Uptown Was Supposed to be a Unique Destination, But Critics Say It’s Become a Bland Fast-Casual Food Court

click to enlarge Uptown Was Supposed to be a Unique Destination, But Critics Say It’s Become a Bland Fast-Casual Food Court
Photo by Emanuel Wallace

When the $200 million development of housing, shops, cultural institutions and public spaces along Euclid Ave. first opened in 2012, it was touted as the new main street for University Circle. "Just a short walk from the institutions on Wade Oval, and within campus borders of Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Institute of Art ... it's the place where residents, students, and visiting tourists converge to enjoy a diverse social scene and an array of entertainment – from art galleries and live music, to bowling and yoga," touts the website for University Circle Incorporated (UCI), the nonprofit development corporation serving the area.

Yet six years after Phase I of Uptown was completed by MRN Ltd., which also developed East 4th Street, the Tudor Arms Hotel and West 25th St. south of Lorain, the bowling, yoga and live music venues have all closed. The Chipotle, Jimmy John's and Panera are still there, but more than a dozen independent businesses have closed in and around Uptown, only to be replaced by a seemingly endless array of places serving rice bowls. In 2018, Coquette Patisserie, Corner Alley, the Happy Dog at the Euclid Tavern and Ninja City (which relocated to Gordon Square) have all been shuttered. The first few weeks of 2019 were no kinder, as Jonathon Sawyer announced the closing of Trentina.

 To be fair, while all these businesses were located in the area, they weren't all part of MRN's project. Yet critics say that with the predominance of quick-service concepts throughout the area, Uptown has become a fast-casual food court that mostly serves students and University Circle employees. That's a far cry from the original goals of the project, hailed as "a new downtown for the University Circle neighborhood" by the New York Times and a possible "new center of gravity for the city" by the Plain Dealer. To serve the area's cultural institutions and residents, a more vibrant mix of businesses is needed.

 "We would love for MOCA audience members to be able to attend the museum and then go on to have an equally interesting cultural experience in Uptown," says Meghan Reich, deputy director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Cleveland, which has seen its visitation expand by over 100 percent since it opened its new, $26 million building in Uptown. "We want to send our audience to locally owned businesses and to experience Cleveland entrepreneurship at its best. It's hard when those things close or can't even open and the district is mostly franchises that are not unique or special."

 "I think it's a great urban success story, but it isn't what it was envisioned to be yet," says Grafton Nunes, president of the Cleveland Institute of Art, whose $75 million campus reunification project at Uptown includes the Cinematheque, considered to be one of the country's best repertory movie theaters.

 Ari Maron of MRN counters that several of their tenants, including Constantino's, Cleveland Clothing Company, the Case Western Reserve University bookstore, and a few of the fast-casual concepts are locally owned. "That was the plan from the beginning – to create a place that was both uniquely Cleveland and contains national businesses so that visitors to University Circle as well as students would feel comfortable there," he says, arguing vehemently that the fact that the project is 95-percent leased shows that it's serving the community and can be deemed a success. (Critics would add, beyond the general corporate-tinged homogeny of the tenants, that turnover has been brisk, and rents and leases are far higher than in comparable areas.)

 "I think what we've responded to is what the market is demanding in University Circle," Maron says. "At this point, it's primarily quick-service fast-casual dining. That's what the student population is looking for. That's what the medical population is looking for. That's not unique to Uptown; that's a trend that's happening nationally."

 UCI President Chris Ronayne agrees that Uptown needs to add destination retail, but says it is serving Case, CIA and CIM students and University Circle employees. Recently, improvements have been made to parking systems to make them easier to navigate (and, should you need reminding, Uptown is readily accessible by RTA). "We've moved from a vision of a mix of residents to more of a student community," he says. "Although the project may have changed tack a little bit and become more student-oriented, it has revealed an untapped market and become a successful main street."


Years in the Making


North of Mayfield Ave. where Uptown's sleek, contemporary buildings now rise, there was once a sea of gray parking lots lining both sides of Euclid. Behind one parking lot was the Triangle apartment building, which boasted an atrociously ugly development with a McDonald's, Mr. Hero and Federal Express. On the other side, there was an unpaved parking lot known as "Hessler Beach" where students on nearby Hessler Avenue sunned themselves and played volleyball.

 Although talk of building on the parking lots goes back to at least the mid-'70s, in the booming economy of the mid-2000s, talk finally turned to action. Case and UCI saw an opportunity to turn these parking lots into an economic development project that would serve students and visitors to University Circle. "It was a university project but also a community project," says Ronayne.

 Over a period of years, Case spent $2 million acquiring 8.2 acres of parking lots (including a large parcel that they had once sold to a parking lot owner for $1, since they considered it to be a liability at the time). They also purchased the Triangle for $30 million, gaining a necessary site that was assessed at just $20-$23 million. When a request for proposals (RFP) seeking a developer was issued in 2005, it generated fierce competition for what was then considered to be a pretty plum project. MRN's Ari Maron, who at the time was just in his mid-20s, having just graduated from Rice University, apparently impressed interviewers by playing a song on his violin.

