DOWNTOWN is the central business district and principal employment center of Cleveland and has been an anomalous pocket of significant population growth in a city that has lost population for decades. As a Statistical Planning Area (SPA), Downtown covers approximately 3.2 square miles and is roughly bounded by Lake Erie, the CUYAHOGA RIVER, and the INNERBELT FREEWAY. It centers on PUBLIC SQUARE, which serves as the civic and transit hub of the city.

Before the Civil War, Downtown was centered along Superior St. between Seneca (W. 3rd) and Water (W. 9th) Sts., but as industrial expansion in the FLATS in the 1860s and 1870s forced warehousing activity onto the adjacent bluff, retailing expanded eastward across Public Sq. as far as Sheriff (E. 4th) and Bond (E. 6th) Sts. In the 1890s and 1900s, several dry-goods stores expanded into full-fledged department stores. Between 1902 and 1910, three of them, HALLE BROS. CO., WILLIAM TAYLOR SON & CO., and HIGBEE CO., moved to larger buildings on EUCLID AVE., and a fourth, MAY CO., expanded from Public Sq. at Ontario St. eastward to claim Euclid Ave. frontage. By the 1900s, Public Sq. stood in the center of the business district. When the first systematic tax assessment was undertaken as a Progressive Era reform in 1910, it made the May Co. store the city’s “100% block” with the highest front-foot tax assessment value. In addition to dept. stores, Downtown had hundreds of smaller retail stores along Euclid and Prospect Aves. and other streets, as well as in the glass-ceilinged ARCADE (1890) and, later, the Colonial and Euclid arcades (now the 5th St. Arcades). Among Downtown’s numerous theaters, none matched the immense HIPPODROME (1908), whose stage was the world’s second largest.

Much of the present-day footprint of Downtown once had residential homes. Early settlers from New England and other migrants and immigrants lived in all directions from Public Sq. well into the 19th century. Thousands of ITALIANS, Slavs, and other immigrants settled in the HAYMARKET area on the southern fringe of Downtown in the 1870s-1910s. A CHINESE community emerged in the 1880s in the blocks north of Public Sq. and relocated in the 1930s to Chinatown in the heart of Cleveland’s garment district (see GARMENT INDUSTRY) on the northeastern side of Downtown. Commercial and industrial development pushed most residential uses to the fringes of Downtown in the early decades of the 20th century, although some residential hotels continued to provide rented rooms, mostly to single men, into the 1960s.

Early skyscraper development concentrated near Public Sq. before expanding eastward along Euclid Ave. Chicago architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root designed the 10-story Society for Savings Bldg. (1890), 8-story WESTERN RESERVE BLDG. (1892) and 8-story CUYAHOGA BLDG. (1893). In 1896, the 15-story New England Bldg. (later the Guardian Bldg.; see GUARDIAN SAVINGS & TRUST CO.) became Cleveland’s tallest for about a decade, followed by the 16-story Williamson Bldg. (1900) and 17-story ROCKEFELLER BLDG. (1905).

Although Downtown, like business districts in other American cities, was becoming recognizable for its tall office buildings, a countervailing trend reflected a different vision inspired by Paris. Amid the emerging City Beautiful movement, city leaders commissioned Daniel Burnham to devise the GROUP PLAN (1903) to facilitate the removal of a red-light district. The Group Plan included a grassed MALL lined by Beaux-Arts public buildings anchored on the north end by a majestic rail terminal. The partially realized plan resulted in a federal courthouse, CUYAHOGA COUNTY COURTHOUSE, CITY HALL, PUBLIC AUDITORIUM, and the main CLEVELAND PUBLIC LIBRARY, but the rail station was never built.

Had the Group Plan proven more influential, it might have reoriented Downtown toward the lakefront. Instead, Downtown’s development progressed more eastward than lakeward. The 1907 completion of the CLEVELAND TRUST CO. headquarters, designed by N.Y. Stock Exchange architect George B. Post, at Euclid and E. 9th signaled the continued primacy of Euclid Ave. In 1920-21, PLAYHOUSE SQUARE emerged as the city’s new theater district, eclipsing an earlier, less concentrated collection of theaters near Public Square. The new district’s ALLEN, HANNA, OHIO, PALACE, and STATE theaters made Playhouse Sq. an eastern “anchor” for Downtown. The 1920s also marked the next wave of skyscraper construction in Downtown, with six new buildings of more than 20 stories: the Keith and Superior Bldgs. (1922), Union Trust Bldg. (1924), Standard Bldg. (1925), and Ohio Bell Bldg. and Terminal Tower (1927).

