Can Shaker Square’s rescuers come up with
compelling new vision for a struggling Cleveland landmark?
Steven Litt May 12,
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Shaker Square was the
latest word in upscale urban innovation when it opened in
1929 as one of America’s first automobile- and
transit-oriented shopping centers.
Built by the
Van Sweringen brothers, the tycoons who went bust in the
Depression, the square featured Georgian Revival-style
buildings wrapped in an octagon around a five-acre central
landscape. The “square” is bisected by a rapid transit line
connecting the suburb of Shaker Heights to the east, and
Terminal Tower downtown, to the west, both of which the
brothers also built.
Yet after serving for decades as a beloved regional
destination for shopping and dining, Shaker Square occupies
an uneasy boundary line of race and class between redlined
neighborhoods on Cleveland’s East Side and affluent suburbs
It also faces challenges from decades
of disinvestment and competition from newer East Side
suburban shopping centers including the Van Aken District in
Shaker Heights, Legacy Village in Lyndhurst and Pinecrest in
Key storefronts are vacant. Leaky roofs cry out for repairs,
and white-painted columns, arches, and pediments are rotting
and peeling. Awnings are faded and drooping. Sunken areas of
pavement collect big puddles after heavy rains.
But the first signs of a turnaround are
also visible this spring. Trees at the square have been
pruned. Planting beds have been tidied. Security cameras and
lighting are getting fixed.
The changes are early indicators that
the square, a Cleveland neighborhood treasure, is under new
ownership dedicated to ensuring its long-term survival.
Using a $12 million loan from the City
of Cleveland, two nonprofits, Cleveland Neighborhood
Progress (CNP), and Burten, Bell, Carr, Development Inc.
(BBC), bought the square from creditors last August.
Their goals are to stabilize the
property, prepare it for sale to new for-profit ownership
within five years, and then reimburse the city for at least
half of the $12 million, or more, depending on the sale
price. The remainder would be considered a forgivable loan
from the city, said Tania Menesse, CNP’s president and CEO
Since taking ownership, CNP and BBC
have raised more than $5 million to tackle a list of repairs
with an estimated total cost of nearly $8 million according
to a recent assessment.
While fundraising continues, repairs on
roofs, plumbing, and wiring are about to get underway this
summer. Special events, in addition to the popular weekly
North Union Farmers Market, held on Saturdays from April to
early December, are being planned to make the square feel
active and lively.
Launching a new plan for the future
Merchants say they’re generally pleased
by the work so far, and by the transparency and
responsiveness of their new, nonprofit landlords. But they
want to know, long term, where the square is headed.
So do BBC and CNP. That’s why they’re starting a new
long-term plan for the property. The goal is to unite Shaker
Square’s community — including merchants, business owners
and area residents — around a vision to help guide the
search for a new long-term, for-profit owner.
By the end of May, the nonprofits told
cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, they’ll release a
request for proposals from planning consultants. Information
about the project and a contact link for suggestions will be
posted on the square’s new website,
shakersquare.com, which went live quietly during the
last weekend in April.
So here’s the big question: Can the
nonprofits succeed? Or to put it more accurately, can they
get it right this time?
That’s a complicated question because
the new plan will follow
a previous effort, led by a steering committee headed by
CNP, which sparked anger and recriminations in 2019.
In November that year, a couple of weeks before
Thanksgiving, a crowd
gathered at the square with a bullhorn and signs to
protest the core recommendation of the earlier plan: closing
Shaker Boulevard’s east- and westbound lanes, which bisect
the square, and routing through traffic around its
Planners from the landscape architecture firm of Hargreaves
Associates, now Hargreaves Jones, had argued that closing
the lanes was the best way to improve the square’s public
spaces and help make it profitable.
But business owners said the proposal
would cause gridlock and confusion, and make it harder for
customers to reach their front doors.
CNP shelved the $400,000 planning
effort. Then COVID hit, and the square entered a period of
instability that led to the threat of foreclosure and a
Anchor tenants including the
restaurants Fire, Yours Truly, and Balaton shut down. Some
tenants stopped paying rent, and the square’s condition
degenerated during 18 months of receivership, Menesse said.
new push might succeed
There are solid reasons to believe the
nonprofits might have better luck with their new planning
effort than with the last one.
First, the businesses on the square, including Dave’s
supermarket, the Atlas movie theater, and the Sasa, EDWINS,
Zanzibar, and Vegan Club restaurants remain deeply
Merchants see the square’s location
between the city and affluent suburbs further east as a
virtue. For them, it’s a place to heal racial divisions, to
build local wealth, and to capitalize on its proximity to
University Circle and the nearby Cleveland Clinic.
“I describe it as a melting pot,’’ said
Renay Fowler, who co-owns Fashions by Fowler and describes
her typical customers as mature women who are “going
somewhere special where they want to look great.” She sees
the square’s diverse clientele as unique in Northeast Ohio.
So does Elina Kreymerman, owner of Shaker Square Dry
Cleaning and Tailoring. “We love it here,’’ she said. “Our
business is very diverse, and it’s good. We accommodate
The nonprofits that now own the square
are fully empowered to think long-term about its future.
That wasn’t the case five years ago when an affiliate of
Coral Co., the Cleveland firm that had owned the square
since 2004, was struggling under an $11 million mortgage. In
late 2020, Wilmington Trust and CWCapital Asset Management
filed to seize the square through foreclosure.