 "Ari won it on what people thought was heart and passion for the district," recounts Ronayne, citing the Marons' success in redeveloping East 4th Street and their promise to foster a similar vibe at Uptown.

 Then just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. MRN's financial backers backed out in 2006. The housing crisis hit Cleveland in 2007. MRN's development partner also withdrew. Then some of the tenant deals went up in smoke. Condominiums were a non-starter, so Uptown was converted into an apartment project. At the time, banks were also leery of lending to risky urban projects, so Phase I required 11 layers of financing. Many of these layers came from cultural institutions, the city, and area foundations. Case master-leased 40 percent of the commercial area, guaranteeing rents on the bookstore, café and grocery store; the city of Cleveland made a $5 million low-interest loan through its vacant property redevelopment initiative; the Cleveland and Gund Foundations kicked in $4 million and $2 million, respectively; and the Cleveland Institute of Art invested $1 million and master-leased 130 beds for their students.

 When the project first opened in the tentative years after the recession, the apartments leased up at some of the highest rates in the city – nearly $2 per square foot – but the commercial spaces proved more difficult. MRN was asking $30-35 per square foot, more than twice what neighborhood spaces were getting, according to several sources. (Note that commercial rents are measured annually, not monthly as apartment rents are, hence the difference.) A few independents signed on, but the area wasn't drawing enough traffic to sustain these businesses.

 Accent, an Asian fusion restaurant, opened in 2012. It closed suddenly just one year later. It became Crop Kitchen, which also closed, and the space has sat vacant ever since. (It will soon be home to Falafel Cafe, which was booted from its previous home in the Commodore Building after 18 years by its landlord, UCI.) Cleveland Beer Cellars also lasted a year, eventually transitioned to Dynomite Burgers and then finally became an Orange Theory Fitness chain location.

 At the time, Zach Bruell of Dynomite blamed the predominance of fast-casual restaurants in the area. "I believe in the concept and the neighborhood, but we just couldn't make it work down there," he told Cleveland.com. "There are just so many fast-casual restaurants."

 MRN Hospitality also tried opening a second location of Corner Alley. When the 25,000 square foot space closed, Maron told Cleveland.com that "smaller is better." He announced plans to break up the space into a taco-and-tequila place from the owners of Tres Potrillos in Beachwood, a Verizon store, and another fast-casual restaurant, Burgerim, an Israeli chain similar to White Castle.


Shifting Retail Strategy


The sharp difference of opinion between Maron and some of the area's businesses and cultural institutions boils down to this: MRN claims that Uptown is a vibrant neighborhood-based retail center, while critics say that by now it should be drawing more visitors and serving a wider audience.

 "What Uptown is – and I think this is incredibly important – it's the neighborhood fabric that makes cities work," says Maron "I'm not sure it needs to be East 4th Street to be successful. I think it needs to provide the neighborhood amenities that University Circle needs to be successful."

 Business owners don't agree. "By now, it should be fairly mature, but there's not yet enough of a critical mass of people living here or walking around," says Adrian Bota of Piccadilly Artisan Creamery. Piccadilly recently moved to the former Coquette Patisserie space across from MRN's development and has begun selling pints of ice cream to grocery stores. They also recently formed a partnership with Vintage Coffee and Tea to sell pastries and beverages.

 Sean Watterson, who recently closed the Happy Dog at the Euclid Tavern after a four-year run, says MRN's student-focused strategy doesn't serve independent businesses. "During our time we went from being a city destination to a student destination," he says. "As businesses closed, there were less reasons for people to come down the hill. We survived based on events. We were doing events like crazy. When you don't have places like Crop, Coquette and Corner Alley, there's less 'there' there, and it's harder to get people to come down."

 CIA president Grafton Nunes says that while his students are thrilled with the newly unified campus, he also hears complaints about the business mix. Although he believes Uptown is successful, there's room for more diversity, he says. "Students do think there's a predominance of Asian fusion restaurants," he says. "I hear students say, 'I wish there was a little more variety.'"

 Reich points out that even the independent places that opened (and closed) at Uptown were concepts that already existed downtown or on the west side, making Uptown seem like a failed Best Of kind of pop-up constellation that didn't present the district as offering distinctive experiences. "Crop, Dynomite, Corner Alley, Happy Dog — they exist (or existed) in a similar format somewhere else in Cleveland. What we need are businesses that are only here, that help make this a destination of its own," she says.

 Compounding Uptown's problems is a lack of coordination among property owners. Bac Nguyen jumped on an opportunity to open in Gordon Square after watching Ninja City struggle a bit at Uptown. "When we first opened, we were the only Asian place besides Chopstix," he says. "You go down there now, and there are a ton of fast-casual Asian places. That was a challenge. There are three different landlords, and whereas normally you'd have exclusivity agreements, you don't have that here."