Euclid Avenue near East 9th Street in the 1920s
Euclid Avenue near East 9th Street circa 1920s

Terminal Tower, at 708’ the tallest skyscraper in the world outside New York City, was the centerpiece of a much larger redevelopment project that exceeded the earlier Group Plan in its ambition and prompted the largest excavation since that for the Panama Canal. Railroad barons ORIS P. AND MANTIS J. VAN SWERINGEN built CLEVELAND UNION TERMINAL, which relied on converting from steam to electric locomotives to convey trains from the outlying LINNDALE and COLLINWOOD RAILROAD YARDS through the central city to the new station. Opened in 1930, the Terminal gave the Van Sweringens a direct rapid transit connection from their planned suburb of SHAKER HTS. to a new city-within-a-city. The so-called Terminal Group included a central passenger station, the preexisting HOTEL CLEVELAND, a new Higbee Co. store, the Guildhall, Midland, and Republic Bldgs. (now Landmark Office Towers), and a new U.S. Post Office. The concept influenced the subsequent development of New York’s Rockefeller Center. By introducing so much new office space on the eve of the Great Depression, the Terminal complex worsened vacancy in older buildings.

Developments in the 1930s reconfigured the Downtown lakefront in ways that simultaneously increased its value and marginalized it. Railroad tracks had divided the lakefront from Downtown since the 1850s (see RAILROADS). Lakeview Park, created in the 1870s, was aptly named because it lay on the natural bluff that provided a view of the lake but not direct access to it. CLEVELAND MUNICIPAL STADIUM opened in 1931, blocking the view. In 1936-37, the land just east of the stadium was converted from a city dump into a civic showplace for the GREAT LAKES EXPOSITION. Despite the promise of a lasting connection to the Mall, this section of lakefront remained relegated to shipping piers. The first segment of Cleveland’s first freeway, later named MEMORIAL SHOREWAY, opened in 1938, adding another barrier between downtown and the lakefront, as did BURKE LAKEFRONT AIRPORT, built on dredged fill in 1947.

In the 1950s, Downtown was at its peak as the retail, financial, and entertainment center of Cleveland, but close observers began to worry that suburban expansion (see SUBURBS) portended its decline. City leaders undertook a number of efforts to attempt to strengthen Downtown. Several such attempts faltered, including an underground expansion of Public Auditorium (defeated by voters in 1957 and only approved six years later), a subway to distribute rapid transit riders throughout Downtown (defeated twice by county commissioners in 1957 and 1959), and a Hilton convention hotel on the south end of the Mall (defeated by voters in 1959). The opening of the Innerbelt Frwy. in 1959-60 created a barrier between Downtown and the largely African American CENTRAL neighborhood and, along with other freeways completed in the ensuing decade, accelerated suburban decentralization.

In 1959, the Cleveland City Planning Commission adopted the Downtown Cleveland 1975 plan, an amendment to the General Plan of Cleveland of 1949 that called for office and residential development in Playhouse Square, industrial development to the north of Chester Ave. and east of E. 9th St., and mall-like treatments on Euclid Ave. Before the plan could be implemented, the CLEVELAND DEVELOPMENT FOUNDATION convinced the ANTHONY J. CELEBREZZE administration to adopt a different strategy. The result was ERIEVIEW, a federal urban renewal area designated in 1960 and roughly bounded by E. 6th St., Chester Ave., E. 17th St., and the lakefront. As late as 1967, only three new office buildings, dominated by the 40-story Erieview Tower, had been completed. The much-delayed completion of Chesterfield Apts. (1967) and Park Centre (Reserve Sq.) (1969) also delivered a fraction of the envisioned housing units in Erieview. Despite critics’ charges that Erieview siphoned vitality from Euclid Ave., however, the project’s exaggerated promise influenced BAILEY CO. dept. store to rethink its decision to close in 1962, led to major renovations of the Higbee Co., May Co., STERLING-LINDNER CO., and Halle Bros. Co. dept. stores in 1963-65, and inspired the JEWISH FEDERATION OF CLEVELAND to relocate its headquarters to Euclid Ave. in 1965.

