Down By The River: Adam Fishman of Fairmount Properties Talks Past, Present and Future in the Flats

As both the chairman of nonprofit Flats Forward and the principal of Fairmount Properties, Adam Fishman has a unique vantage point for our wonderful riverfront. These days, he’s working to shepherd the Wolstein family’s grand vision of the East Bank into fruition. And it’s already happening. This week, we chatted with Fishman about what’s going on down there and what’s to come next.

The Flats. There’s a connotation there that’s not always positive, particularly during the past 20 years. What drew you there and what’s making you feel positive about it?

For me, it’s very personal. My father’s business was along this riverfront, on the west bank of the river where he and my grandfather manufactured breadcrumbs. I grew up coming down here everyday when it was all industry and one or two restaurants - the Harbor Inn, the Flat Iron and things like that. It’s a very personal endeavor for me to try to take a portion of our community that has had a variety of different uses and see those uses continue to evolve for the people of our region.

One of those uses is entertainment, of course. And entertainment really took hold for a time, say, 20 to 30 years ago.

And you mention that, as a 25-year-old, the connotation of the Flats maybe isn’t so positive. It’s interesting because it really does depend on when you grew up in Cleveland what your perception of the Flats is. As a 51-year-old, when I meet with people around my age, they remember the golden days of the Flats. There’s a shared nostalgia about the Flats. There’s a shared mythology about the Flats. And like mythology, some of it’s great and some of it’s not so great, depending on what portion of the story you’re picking up. But it’s a very visceral part of being a Clevelander: identifying with this land along the river that we’ve come to call the Flats. It does mean something to everybody, which is actually different than a lot of other places in Cleveland. If I say “Kamm’s Corner,” that means something to some people, but it means nothing to a lot of people. If I say “Beachwood Place,” that means something to some people, but it means nothing to a lot of people. If I say “The Flats,” it means something to almost everybody. It’s a really interesting opportunity, because people are passionate about it. And part of the reason is that there is a tapestry of different uses all trying to work together - heavy industry, residential living, entertainment, maritime uses, outdoor recreational uses, nightclubs, live music. There’s such a wide berth, and now we’ve introduced a major corporate office and hospitality use to this riverfront.

You’re building a neighborhood and a destination. How will this next chapter fit into the Flats’ mythology?

From the time when the Flats stopped being just industry, there’s been a historical plotline of some great successes and some challenges. I think if you take the sum of all those parts, there have been a lot more successes than challenges. Certainly, there have been points in time where the challenges were manifest and where the common denominator became selling cheap beer to sometimes underage kids. Particularly from an entertainment standpoint and particularly on the east bank before this latest development, the lack of common property ownership really allowed that lowest common denominator to dominate. As a result, this district ran into really tough times. That created an opportunity for the Wolstein Group and Fairmount Properties to form a joint venture clearly led by Iris Wolstein and her son, Scott Wolstein. They’re the majority partners and in every respect the thought leaders behind what we do. I’m the day-to-day execution guy for this family’s vision. We should be really clear about that.

To jump into specifics, here’s a recent quote from you: “We just finished leasing 425,000 square feet in a location where many said we couldn’t lease a single foot.” Are you surprised?

Surprised? No. Enthusiastic? Yes. As office tenants begin to figure out what’s important to them, it’s become clearer to us and many others that office space done well is a means to energize your staff and to recruit and retain the best and the brightest. Being in a waterfront live-work-play environment is a difference-maker for forward-thinking companies. In phase one, that thought leadership was really led by the people at Ernst & Young and Tucker Ellis. If you look at Ernst & Young, which occupies office space for some 130,000 people worldwide, they tend to locate into more entertaining places - where their often younger workforce can live, work and play. It’s also served to prime the pump to bring a couple thousand daytime workers here to have lunch, shop, drive demand. And so far it’s all working really well.