 Kevin Slesh, Director of Real Estate for Case Western Reserve University, also agrees that there needs to be more tenant diversity at Uptown. Case owns four retail spaces that front Uptown Alley, and they're currently filled with independent businesses – ABC Tavern, Simply Greek and Mitchell's Ice Cream.

 "We recognize that there need to be more unique type tenants that would bring people from these surrounding communities to Uptown," he says. However, Case only controls the spaces it leases, and Slesh reinforced that the project is almost fully leased. "If you look at Uptown today, there are only a few vacant spaces. That's not something that can be changed overnight."

Shane Culey, who operated Coquette Patisserie with his wife Britt-Marie Culey until it closed earlier this year, says that if area institutions want more independent, local businesses, they may have to put their money into helping them survive. That could come in the form of master-leasing spaces and subsidizing them, or owning properties outright and curating the tenant mix. "Right now, as far as I know, nobody is taking the lead on that," he says. 

 Russell Berusch, who helped get Uptown started as Case's vice president of real estate development from 2005-2010, and who also recently developed and sold the building where Coquette Patisserie was located, says it's premature to worry and that, in the end, the developer may be justified. "In general, there's a fair amount of attrition with mom and pop tenants," he says. "They tend to be localized, thin on having cash reserves, and they don't necessarily work with the same ground rules. The nationals, say what you will, they're more predictable."


Changes Coming?


Although Maron says that Uptown's business mix is unlikely to change anytime soon, he defends the success of the project and says it has contributed to the growth of the area, which now has about 60,000 employees and over 10,000 residents.

 "University Circle is an incredibly stable real estate market, because of the hospitals and because of the university," he adds. "It's the most stable real estate market in the region. We continue to be bullish on what the neighborhood can do from a real estate perspective."

Even if the tenant mix doesn't change right away, many people say that MRN hasn't fulfilled its promises with Uptown Alley. The Maron family sold the project on the notion that it would be "East 4th Street picked up and moved over to Uptown," says Alan Glazen of ABC the Tavern, and that clearly hasn't happened. Chipotle, Jimmy John's and Panera maintain their patios, but don't do much to activate the alley, which is devoid of lighting and artwork.

 Ronayne says the steering committee of stakeholders working to improve the area hopes to work with MRN to improve the alley. "We want to see animation of the alley with archway lighting, sculpture and landscaping," he says. "Right now, some of the businesses with fronts on Euclid look at the alley as their back door."

 Maron defends the alley in this way: "It was designed to be a place that piggybacks on Toby's Plaza in terms of event space. We wanted there to be outdoor dining, and there is outdoor dining there. We do have to retain right of way for safety vehicles, and that limits to some extent what we can do on the alley."

 He also says comparisons to downtown are unfair. "East 4th Street is a completely different animal than Uptown," he says. "East 4th is located right next door to Gateway, where 4.5 million people a year are dropped off at your front door. It's very event-driven, catering to huge amounts of people in a short period. Uptown is different – people are working, studying, but there's a more consistent flow of traffic. It's a completely different generation of business."

 Yet Nunes also argues that the alley is something of a missed opportunity. "Uptown Alley has yet to become the Uptown version of East 4th Street," he says sanguinely. "There are things that could be done to turn it into the art promenade that we envisioned it to be."

 To bolster traffic to the area, stakeholders have ramped up programming on Toby's Plaza outside of MOCA, which is now graced by the fantastic sculpture Judy's Hand Pavilion that was installed during FRONT International. Last summer Case and other partners hired a consultant to program events such as pop-up putt putt, lunchtime concerts and after work programs.

 The steering committee has also been working behind the scenes on a rebranding strategy, and new signs and parking machines were added this year to make parking easier to navigate.

 The biggest gamechanger that will be coming to the area is more housing, Ronayne says. Residents are finally moving into Centric, a new 272-unit housing complex behind CIA on Mayfield Avenue, and One University Circle, a 270-unit luxury apartment building at Euclid and Stokes. Other non-student-oriented housing developments are in the works, too. Building critical mass will help sustain independent businesses, Ronayne says.

 Business changes are afoot, as well. Ronayne says a new food concept will open in the Commodore building in March in the space that was home to Falafel Cafe, but it hasn't been announced yet.

 He hopes that Uptown begins to look different in a few years as successful independent businesses begin to fill in around the edges. "Uptown needs spaces to linger, unique draws and merchants and retailers that accentuate the personality of the place," he says.

 For Glazen, it can't happen fast enough. "It had better change. Right now, it's not in a good place," he says. "On the other hand, there are a lot of good things here. We're surrounded by the highest density cultural community anywhere. We have to marry ourselves to arts and culture."

 "The pain of being there early is assuaged by the density of the medical, cultural and arts community that's around us," he adds. "So, we'll stay alive, make a little money, and wait it out. The future is looking good."

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