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06.16.2014
Stage Call
Cleveland's revitalized theater district fueling growth downtown.
Cleveland is now home to the second largest contiguous arts district in the U.S.
Tom Saylor Photography

On May 2, Clevelanders gathered around the giant new chandelier hanging above the intersection of Euclid Avenue and East 14th Street for a lighting ceremony. The crown jewel in a $16 million streetscape and signage overhaul, its glittery light was meant to signal the arrival of Cleveland’s thriving theater district.

In the 1970s, Cleveland’s Playhouse Square was a gallery of abandoned theaters and movie palaces. Now it is the second-largest contiguous arts complex in the country, after New York’s Lincoln Center. Somewhere along its decades-long march from preservation cause to real estate revolution, the effort to revitalize this neighborhood just east of downtown Cleveland morphed into something more than the sum of its parts.

Courtesy Playhouse Square
 

Historic photos from the 1920s show flashy marquees and stick signs vying for the attention of passersby. But billboards stacked end-to-end and, in some cases, right on top of one another slowly lost their audience, as Cleveland lost population to far-flung suburbs and other cities. By the 1970s, the city began targeting some of the historic theaters for demolition. A preservation effort led by Ray Shepardson, a Cleveland Board of Education employee who quit his job to spearhead The Playhouse Square Association, stopped the city from turning the Loew’s Ohio and State theaters into surface parking lots.

Shepardson died on April 14 at age 70, but not before securing the legacy of the theater district he was instrumental in helping save. Playhouse Square’s theaters landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. While work remains to be done in restoring all of them, most have been returned to their original glory, spawning a local real estate boom in the process.

Tom Saylor Photography
 

“It’s certainly catalytic,” said Tom Einhouse, Playhouse Square’s vice president of real estate development. “We’ve always worked on curating an environment working toward creating a destination.”

Sensing an opportunity to serve its mutual goals of promoting their district’s theaters and developing the related neighborhood and nightlife amenities, Playhouse Square formed its own real estate services division in 1999. They now own about 1 million square feet of commercial office space, which Einhouse said is 85–90 percent occupied. Last fall it opened the Residences at Hanna—a 105-unit residential development connected to the recently restored Hanna Theatre.

Cleveland’s downtown population today is twice what it was in 2000, according to the nonprofit Downtown Cleveland Alliance. Elsewhere in the Midwest, a similar return to downtown living is taking place, but perhaps no other downtown rebound is so closely tied to cultural institutions as it is in Cleveland.

 
Courtesy Playhouse Square
 

Further east on Euclid Avenue, in many senses Cleveland’s Main Street, art museums and higher education institutions have spurred development in the University Circle area. Linked to Playhouse Square and downtown by a bus rapid transit line, its growth stands to benefit from the return of the city’s theater district as a 24-7 destination.

Playhouse Square’s real estate boomlet has begun to spill over to the west. Three blocks west of the district’s boundary, on Euclid Avenue and 9th Street, a 22-story former office building is being turned into a $170 million mixed-use development. The area is slated for a grocery store and other neighborhood amenities. “That really supports residential to a whole new level,” said Einhouse. “And of course we would look at putting additional amenities and possibly some future development of residential back there.”

Back in Playhouse Square itself, the “district transformation project” crosses a significant milestone with the installation of its signature chandelier and video signage throughout the area, which is delineated with four gateway arches. “The whole point of that was, special places have a special feel,” said Einhouse. “The tenants feel it, and when you’re in the theater you feel it, but when you’re on the street, we want to pull that all together.”

Chris Bentley