By Sam McNulty
I first visited Ohio City in the early ‘80s with my parents and six siblings to shop at the West Side Market. I remember my immigrant mother and first-generation father sharing their love of the old-world vibrancy of the market. I also remember how dilapidated the surrounding neighborhood was, but how it had a soul and energy that the insipid suburbs lacked.
Fast forward to the early ‘90s. I’m studying Urban Planning at Cleveland State University’s Urban Studies College. I’d taken two study-abroad trips—to my family’s farm in Ireland and later for a summer in Poland–along with more than a dozen backpacking trips to East and West Europe, Asia, South America, the Middle East, South America, and all across North America. In the process, I’d become fascinated with cities and the way the best of them can make the lives of their citizens robust and happy.
These travels inspired ideas to bring back home and have also made me love Cleveland all the more. It seems that the people who complain about Cleveland are the ones who don’t have a passport.
I opened my first restaurant, Café 101, at CSU in my junior year on a whim. After an eight-year run, CSU would not renew the lease, and I was on the hunt for new location. Thanks to my travels, I realized how lucky we are to live in Cleveland at this point in time. The opportunity in this “post-industrial frontier” is astounding, and there’s no better example than Ohio City.
Wanting to control our location, my business partners and I were able to purchase the real estate for our first Ohio City venture–McNulty’s Bier Markt, Bar Cento and Speakeasy–for $400,000. That’s less than my Manhattan friends were paying for a closet-sized condo. The year was 2003, and people all over–from my mom to a few very, very long-term residents of the neighborhood–thought we were crazy to invest in blighted Ohio City. They thought we were completely insane in 2008, when we bought the building across the street that was condemned and a decade vacant to open Market Garden Brewery.
Then something happened. We were joined by many other like-minded entrepreneurs who opened fantastic owner-operated businesses like Crop Bistro, Soho Kitchen, Bonbon Pastry, Joy Machines Bike Shop, Johnnyville Slugger Custom Baseball Bats, Vision Yoga, and many more.
The skeptics went quiet when they saw that the rising tide actually was lifting all ships. The urban-pioneering Conway brothers of Great Lakes Brewing saw record sales at their 25-year-old brewpub. The 101-year-old West Side Market hasn’t been this busy in decades. And now our biggest challenge in Ohio City is finding parking for the thousands of cars that visit each week.
Then something else happened. All of a sudden, everyone wanted in on Ohio City. The rent on my one-bedroom apartment above Third Federal Bank went up to $1,075 per month, and a years-long waiting list formed for housing in the neighborhood. Only one storefront is available north of Lorain Avenue. And nearly 500 residential units are under construction or shovel-ready within a ten-minute bike ride. I just bought a scruffy piece of land a three-minute walk away and will build seven fee-simple townhomes where my mortgage will be less than my current rent.
Naysayers will cry “gentrification,” but progressive thinkers will see that progress and revitalization is happening at a pace and scale rarely seen.
Recognizing the need to diversify Ohio City’s retail so it’s not simply a restaurant/bar/brewpub district, we are actively promoting and collaborating with other forms of retail. And we’re putting our money where our mouth is by purchasing the Culinary Arts Building on West 24th Street and working to convert it to a 43,000-square foot fermentation facility with a retail store open six days a week, selling our house-made beer, whiskey, cheese, charcuterie, kombucha, vinegar, pickles, etc. We’ll also offer tours, classes, cooking demonstrations and culinary training programs on site.
So what does the future hold for Ohio City?
Now that the commercial corridor is vibrant and largely full, the big push is on housing. As the oldest residential neighborhood in Cleveland, we’ve got an amazing stock of beautiful historic homes. And while most have been painstakingly restored, there are still historic restoration opportunities.
New construction–both for sale and for rent–is where we can best meet the high demand for more housing units. I, as well as other developers, am in the process of buying up buildable land within a 15-minute bike ride of the West Side Market to extend the neighborhood’s energy beyond West 25th Street.
Many people are concerned about the high demand for parking in Ohio City. While it’s a great problem to have, it is also a motivation to build out our neighborhood densely and vertically–and with an emphasis on public transport, protected bike lanes, and a human, walkable scale.
Sometimes people cringe when they hear words like density, walkability, bike lanes, etc. Funny, though, how we love those things in cities like Paris that were designed before the automobile became the exclusive focus of city planners. I’m struck by how people who are skeptical of bicycle commuting in the winter think nothing of skiing at sub-zero temperatures and enjoying a beer apres ski ankle-deep in snow. Maybe it’s time we start living the lifestyle we so admire when we holiday overseas.
Maybe that just means getting back to Cleveland’s roots. Ohio City was once a dense, vibrant, walkable neighborhood with department stores, hardware shops, dentists, doctors, taverns, and breweries galore. And I hope it will be once again. We certainly are well on our way–and the best is yet to come!
Sam McNulty is the owner of Bar Cento, Market Garden Brewery, and other establishments in Ohio City.
I enjoyed the first person account Sam. You visited the West Side Market for the first time not long before you were delivering Plain Dealers to my apartment.
