CLEVELAND — The Cleveland City Council’s Development, Planning and Sustainability Committee on Tuesday signed off on the funding component of a proposed refresh of downtown’s iconic East 4th Street. The proposal, which includes a re-imaging of restaurant patios and the installation of a pocket park, public art and updated lighting, is intended to create a more resident and visitor-oriented central business district.
The renovations also call for the creation of Cleveland’s first DORA — or Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area — which would allow patrons and visitors to purchase alcoholic beverages from participating restaurants and have "open containers" as they meander around East 4th. Legislation permitting the creation of the DORA has to be approved by City Council. Additionally, state law requires a security plan to accompany any designated outdoor refreshment area.
The owner of the East 4th development, family-run MRN Ltd., will utilize existing tax increment financing funds to cover $1.4 million of the $1.65 million proposal. MRN would cover the remaining $250,000.
Partner Ari Maron, said the broader goal of the refreshed East 4th Street is to elevate the space and provide activities for downtown residents and visitors, especially on nights when there isn’t a major event.
In his presentation to the council committee Tuesday morning, Maron didn’t mince words.
“I think we’re facing the biggest challenge that we face downtown since I’ve been doing this for 23 years,” Maron said. “This is the environment that we’re in. I’m not here to be a doomsayer; I’m here to say that we need to collectively take a leadership role, eyes wide open, in how we address these issues. That’s really what this project is about.”
Cleveland, like a litany of other large cities, has reported that downtown office workers have been slow to return to the office. In its most recent report, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance said downtown’s return-to-office rate dipped slightly to 58% of pre-pandemic levels. It had been 62% in September 2022.
Maron said it is imperative for city leaders to reimagine downtown as more than just a place where people go to work, largely due to the continued popularity of work-from-home and hybrid work arrangements.
“Most of our (East 4th) businesses are not open for lunch because there is not an office market. Many of them, their ‘happy hours’ are not what they’ve seen,” Maron said. “When there is an event, whether it’s House of Blues or Pickwick or at the ballparks, we’re busy. When there isn’t an event, we’re dead. That is not a sustainable condition and it is not a sustainable condition downtown.”
A revamped East 4th Street featuring additional amenities could be part of that solution.
By allowing visitors to stroll East 4th with a beer, wine or cocktail in hand thanks to the DORA, MRN would be able to remove the black metal fencing that separates each patio space, which is currently required by state liquor laws. Instead, MRN would install special landscaping and greenery to separate the patio spaces, creating a more open, free-flowing and welcoming atmosphere, Maron said.
As part of the proposal, the current valet area would shift to Prospect Avenue and the car pick-up area would instead be on Euclid. This shift is to make the area more accessible to ride-sharing services and bicyclists.
What is currently being used as the valet area would become a pocket park, fit with a small stage and other spaces for pop-up merchants. In addition to a canopy covering the space, public art will also be installed throughout the East 4th corridor.
Maron stressed that the authorization of the DORA requires MRN to provide security officers in the area.
“That’s actually one of the things that is the most important to me. To our tenants and our neighborhood, we have to — by statute — focus on the security of the neighborhood,” Maron said. “This feels much more like a neighborhood rather than an entertainment district. That has always been the goal of East 4th Street. We call ourselves a neighborhood.”
Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack said a thriving, vibrant downtown is not only vital to the city’s psyche but, most importantly, its bottom line.
“While there is no lack of challenges in front of us, I do believe that this project and other larger efforts are working toward that goal of creating a modern downtown that reflects the patterns of today,” McCormack said. “Up to 50 to 60 percent of the income tax in the city of Cleveland — and that doesn’t even include property tax — comes from our central business district.”