Too Hip for Thee

Two former tenants say they weren't cool enough for the new, improved Shaker Square.

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Disgruntled former tenants dream of the square's demise. - Walter  Novak
Disgruntled former tenants dream of the square's demise.
Doug Rutti owned a heath-food store for 16 years. Now he's driving a limo. For 28 years, Sylvia DeFranco owned a beauty salon. Now she's not doing much of anything.

Rutti and DeFranco were left behind by Shaker Square's $24 million renovation. Their stores, Feel-Rite Health Foods and Helen Milner Hairdresser & Boutique, didn't figure into the 72-year-old shopping center's makeover from quaint and scruffy to hip and upscale. In August they filed a federal lawsuit against the developers, which charges everything from defamation to age discrimination.

"If you like a David and Goliath story, you'll like my story," Rutti says.

Rutti moved into Shaker Square, which consists of four L-shaped, Georgian-style buildings at the intersection of Shaker Boulevard and Moreland Road, in 1986. He loved the square's village-green feel and the diversity provided by surrounding neighborhoods. His store did well, too.

But where Rutti saw Norman Rockwell, others glimpsed Norman Bates. Time had caught up with the square. "It was a tired old lady that needed a facelift," says Plantscaping President Nancy Silverman, who owned a flower shop that was on the square.

"Whole quadrants were practically empty," says Mary Brown, owner of Ohio Signatures, a women's clothing store. The square was even said to be dangerous.

Then, in 1999, the center was sold. The new landlords, Randy Ruttenberg and Adam Fishman of Beachwood-based Center Point Properties, promised big changes. Ruttenberg envisioned Shaker Square as a "lifestyle center." National chains, such as Joseph-Beth Booksellers and Wild Oats Market, figured prominently in the restoration. Impressed, Cleveland City Council and Cuyahoga County commissioners delivered more than $4 million in loans, bond sales, and state and federal grants.

To make way for new tenants, some of the old would have to leave. DeFranco, for one, believed she would be part of the remerchandised Shaker Square. She says Ruttenberg stood in her doorway and said, "I want you to stay." Then, in March 2000, she was delivered orders to vacate by April 30. DeFranco could guess why her salon, after 70 years, seemed expendable. She says Ruttenberg had asked her, "How old is your clientele?" Suffice it to say, the salon did its share of blue rinses. "It was like an antique beauty shop," Silverman says. "They had rotary phones."

Center Point allowed DeFranco to stay open through Mother's Day. When the holiday passed and she still refused to leave, they went to court. On Wednesday, May 17, a judge ordered DeFranco to close up shop by Saturday. A former square tenant says Fishman stood outside the salon on its final day, judge's order in hand, and told DeFranco that, at 5:01, a Bobcat was going in.

"Anyone buying a shopping center can bring in their own people," DeFranco says. "We know that. But I don't like the way it was done. It wasn't honest."

DeFranco says Center Point strung her along, only to dump her before she had time to find a new location. In court records, Center Point argues that DeFranco sat on her hands, relying "on silence in the face of overwhelming evidence that other tenants' leases were being terminated." The developers also stated in court documents that DeFranco refused to move to other quadrants because they had "too many black patrons." DeFranco denies this is true. She says 30 percent of her clientele was black, not to mention the African American hairdressers, manicurist, and masseuse she employed.

Like DeFranco, Rutti feels the developers led him down the road to nowhere. He claims Ruttenberg twice offered buyouts verbally, but never delivered a written agreement. Finally, in August 2000, Rutti elected not to renew his lease. His sales had fallen in half, and it only got worse when construction on the square began in earnest. His shop closed in January.

A Cleveland resident, Rutti seethes at the notion his tax dollars were used to rebuild a square that no longer wanted him. "I've never been so pissed that I can remember," he says. "I'm trying to legally air my heat."

There were bound to be hurt feelings when Shaker Square went in a new direction, which many say was needed. "It wasn't a place you came away from saying, 'This is a happening place,'" says Reid Robbins, executive director of the Shaker Square Area Development Corporation.

When he moved into the square in 1995, Playmatters Creative Toys owner Michael Ziegenhagen was told he was crazy. The word was, no one who lived east of Warrensville Center Road thought of shopping there. The disbelievers, Ziegenhagen says, have come around. "I think the square is just wonderful today."

And while the Gap and Ann Taylor have moved in, a number of locally owned shops remain. "Unfortunately, there have been some casualties, but overall I think there's been a net gain in the square and the commercial viability of the neighborhood," Brown says. "There's a really nice mix of independent and chain stores."

Still, DeFranco and Rutti are not alone in thinking the thirtysomething Ruttenberg and Fishman were in over their heads. Greg Malin runs a legal search business from a second-floor office. "It has been one of the most unprofessional on-the-job trainings I have ever seen in my life," he says.

For instance, all the renovation work was done during business hours, Malin says. As he tried to speak with clients, jackhammers pounded on the vaults in the vacated bank below. The crew that installed a new heating and air system stepped through his ceiling -- twice. Despite an apology and fruit basket from Center Point, he plans to move out when his lease expires.

Joe Gross, who owned an art gallery on the square for 25 years, was also put off by Ruttenberg and Fishman. "Their approach was so abrasive, I didn't even bother to negotiate with them."

The square's sale was hailed in The Plain Dealer as a purchase by "local real estate investors," though Ruttenberg and Fishman declined to identify their partners. A year later, a Sun Press reporter followed the deed-and-mortgage paper trail to Miami developer Clifford Rosen. "Rosen's primary responsibility is financing and raising equity, and Randy and I have responsibility for the daily activities at the square," Fishman danced when confronted with the documents.

In light of the lawsuit, Fishman directed questions to Center Point's attorneys. Lawyer Tom Feher says DeFranco and Rutti "are taking every opportunity to take shots at the square." He stands by the allegation that DeFranco said a prospective spot attracted too many blacks. "It was accurate when it was put in the pleading, and it remains accurate today," Feher says.

Further stoking the racial embers, DeFranco and Rutti charge the developers with reconfiguring the traffic flow in a way that deters black residents from visiting the square. However, ward Councilman Kenneth Johnson, who is black, says, "That's news to me." And Robert Rosenthal, who owns the hip-hop shop Next Urban Gear and Music, didn't cry racism over his inability to make a deal to stay on the square. "It's their space; they can do whatever the hell they want with it." Next moved to a spot just off the square, and Rosenthal says the redevelopment "has only helped our business."

Meantime, disgruntled former tenants swap stories about the square going through hard times. One quizzed the UPS driver, looking for signs of weakness in the number of deliveries. Such talk might be more than wishful thinking. Joseph-Beth has replaced the managers of the bookstore and the café, and owner Neil Van Uum admits the store has struggled to generate traffic on weekdays. Still, he says he is "comfortable" with the performance of the Cleveland site.

"It's been a challenge, but the store is solid, and Shaker Square is solid."

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