CLEVELAND: Most urban planning experts agree that making a downtown walkable is vital to attracting people to move in.
But what does it take besides decent sidewalks to make a neighborhood truly walkable?
The Heinen’s Fine Foods chain is opening a store in downtown Cleveland, betting that a grocery store is one of those key elements that will help the city tip the balance and grow a significant residential population.
At the corner of East Ninth Street and Euclid Avenue, the new Heinen’s grocery store will be part of a larger project to turn the former Ameritrust complex into apartments, a hotel, offices and Cuyahoga County’s government headquarters.
The store will take over the first two floors of the rotunda as well as the first floor of the neighboring Swetland Building, at 1010 Euclid Ave.
At present, there are no true grocery stores in the center of Cleveland other than Constantino’s, a smaller specialty market in the Warehouse District.
Earlier this month, Jeff and Tom Heinen joined a panel to discuss the move with a gathering organized by the City Club of Cleveland and the Downtown Cleveland Alliance as part of their series, “Civic Drinks,” where community issues are addressed over beer, wine and appetizers.
Joining the Heinen brothers were Fred Geis of the Geis Cos., the developer of the project, and Joe Marinucci of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance.
Jeff Heinen spoke candidly about basing Heinen’s decision as much on instinct and their will to help transform downtown as they did on careful financial analysis. He explained that the Geis Cos. had made the move possible, in part by shouldering some of the risk of building at a moment when profitability might take time.
The location they chose promises to make the grocery store something of a destination in itself. Because the store is being built in an enormous rotunda, shelves, displays and the entire flow of the store will have to be built to suit the continual curves of the dramatic space.
“It’s going to be quite an experience to go shopping here,” Heinen said at the gathering, which was held in the rotunda.
Geis, a downtown Cleveland resident for the past nine years, was confident that the time is right.
“With grocery stores, you look for 25,000 population to move into an urban area. That’s when you have the critical mass,” he said.
“You’ve got the population, you’ve got the concentration of workers. So with 25,000 downtown and another 10 or 15 [thousand] in Ohio City, now is the time.”
Jeff Heinen said the people driving the project are those in their 20s or 30s.
“They don’t want to be like their parents. If they can get a job and feel safe downtown, this is where they want to live,” he said. “And you have empty-nesters, too.”
Regarding Northeast Ohioans’ concerns about parking at the new store, Geis said, “We have to understand that in an urban environment, you don’t get perfect. We have the valet solution. And we have quite a bit of parking, curbside service and short-term parking for pick-up.”
And, he said, early feedback from residents indicates that they don’t intend to drive.
“They walk. They don’t really want to get into cars,” he said. “That’s why they live downtown. So parking for residents is not as important to them, really. It’s a whole different way of thinking.”
Everything about an urban store is different, explained Tom Heinen.
“You have one- or two-person households. They shop often, but in small amounts — what they can carry. So you sell smaller package — no 24-pack of paper towels. More prepared foods and meals you can order.”
The commitment from Heinen’s already is spurring further change downtown, Marinucci said.
“We’ve received a great deal of support and encouragement from the business community and residents. And now all kinds of retailers are beginning to express an interest in coming downtown,” he said. “It’s already impacting other decisions.”
When Geis was asked if he had any thoughts on what downtown Akron could learn from Cleveland, he said creating jobs is important.
“You’ve got to build up that concentration. The question is how to get those first 1,000 people so they don’t feel like they’re living all alone down there,” he said.
The challenge for Akron, he surmised, is that its downtown mostly consists of college students.
“Entertainment and dining are critical, and most of what’s there is for college students. You’ve got a few places like Crave that cater to business lunches, but nobody’s driving in to go to dinner downtown,” Geis said.
“What Akron does have is a good infrastructure to get around. And a great mayor. You need somebody charismatic like that to get things done.”
Jeff Heinen said he is “not that knowledgeable about Akron, but I know you can’t bring your suburban mentality when you’re designing an urban business.”
When asked if a grocery store in downtown Akron would help, Heinen replied, “First you need enough population. That’s when somebody’s going to move in.”
Pressed as to whether he would consider opening a store in downtown Akron, Heinen laughed and said, “Let us get the Cleveland store up and doing a lot of business and then maybe we can talk about it.”
In the meantime, Heinen said folks in Summit County will enjoy visiting the Cleveland store when it’s completed in September or October.
“If they come downtown and shop here, they’ll say, ‘That was fun,’ and they’ll want to do it again. Maybe not every week. But once in a while — to experience that energy, like in New York or Chicago.”