Neighborhood Preservation: Waging War against a Giant

Mike West- Welcome to Cleveland Heights, a small community east of downtown Cleveland. As you make the turn onto Cedar Road, a small shopping hamlet suddenly pops up. Built between 1910 and 1925 in english tudor style, the area covers about three blocks on both sides of the street. Shops and offices are packed together. Surrounded by houses and apartment buildings, the small shopping district contains stores owned mostly by individuals. The two exceptions are a Starbucks coffee shop and Giant Eagle. Some residents thought it was bad enough when the grocery chain took over Russo's Market which was run by the family for 62 years. But talk of expansion has been about as welcome here as a shopping cart with a jammed wheel. Long time resident Jane Kessler is the owner of Apple Tree Books across the street. She says the old neighborhood hasn't changed much over the years, and that's just fine with her and other residents and business owners.

Jane Kessler- I guess everybody here is allergic to change. We all know each other, it's almost sort of family style.

MW- About a month ago, city and business leaders held a public meeting to talk over expansion plans for the grocery store. 300 people showed up. They made it clear they didn't like the idea, and don't trust vague descriptions for Giant Eagle's expansion plans.

JK- The question is, what is the plan really going to be, how are they really going to do it? We haven't seen any plans, no plans, it's just been, so far, an idea, very abstract.

MW- There's no question the store is small and a bit cramped. It has about 18 thousand square feet of floor space. That's compared to an average supermarket which is about 40 thousand square feet. Sal Russo's family owns the building and leases the store to Giant Eagle. He says the loss of the family store is a sign of the times. He feels mergers in the grocery business and other industries have become an unavoidable fact of life, especially in the low profit world of the supermarket business.

Sal Russo- In order to maintain their growth patterns they want these 20 to 25 percent growth patterns they have to acquire businesses. It's tough to steal people's business other than acquiring it and buying it. The supermarket industry is no different. There's going to continue to be acquisitions. You're going to see the jockeying around of the top six guys trying to buy different stores. It's what's going on in every industry and you're going to continue to see it.

MW- Folks here are suspicious of corporate intruders. The merchants in the area also gave the cold shoulder to Seattle-based Starbucks when they moved into the district about 2 years ago. Concerns were raised over parking, and the idea that the owners were a corporation thousands of miles away didn't sit well with some, at least at first. Once again, shop owner Jane Kessler......

JK- Starbucks of course, came in recently and that is franchise, they don't have local autonomy to make decisions and it takes longer to get anything done. Starbucks has done a very nice job, they've been a welcome addition to the community, although at first I think we were all a little apprehensive. But they have a nice homey place, it's sizeable and it sort of fits into the general atmosphere for people here.

MW- Any change to this historic district will be a long process. Cleveland Heights mayor Ed Kelley says citizens need to feel they have a hand in any changes. And once a plan is formulated, the mayor says any other business, corporate or mom and pop, still must run the gauntlet of city hall.

"It's tough to steal people's business other than acquiring it and buying it. The supermarket industry is no different. There's going to continue to be acquisitions."
-Sam Russo

Ed Kelley- We make sure it's going to keep the character of the neighborhood and keep out the cookie cutter type reinvestment in the neighborhood. You do that in a variety of ways. One is our planning department, working with the developer and or the owners to make sure that happens. The other way is sending a message with our other various Boards, our Planning Commission, our Board of Zoning and Appeals and Architectural Board of Review.

MW- The public meeting held to hear concerns over the proposed expansion of Giant Eagle has left city leaders cautious. The mayor says it was a learning experience in how much passion citizens can have for a neighborhood institution.

EK- What happens in Russo's will help define that neighborhood for the next fifteen to twenty-five years, and it's very important that something is done to maintain or bring back the level, especially in the interior of the store. If there's plans for the outside of the store or whatever, I think Giant Eagle and Russo's got the message that "big box" isn't going to make it there just from the meeting.

MW- Fighting to keep the look and feel of a community can work. Other neighborhoods where hackles have been raised over the alterations of the fabric of close knit communities include Lakewood. Corporate drug giant Wallgreen's wanted to build a store at West 117th and Detroit Road. After some hard bargaining with city leaders, the company gave in to a requirement to build their store with a historically correct look.

For INFOHIO, I'm Mike West in Cleveland Heights.

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