The one-sentence paragraph dismissing the gentrification concerns doesn’t seem to tell me why I shouldn’t be concerned about gentrification in Ohio City. Gentrification, I think, refers to the raising of rents and prices so that the poor and working class can no longer afford to live in and enjoy a neighborhood. Does the author have some reason to think Ohio City will avoid this phenomenon when it usually occurs in similarly situation places? Can he assure us that the new construction references two paragraphs above the photo will include affordable housing?
It was a neighborhood of condemned buildings and blight. Were they truly enjoying the neighborhood? If we don’t move forward trying to make our neighborhoods better, creating jobs, making commutes more accessible to pedestrians and bikers, we will just be a city with flight to the suburbs and no tax base. I want to believe that these neighborhood renovators & innovators are doing this for the city, their neighbors and friends and not just their pocketbooks. It is important to keep these things in mind, but the author is one of many people involved in development within many areas of the city. He could have received his education and taken what he had learned to any of the various locations he mentioned above. Instead, he has chosen to try to embellish his hometown. I have often pondered what can be done to help the poor be able to afford a more expensive apartment and a lifestyle that we all wish for ourselves. Job creation and less “white flight” would, hopefully, help create a tax base that will help others establish skill sets and education that will help them move in that direction. I would hate for development and job creation to be put off because we, as a society, have not been able to bring positive resolution to many aspects that effect the less fortunate.
You could’ve just said, “There are too many black people.” and saved yourself a lot of typing.
The effort to resist gentrification is expressed throughout the article. The mention of increasing building for housing and public transportation show the effort to make the area feasible to live in. Supply and demand. Now that the neighborhood is such a desired location to live in there is more demand for the housing than can be met and prices rise. Building more housing will increase the supply (of housing) and the decrease subsequent cost.
I love all of the prosperity and growth of housing and new businesses in Ohio City and Tremont; but I do understand the concern about rising rental and housing costs and the impact it will have on low-income and less advantaged residents in these communities. It seems in the U.S. and in Ohio we are stuck with a market-driven approach to almost everything we do; and changes in communities generally results in winners and losers. I was impressed with some new efforts in Toronto to ensure that affordable housing is carved out as a percentage of new residential development; with the majority of residents paying market rates. In other words, poorer people will have a planned percentage of new housing provided to them at a reduced rate, to be incorporated with wealthy and middle income tenants paying market rate. In the U.S. we always seem to set aside public housing to separate people by socio-economic class. Poor people hardly ever get to live with middle and upper income people. I think Toronto has a vision that people from different socio-economic levels can live in the same neighborhood and that it will be good for all involved; and it seems like they want to put money in to making this happen. I wonder if this can work … and if we could ever embrace such a concept. http://www.citynews.ca/2013/10/29/toronto-considering-buying-lakefront-condos-for-affordable-housing/
” Poor people hardly ever get to live with middle and upper income people. I think Toronto has a vision that people from different socio-economic levels can live in the same neighborhood and that it will be good for all involved; and it seems like they want to put money in to making this happen.”
I’m curious about who’s money is being put into this…. not yours, right? If it was, I think your tone would be different. So easy to lean on someone else as you scream, “The poor, disadvantaged, and lazy need to be treated like hard working people that dedicate their souls to success.” As a taxpayer, too much of our money goes to underservings already. Don’t try to add more unless you want our society to step even lower than it is already.
Tax dollars are already being spent to make housing affordable, and they are proposing to use these tax dollars in Toronto to include a small percentage of low-income families in this new development. So the dollars are already being spent. I was addressing the issue of displacing current residents in areas being re-developed, and my question was about whether some of these low-income families who live there already might continue to live in this community by subsidizing a portion of the development. They are not newcomers, they already live there and are going to be forced to move and lose their current homes, many of which they probably own. I just am wondering if this might be a way to strike a balance vs. gentrifying the whole neighborhood. I already pay plenty of taxes, and I think it is O.K. to help disadvantaged, low-income families remain in their neighborhoods and not be brushed aside by development of the latest “hot” neighborhood.
I think our society does better when we care about people in poverty and provide assistance to feed families, help people get educated, help people gain employment and help people have a decent home to live in. I don’t think poor people cause our society to “step even lower”. A society that doesn’t make these efforts is a society that is in decline.
While I applaud Mr. McNulty for investing his money, time and energy into building his businesses (no small accomplishment), the new, gentrified Ohio City and its out-of-this-world rents and real estate prices do not reflect the everyday reality of Joe Public in 2014 Cleveland (or Akron, Youngstown, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, etc.) The vast majority of the “amazing stock of beautiful homes” in Ohio City that he mentions are insanely overpriced.
I don’t really understand the complaints here about the rent. The rent is not “out-of-this-world”, it is still very cheap for essentially nicer city living, especially when you consider the amount of walkable stores, restaurants and the market. I live in Ohio City and you go a couple blocks away from W 25th and you’ll find a lot of people with entry-level positions and service industry jobs, among others. It’s not exactly a wealthy neighborhood, it’s just gone way up from the run-down place it used to be.
With any kind of growth like this come challenges, but I don’t understand the anger toward this article and Sam for doing something positive for his neighborhood and for Cleveland. Ohio City has also done a lot to keep younger Clevelanders from fleeing to other cities (like I might have done) and it has put Cleveland on the national map so to speak for something positive – an exciting growing neighborhood with a great culinary scene.