Tough Times for Shaker Square

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On a recent Friday night on Shaker Square, things are fairly quiet. A few pedestrians, moderate automobile traffic. It's cold - only 11 degrees - maybe that's keeping a lot of people home. Those who have braved an evening out here are either indoors or headed there.

Inside Fire Restaurant on the Southwest quad, business is slower than usual for 7:00 PM Friday - that's according to the young, personable woman, probably college age, greeting guests. But, she says, the reservation book looks better for later. Owner and chef Doug Katz says he loves his Shaker Square location. But he's concerned that stores have closed and pedestrian traffic has fallen off lately.

Doug Katz: It adds so much more to the feel of the neighborhood and the charm of it when it's filled with people and there's excitement on the square. And it saddens me that the area is becoming depressed.

In fact, Shaker Square's immediate future is in limbo. In December its primary owner, Rosen Associates of Miami, Florida, negotiated the property back to its financing institution, Key Bank. In a written statement it blamed poor parking, high property taxes and high security costs for its failure to make it a success. Here in Cleveland, many aren't sorry to see the company go. Cleveland officials had rebuked Rosen for mismanaging the square, and now are convinced it can't succeed under out-of-town ownership. That's also the opinion of Randy Ruttenberg of Centerpoint properties, which was a minority partner with Rosen. Ruttenberg says the original plan for the square's rebirth in 2000 was sound.

Randy Ruttenberg: We saw that it had all the right characteristics to create an interesting place for commerce and gathering. That being great architecture, the rapid transit, ample parking and the opportunity to create a walkable pedestrian-friendly environment...

That's much the same concept as that embraced by the newly built Legacy Village "lifestyle center" in nearby Lyndhurst: decidedly upscale, the look and feel of a colonial village square, a distinctive blend of dining, specialty shopping and entertainment. But Shaker Square isn't just the re-created likeness of the traditional town center; it's the real thing. Built in the late 1920s, it's cited today as the 2nd oldest shopping center in the country, and is on the National registry of historic places.

If mismanagement is a prime suspect in the recent faltering of Shaker Square, there are other culprits too - namely, competition. Stacie Hefernan runs Abigail and Annie's, a bed, bath and home furnishings specialty store.

Stacie Hefernan: When Legacy opened, almost to the day that Legacy opened it kind of got quieter, daytime traffic.

But Hefernan says, she expects the novelty of Legacy Village, which opened with much fanfare in November, to wear off, and believes Shaker Square, with its authenticity and urban charm, can rebound. But that's down the road. Meanwhile, right now some tenants are coping with today's economic reality.

Across the Square, at Joseph Beth Booksellers, this crowd of two to three dozen is gathered for a book signing by a local author. Such events are still a draw for Joseph Beth. But business here is off, says General Manager Becca Jones, and the store was recently forced to downsize, eliminating its entire 2nd floor of shelf space and closing its popular but ultimately not-profitable Bronte Bistro.

Becca Jones: It just wasn't viable to keep it open any longer and I know a lot of the community members are sad and upset about it, but none more than we are.

Jones is also optimistic the square can make a comeback. For the moment that's a wait-and-see prospect. The property is on the market, and Key Bank officials say about a dozen potential buyers have inquired. What tenants hope to see, Jones says, is local ownership.

Becca Jones: I think that Shaker can be viable; it just takes the right person with the right passion and the right amount of money in their pockets to make it go.

And, she says, it'll take a careful rethinking of what the square should offer shoppers. A new grocery store to replace the now closed Wild Oats Natural Food Store is a must, she says, and perhaps more men's clothing stores to compliment those that cater to women and children. She'd like to see the square become a more "all-in-one" destination.

Becca Jones: I think this needs to be more of a 'Let's go to Shaker Square and get X, Y and Z' instead of 'Let's go to Shaker Square and let's go to Legacy Village and let's go to the west side'... it all has to come together.

Jones's vision generally mirrors that of many Shaker Square fans, and city planners. Whether a buyer can be found to commit to that vision remains to be seen. Reporting from Shaker Square, Bill Rice, 90.3.

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