There’s a Reason You’re Hearing So Much About Cleveland These Days – Next City
The Equity Factor

There’s a Reason You’re Hearing So Much About Cleveland These Days

The world’s largest chandelier hangs in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

David Rothstein recalls that when he was 10 years old, his family would not drive into downtown Cleveland unless they had an overriding reason. “In order to get to those spaces, you would be shocked at the level of decay and blight there was,” says Rothstein, director of resource development and public affairs at Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland. Like many Rust Belt cities plagued by disinvestment and white flight, there weren’t any family-friendly restaurants, boutique stores or safe cultural districts.

Today, downtown Cleveland is now home to hip eateries, a thriving arts district, and fully occupied offices and residences for the city’s growing creative class. (See MetroTrend’s Cleveland Spotlight for more evidence.) The return of LeBron James and the announcement that it will be the host city for the 2016 Republican National Convention has resulted in an unprecedented media spotlight. A single organization’s long-term, well-funded vision played a huge role in the revival (isn’t that the dream of civic boosters everywhere?), but Cleveland’s story reveals both the advantages of strongly focused visioning as well as some blind spots.

PlayhouseSquare is the second-largest performing arts center in the nation outside of Lincoln Center. In the 1970s, the preservation of four historic theaters dating from the 1920s started a snowball effect that led to the establishment of the non-profit arts center — and then the growth to its current size — as well as the city’s first business improvement district. The center now has 10 performance spaces that average one million visitors a year. Bolstered by a local government supportive of public-private partnerships, PlayhouseSquare shifted gears to real estate development when it co-developed a Wyndham hotel in 1995.

“If Playhouse Square, the performing arts center, was going to succeed,” says Art Falco, president and chief executive, “we also needed to be a leader and a catalyst of the neighborhood. That’s what took us into real estate.”

PlayhouseSquare is now a power player both in the arts and in commercial and residential real estate, managing more than 2.3 million square feet. The revenues advance its arts mission and have been slowly changing the face of the city, Falco explains. “We are a long-term player — and we’re going to be here for many, many years — so we can take a long-term view and the types of retail tenants and restaurants that we would like to see in the neighborhood. We are not looking to turn a quick profit.”

Another Cleveland lies outside of PlayhouseSquare’s purview. Hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, the city still has at least 15,000 vacant houses that either need to be demolished or drastically remodeled, according to Rothstein.

“There are parts outside of Cleveland that have stabilized, but the city itself is more than fragile,” he says. NHS of Greater Cleveland promotes homeownership by offering financial counseling, home-buying education classes, tax preparation services, loan programs for preservation and rehabilitation, and a progressive community land trust program that uses a shared-equity model.

Rothstein thinks that what’s happened downtown is “nothing short of remarkable,” but sees an imbalance in where public and private funds are distributed. “While we support that they’re putting money into the urban core for the art museum or redevelopment of places like Playhouse Square,” he says, “there’s also very little money for getting people into houses.”

NHS of Greater Cleveland’s operating budget is $1.8 million dollars. Rothstein says that 2 percent of that is from public funds, and Cleveland residents represent 70 percent of their clients.

This year PlayhouseSquare has completed $16 million dollars on improvements in its neighborhood that include the erection of gateway arches, the renovation of a commons, and the construction of a statement piece unveiled in May: the world’s largest outdoor chandelier. The flamboyant landmark grounds the district in two notable eras of Cleveland’s history (the ’20s and now), but Rothstein remarks that some of Cleveland’s most vulnerable residents feel “somewhat sour” about such displays.

Falco says that PlayhouseSquare is not looking to develop affordable housing specifically, but points to how the 50-plus businesses that they’ve attracted, like a planned Munich-style Hofbrauhaus brewery and the Residences at Hanna residential complex, are direct injections to the economic development of the city. PlayhouseSquare has helped to turn Cleveland’s tide and become an anchor of the entire Northeast Ohio region.

“Our basic principle is to use the performing arts as the vehicle to create a critical mass,” says Falco. “But we also realize that to further develop the neighborhood, we have to take a leadership position. We have been very aggressive in the acquisition of some of these properties. We have been leading the development of some buildings and vacant spaces that have been vacant for upwards of 20 years in order to create more vitality.”

People feel safe to return to Cleveland’s core, and PlayhouseSquare is a model arts organization that’s successfully maneuvered the world of public-private partnerships. Still, there is more work to be done to create balance and serve all of Cleveland’s communities.

“We support those kinds of projects at PlayhouseSquare,” says Rothstein, “but we look at the millions of dollars that are invested there and we say to ourselves, how can we also leverage money to make people living in the City of Cleveland comfortable, so that they can also access those great treasures?”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Tags: affordable housingarts and culturepublic-private partnershipscleveland