Let Them Eat Cake

Shaker Square's new owner throws a great birthday party. With honeymoons, he's not so good.

Al Green House of Blues, 308 Euclid Avenue 8 p.m. Friday, December 3, and Saturday, December 4, $65/$75, 216-241-5555
Shaker Square has more gaps than a - seven-year-old's smile. - Walter  Novak
Shaker Square has more gaps than a seven-year-old's smile.
It's the 75th birthday of Shaker Square, and new owner Peter Rubin is throwing a party.

He's made the most of the stained, dilapidated space vacated by Joseph-Beth Booksellers in July: Long rectangular tables are dressed with white paper tablecloths and heaped high with food. On one sits a grandiose sheet cake made to serve 300. At another, there's a strange round potato cake from Yours Truly, which no one is sure they're supposed to eat. Next to it is a colorfully arranged platter from Sushi on the Square, decorated with little green wasabi snowmen. At smaller tables, vendors hawk their wares: A vigilant art-store owner keeps insisting that everybody "feel my glass"; another keeps swiping from the sushi tray.

On the makeshift stage, Shaker Heights Mayor Judith Rawson takes the microphone. Her voice sounds deep and echoey in the cavernous room, as if she were preaching from the bottom of a well.

"Dreams come in all shapes," she says to the audience of about 100, for whom there will be plenty of cake. "This one's a square."

Encouraged by a smattering of applause, Rawson continues the pep talk.

"This year, I'm going to be militaristic. I say skip the malls. Shop at Shaker!"

The applause this time is a bit lighter, perhaps for good reason. Unless you want to do all your shopping at the movie theater, her suggestion seems pretty much impossible at the moment.

At 75, Shaker Square is still widely viewed today as the shopping center it was at 15 or 40, in the days before megamalls and big boxes lured shoppers to the suburbs. But now it's the gray old auntie whom everyone adores, but nobody wants to spend any time with.

When Rubin's Beachwood-based Coral Company bid against 13 others for the Square early this year, he won over skeptics with talk about fashioning a "village" -- essentially the type of place the Square had been for decades. People could live there and shop at stores owned by homegrown merchants. He courted locally owned Dave's Supermarket; he spoke of attracting out-of-town visitors with an amphitheater and of dividing the Square into distinct day and night destinations. Rubin even bragged that Wal-Mart had approached him and he had turned the retail giant away.

However bloated the assertion, his words ran delightfully counter to the actions of the Square's previous owner, a Florida-based company that took ownership in 1999 and quickly courted national chain stores like the Gap, Ann Taylor, and Wild Oats Market. High rents drove out local merchants, then Legacy Village sent the new chains packing too. By the time Rubin stepped in, Shaker Square's storefronts had more gaps than a seven-year-old's smile.

Rubin's vision was a hit with the Shaker Square Development Corporation, but his roots were even more popular.

"Peter spent a long time talking about how the Square figured in his own life," says Reid Robbins, executive director of Shaker Square Development Corporation. In essence, he represented everything the previous owners had not. "He doesn't just have a local office; it's clearly a Cleveland-based corporation."

To the surprise of many, Rubin was granted the place for only $7.5 million. (Some value it at twice that.) Two weeks after the deal was announced, he told merchants that the "big discount" he received would allow him to slash rents. It was just what they needed to hear.

"Coral had a very good reputation; they were known for being hands-on," remembers Gene Veranesi, owner of Shaker Square Beverages, a fixture on the Square since 1937. "A few of my customers knew him and gave glowing testimonials. We all left the meeting upbeat."

But in the months that have followed, numerous tenants say, Rubin has not made good on his promise. The rents have not budged, and more businesses have left.

Veranesi and others, once impressed by Rubin's vision, now call it a "smokescreen."

"A tree is known by its fruit," Veranesi says. "Rubin's been actively involved with Shaker for nine months. What do we have to show for it? Nothing. There's no assistance to us. We're paying the same rent we would at Beachwood. He said he'd lower rents, and he hasn't."

Stacy Heffener, owner of Abigail & Annie's, had been struggling to pay rent under the Square's previous owners. In May, Rubin told her he'd do whatever he could to help her stay.

But the rent break apparently wasn't enough. Six weeks ago, Heffener moved her store to First & Main, a new shopping center in Hudson, run partly by the former co-owners of Shaker Square. Last month, Chico's, another Shaker Square shop, did the same.

"She chose to leave," Rubin says of Heffener. "We offered her the opportunity to stay; she chose not to. We had offered her a more aggressive rental structure," he adds, though he declined to elaborate. (Heffener, too, refused to discuss details of her previous rental agreement.)

At least one effort to fill a Shaker Square storefront has also backfired. The popular bakery Lucy's on the Square was forced off the block by the previous owner's elevated rents, so Michael Feigenbaum relocated to Buckeye Road. At the beginning of this year, Rubin invited him back, and Feigenbaum excitedly prepared an offer. It was rejected.

"Look, the lot's empty right now," Feigenbaum says. "I'd have to spend a lot of money renovating the space, which I was willing to do." He pauses. "Rubin has a public spiel about how he wants small businesses, but when it comes down to it, what he really wants is someone to pay 30 bucks a square foot in rent."

Rubin denies the charge. "Our rental structure is at a lower price than it was previously," he says, his words flowing as forcefully as those of any motivational speaker. "The real issue for these merchants should be what we are doing to improve their top line, rather than what we are doing to impact their expenses."

Indeed, though 15 of 35 retail spaces sit empty at the moment, not everyone views the Square so pessimistically.

"Peter is the best thing to happen to the Square in years," says Doug Katz, owner of the restaurant Fire, which opened in 2001. "Since Rubin took over, the place has never run so smoothly."

Sergio Abramof, whose upscale new restaurant is slated to open next summer, echoes Rubin's own enthusiasm.

"The main thing that convinced me to come to the Square is that I agreed with Peter Rubin's vision," says Abramof. "He's committed to working with local businesses, which is important. The Square does not have the sameness of other areas."

Rubin adds that Coral's ownership of the Square wasn't finalized until September 28, and he believes that merchant complaints have tapered off since then.

Gene Veranesi is among the exceptions.

"Right now, there's no reason to come to Shaker," he says. "The retail is mediocre, and quite honestly I'm not overjoyed with the caliber of new merchants coming in. I always thought we were a cut above that. I mean, the best we can get is Dave's Supermarket? And what's the custard place going to do in February? I question the wisdom of the direction he's heading in. Rubin got Shaker Square for nothing. And it's a damn shame."

Veranesi has two years remaining on his lease, after which he plans to leave. He says he wouldn't mind making the move sooner.

At the 75th birthday party, sketches for the new Shaker Square, commissioned by Rubin nearly a year ago, sit on easels in front of the stage. One panel shows a picture of a small boy in a bathing suit, jumping through a wading pool; another shows fountains spouting clear jets of water, and another a Rockefeller Plaza-like skating rink.

A woman corners an employee of the Coral Company.

"Those are some great sketches," the woman says. "Can I get the name of the architect firm?"

"It's GSI Architects," says the Coral Company employee, then pauses. "They're not in business anymore."

"That's a great interactive plaza. Will children really jump through the fountains?"

"We're planning on modifying that a little."

Back near the stage, the guests sip Styrofoam cups of coffee and lukewarm hot chocolate as they listen attentively to the concluding speakers. They applaud loudly when the celebration's emcee, heralding the new vision, declares that "Everything Peter Rubin touches turns to gold."

Of course, when King Midas turned everything to gold, he was left with nothing to eat.

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