So there’s “work.” “Live” and “play” seem to be big parts of phase two here. The next piece is to move into really wonderful waterfront living. We’ll do 243 terrific waterfront apartments that will sit on top of a series of restaurants, a 1,200-foot riverfront boardwalk and several entertainment venues - Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill, a sing-along bar, some fine dining and casual dining opportunities. If you talk to the Wolsteins, Scott will tell you that he sees this as a place where you will just go. You’ll decide what you want to eat when you get there. Like the great entertainment districts of the world, you may have a reservation at one of the places or you may just figure it out when you’re there. That’s the opportunity that Cleveland has always wanted to have on the riverfront. This is our first chance to do that on any sort of organized scale.

And the waterfront gets talked about so often and in such grand verbiage. How important is the waterfront to Cleveland?

If you stop and think about the old Flats, you had to come down, park your car, pay a cover charge, walk into a bar, buy a beer, walk through the bar in the back to a boardwalk - all to even figure out that you were on the river. I imagine some people who didn’t know their way around Cleveland may have come to the Flats and actually never even known there was a river there. Opening up all the land to the people of Northeast Ohio is critically important. (Fishman picks up the phone and requests site plans be brought in.)

The variety of everything Cleveland is going to see down there seems much more different than a cookie-cutter pop-up development.

That’s the goal. Because we’ve got common property ownership and so much land, we can kinda manufacture that. But it’s gotta feel authentic. It’s very important for us that this work as a neighborhood and not a development project. That’s why you’ll notice the architecture in the first two buildings, the office tower and the hotel, is very different. The architecture of some of the other buildings will be different from one another. This should work like a riverfront urban neighborhood, more so than a waterfront real estate development. Clevelanders wouldn’t cherish that. Clevelanders like authentic.

What’s the timetable of phase 2?

We’re working toward opening in the summer of 2015.

Looking at these renderings here, what does that entail?

You’ve got a large riverfront Panini’s -- big sports bar. Then you’ve got this 1,200-foot boardwalk with a public park. We could use that for events. There will be an outdoor club called Club Forward, which will be a high-end, Vegas-style, open-air dance club only open in the summer. That’s gonna rock. That’ll be fun. Our 243-unit residential building… The idea for the sign up top came from the Domino Sugars sign in Baltimore that fronts their river. And then all these spots (Fishman points to storefronts beneath the apartment building) will be all restaurants.

We do like restaurants in Cleveland.

It’s really hard for Clevelanders to comprehend how great a food scene this really is. I’ve talked to friends who live in some of the great cities of the country, and they tell me that our food scene blows theirs away. It’s amazing. We’re really focusing on local chefs here, but we’re also looking into a few new concepts that we’ll bring to Cleveland and be first-to-market. Steve Schimoler, from Crop, has become a dear friend and a big supporter of the project.

There’s this storyline in Cleveland that downtown living in through the roof. What are your thoughts on that, considering this new apartment complex?

This hasn’t been talked about enough in my opinion. Cleveland has, I believe, notwithstanding this recent news of the airlines changes, Cleveland has tipped an inflection point that is not measurable but very demonstrable. I believe it is now a desirable place for young people to be. I see that through the eyes of my own kids. As young professionals, they’ve begun to see what the city has to offer. We’ve passed this inflection point, this cool factor, this hipness - I don’t know how you capture this notion, but we’ve crossed it. People want to be here and they don’t want to flee from here. That’s fucking extraordinary. It is! It’s the first time in my life that that’s been the case. Now, clearly we still need organic job growth and, you know, we’ve got a host of other challenges.

So what else should Cleveland be working toward?

I think creating greater connectivity between some of the great things that are happening downtown is important. Some of that is visual graphics, wayfinding, placemaking. One of the challenges in the Flats is that it’s really easy to get lost down here. The roads are confusing. Helping people find their way and get from great things that are happening at Playhouse Square to great things that are happening on West 25th to great things that are happening along the riverfront in the Flats - that’s really important. If you see what’s going on in the neighborhoods, in Tremont, Ohio City, Collinwood, there’s some great stuff happening in the neighborhoods. I think it’s a really great time to be in Cleveland.

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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