When the nonprofits purchased the square in 2022, they
averted the possibility of seeing the square sold to an
out-of-town buyer without a long-term interest. CNP now has
a 90% stake in SHSQ LLC, held through New Village Corp., a
CNP subsidiary. BBC holds 10% of the equity in the LLC.
“We can raise capital and we can make
good decisions for the community in a way that a for-profit
can’t,’’ Menesse said. The repairs now led by the nonprofits
are intended to last 20 to 30 years, giving the square a new
measure of stability.
Then too, the political and community
development structure around the square has changed. Ken
Johnson, the former councilman who represented Ward 4, which
includes the square, was sentenced in 2021 to serve six
years in prison and pay $740,000 in restitution for stealing
community development funds from the city and federal
government. Ward 4 is now represented by Councilwoman
Also, five years ago, the area didn’t have a viable
community development corporation like those that have
supported revitalization efforts in other neighborhoods
across the city.
Since then, BBC expanded its service
area east from the Kinsman neighborhood into Buckeye, which
includes the thriving Larchmere Boulevard commercial and
residential corridor north of Shaker Square, and the
struggling Buckeye Road commercial corridor, south of the
The earlier plan in 2018-2019 was based
on what now appears to have been a mistaken premise that
improving Shaker Square’s public spaces would be enough to
drive the property to financial profitability.
“There were some really fantastic ideas
that came out of that plan,’’ said Joy Johnson, BBC’s
executive director. But because of doubts about the wisdom
of closing Shaker Boulevard in the square, “it was easy to
jump to ‘Omigod, this is going to be catastrophic.’ "
The nonprofits now want to consider everything from whether
the square’s parking lots could accommodate new,
high-density housing, to the correct theme and mix for the
center’s shops and businesses.
The idea of closing Shaker
Boulevard is off the table now unless the new planning
process reveals support for it, Menesse said. “We are not
going to talk about massive infrastructure changes,’’ she
Why the square matters
The travails of Shaker Square may sound
like a matter of strictly local interest, but like
Cleveland’s city-owned West Side Market, another historic
property that needs a public infusion and nonprofit
collaboration, the square is a major regional anchor.
The square’s future could determine,
for example, the fate of Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb’s $15
million initiative to revive majority-Black neighborhoods on
the city’s long redlined Southeast side — a major focus of
his still-young administration.
“Shaker Square is a gateway to Buckeye, Mount Pleasant,
Union-Miles, and Lee Harvard,’’ Bibb said recently in a
meeting with reporters and editors at
cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer.
The effort to rescue the square is part
of a larger flow of capital pouring into the city’s East
Side. The new investments include the Cuyahoga Metropolitan
Housing Authority’s plan to invest $250 million by 2028,
building more than 600 new housing units just west of the
square. The first two phases of the project, now underway,
are worth $79 million.
BBC is gearing up to revitalize the badly deteriorated
commercial corridor on Buckeye Road south of the square. The
city has spent $4.5 million on repaving and adding new
streetscapes along 1.4 miles of Buckeye, and
Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bancorp. has promised to offer
$20 million in loans in the area, in collaboration with
Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit.
It should also be said that the people
involved in the new Shaker Square initiative matter.
Menesse, the former director of economic development for
Shaker Heights, was part of the team that conceived the Van
Aken District, which has transformed the suburb’s eastern
flank. Johnson, at BBC, is deeply involved in the
aforementioned plan for Buckeye, which is dependent on the
success of Shaker Square, and vice versa.
Amid the new context, there’s no lack
of ideas for the square
Brandon Chrostowski, owner of the
EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, which trains
formerly incarcerated adults for culinary careers, thinks
the square should be turned into a large-scale, nonprofit
project devoted to social enterprise.
“Its mission would be to educate people
through trades, and businesses,’’ like his restaurant at the
square and adjacent operations along Buckeye Road, he said.
The square’s social and racial diversity makes it a perfect
place for such a venture.
Others see the square as the ideal
location for a new arts and culture district, or a vibrant
“Shaker Square is and can be a place
for everybody,’’ said Matt Schmidt, director of
modernization and development for CMHA. “It brings so many
different backgrounds together.’’
In addition to seeking a new theme for
the square, Menesse and Johnson said that the new plan will
consider structural and physical problems baked into its
eccentric original design.
For example, the square’s leasable square footage of 168,000
square feet doesn’t provide enough income to care properly
for the property’s expansive public areas.
For that reason, the 2019 plan
suggested that the public spaces should be spun off
permanently to a nonprofit owner. That idea still looks like
a keeper, Menesse and Johnson said.
As for adding more housing, success may
depend on developer Joe Shafran, who owns a major property
behind the square’s southeast quadrant, with frontage along
Van Aken Boulevard.
Shafran bought the property, which
includes a double-deck parking garage, surface parking, and
a vacant retail strip, in 2018 for $800,000. He announced
plans to build a new apartment tower but didn’t follow
through. Now he’s offering to sell the property for an
Menesse said it will be hard to come up
with a transformative vision without the Shafran property,
but she declined to comment on whether CNP would consider
Shaker Square’s issues may seem vexing, but Clevelanders
have solved big urban development problems in Detroit
Shoreway’s Gordon Square, the Warehouse District, and the
Playhouse Square theater district. There’s no reason why
Shaker Square can’t be added to that list.
For Cleveland chef Doug Katz, who closed down his Fire
restaurant during the pandemic, the square needs more than
money and solid planning. It needs love.
“It was hard to watch it deteriorate
over time, and then you had the pandemic and the hardship in
the restaurant world,’’ he said. “I think it has so much
potential and love from the community. You have to put that
love back into it.”
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