Study Says Downtown Cleveland Among Slowest Recovering in Country in Covid Aftermath, But DCA Disputes Data

The report puts Downtown Cleveland second to last among 62 urban metros

click to enlarge Study Says Downtown Cleveland Among Slowest Recovering in Country in Covid Aftermath, But DCA Disputes Data
Erik Drost/FlickrCC
Five months after the University of California Berkeley "Death of Downtown?" report detailing post-Covid recoveries in cities across America, and which led local leaders to challenge the data used in the study, a recent update doubled down on the prognosis of progress of Cleveland's Downtown recovery: Nothing much has changed.

The report update, from the School of Cities, a collaboration with the University of Toronto, puts Cleveland at second to last among 62 metros, at 36 percent recovered compared to pre-pandemic foot traffic.

According to data gathered from September to November, San Francisco ranked dead last, at 31 percent. Columbus, on the other hand, was 93-percent recovered.

The update, which resourced anonymous cell phone data based on spacial "polygons" rather than points of interest, continues to point to lack of economic diversity as the culprit for meager foot traffic and stilted vibrancy.

click to enlarge A chart from the Berkeley study, published on its website companion, showing its data over time on Downtown Cleveland's recovery. - School of Cities
School of Cities
A chart from the Berkeley study, published on its website companion, showing its data over time on Downtown Cleveland's recovery.

"Even as life has gradually returned to malls and neighborhood commercial centers, the urban core is no longer a bustling center of activity," the report reads.

It continues by questioning "whether the pandemic will lead to a full-blown, 1970s-style urban crisis, or more of the adaptive bounce back we saw in many downtowns after the Great Recession."

The Downtown Cleveland Alliance, which refuted the School of Cities' original August report by criticizing its definition of "Downtown Cleveland," reaffirmed that the January update misses the mark — again.

Audrey Gerlach, vice president of economic development and chief of staff at DCA, said in an email to Scene that, essentially, the new data Berkeley's eight authors gleaned from Spectus is wrong. (The authors do not mention any revision of methodology concerning Cleveland in their January update memo.) The Berkeley report, DCA argued first in August, leaves out key hubs for pedestrian activity, including large sections of Cleveland State and Tower City.

click to enlarge DCA's map, published last August, shows the difference between the Berkeley study's Downtown boundaries (in red) compared with DCA's definition (dotted lines). - Downtown Cleveland Alliance
Downtown Cleveland Alliance
DCA's map, published last August, shows the difference between the Berkeley study's Downtown boundaries (in red) compared with DCA's definition (dotted lines).
Using data from Placer, a location intelligence company that also sources anonymous phone data, DCA asserts that December saw 83 percent of foot traffic compared to three years ago—"the second highest recovery rate Downtown has seen," Gerlach noted, "since March 2020."

"Despite this promising progress, DCA and our partners are clear-eyed about the challenges still ahead for Downtown," she added. "We are focused on building on our strong foundation to reanimate Downtown and plan for the future."

Regardless of perspective, it's clear that city boosters and stakeholders are realizing the urgent need for the city center to rethink ways of attracting Clevelanders to what's long been the economic powerhouse of the region.

Though DCA has been consistently reporting a somewhat steady upswing of Downtown visitors since September 2020, and recent projects like the City Club Apartments and Tower at Erieview have bolstered its re-envisioning as a residential neighborhood, Downtown still seems a ways behind a full recovery.

Nearly 14 percent of its storefronts are empty, including 55 percent of Tower City Center. Downtown's office occupation sits at around 60 percent, 10 percentage points better, DCA reports, than the national average.

But challenges remain.

In November, Cleveland.com reported that Medical Mutual, a longtime resident of the Rose Building on East 9th, announced plans to relocate its headquarters to the American Greetings site in Brooklyn.

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Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a staff writer at Scene. For the past seven years, he's covered Cleveland as a freelance journalist, and has contributed to TIME, NPR, the Pacific Standard and the Cleveland Magazine. He's the winner of two Press Club awards.
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