New Vision for Shaker Square
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This important essay captures facts and feelings so well, that to inform those unable to read it on we show parts of it below. Thank you Steven Litt, thank you Plain Dealer.

Can Shaker Square’s rescuers come up with compelling new vision for a struggling Cleveland landmark?

Steven Litt    May 12, 2023  

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 further east.

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 Orange.

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 2020.

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 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,, 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 perimeter.

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 sheriff’s sale.

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.

Why the 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 committed.

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 everybody.”

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.

Changing politics

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 Deborah Gray.

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 square.

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 said.

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 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.

Big ideas

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 culinary destination.

“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 unspecified price.

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 buying it.

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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