.7 percent noted in comparable downtowns.” 

Homeownership would keep residents longer, cut down vacancy rates in downtown apartments, and help foster a better sense of community downtown.

Another major challenge that must be addressed is mobility within the downtown core, which has for decades been oriented to cars to the detriment of all other modes of transportation.

Photo by Chanan Greenblatt on Unsplash

Cleveland passed a Complete and Green Streets ordinance in 2011, but to this point has made spotty progress. The legislation was aimed at transforming public rights-of-way to make them friendlier for transit, pedestrians, bicyclists, and the environment.

“Legislation is useless unless it’s producing the results in the community it is intended to produce,” said City Councilperson Kerry McCormick in a recent interview with Cleveland.com’s Steven Litt. 

The Euclid Corridor Healthline, a bus rapid transit project that runs along Euclid Avenue from downtown to the Cleveland Clinic on the eastern edge of the city, has been lauded as a national example of integrating public transit into the existing urban fabric. Mismanagement, however, has led to steep downturns in ridership. The city has failed to give signal priority to buses on the route, and stopped using proof-of-payment, requiring all passengers to enter the front of the bus and pay their fare.

There is also a critical need for improving safety and options for pedestrians and cyclists. Protected bike lines, traffic calming measures, pedestrian amenities such as wheelchair ramps and bump outs at intersections, which shorten walking distances across streets, and green infrastructure, which can add shade and soak up storm runoff, are all areas in which the city has room for vast improvement.

Downtown Cleveland has become much more of a neighborhood than it was a generation ago, but if it wants to build a community feel, continue attracting new development, residents, and jobs, and fulfill its potential as a place, there is still a great amount of work to be done.

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