Erieview was only the largest of three intended Downtown urban renewal projects. The St. Vincent renewal area enabled an expansion of ST. VINCENT CHARITY HOSPITAL and provided land for the new CUYAHOGA COMMUNITY COLLEGE. The City of Cleveland also sought urban renewal funds in 1965 to help construct a Downtown campus for the new CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY. Although Cleveland’s mismanagement of federal funding instead led to a freeze in urban renewal approvals, construction proceeded on the new university, whose parking lots emptied into ingress ramps to the Innerbelt Frwy., thereby diminishing the university’s ability to reinvigorate Downtown. Like the Group Plan and Cleveland Union Terminal in earlier years, these renewal projects destroyed large numbers of affordable housing units on the periphery of Downtown and exacerbated HOMELESSNESS.

Through the 1950s, Downtown retailers and other business interests had belonged to a variety of narrowly focused promotional organizations, including the Euclid Ave. Assn., Prospect Ave. Assn., and Public Square Assn., that proved unable to formulate a broad, cohesive plan for the district. The 1960s and 1970s brought a series of short-lived organizations that attempted to represent all of Downtown, mostly through special promotional events. The long-delayed expansion of Public Auditorium beneath the Mall finally reached fruition in 1964, and the LEONARD C. HANNA JR. Fund financed fountains that made the Mall into a popular lunch spot for office workers. A new plan, Downtown Cleveland: Guidelines for Action (1965) responded to the shortcomings of Erieview and recommended a greater focus along Euclid Ave., exploiting the Arcade and CENTRAL MARKET as tourist attractions, and revitalization of the WAREHOUSE DISTRICT west of Public Square. The latter idea languished until after a 1977 study by William A. Gould & Associates led to the district’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The adjacent Flats also began to enjoy popularity in the 1970s for its dive bars and punk rock scene.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Downtown saw the largest spate of new office building construction since the 1920s. Notable additions to the skyline included the 29-story Cleveland Trust (later Ameritrust) Tower, 23-story Central Natl. Bank, and 21-story DIAMOND SHAMROCK Bldg. Despite the office boom, this period brought mostly a further erosion of Downtown. Sterling-Lindner closed in 1968, and Halle Bros. sold out in 1970 to Chicago-based Marshall Field, which did little to revitalize the store before closing it in 1982. In 1968-69, 4 of 5 Playhouse Sq. theaters closed. Early efforts to restore the theaters into a new entertainment district, spearheaded by Ray Shepardson and then backed by the JUNIOR LEAGUE OF CLEVELAND and CLEVELAND FOUNDATION, were slow to take shape. A city-sponsored project to turn Huron Rd. into Huron Mall in 1973 produced only modest results. Urban planner Lawrence Halprin’s Cleveland Foundation-sponsored visits in 1973-74 led the Higbee Co. to invest in Settlers’ Landing, which Higbee’s president Herbert Strawbridge hoped might emulate San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, but economic troubles and a major fire squashed this hope. Halprin’s vision for a unified Public Square also fell flat, yielding a ten-year effort that instead produced four separate redesigned quadrants that critics panned. A long-planned Bond Court Hotel finally opened in Erieview in 1975, but the city’s convention center, expanded only 11 years before, proved unable to compete effectively against newer, larger facilities in other cities. The last commuter train, operated between Youngstown and Cleveland by ERIE-LACKAWANNA RAILROAD, left the Cleveland Union Terminal in 1976, and a plan to remake the station into a retail-hotel-office development faltered.

More than two decades after the earliest efforts were mounted to reverse Downtown’s declining hold on suburbanites’ leisure time, a new commitment to revitalization emerged during the MAYORAL ADMINISTRATION OF GEORGE V. VOINOVICH and reached fruition under successor Michael White. More than in past years, many Downtown development projects of the 1980s-90s enhanced Cleveland’s prospects as a tourist destination. A redevelopment of the Cleveland. Union Terminal into TOWER CITY CENTER by FOREST CITY ENTERPRISES, INC., completed in 1990, featured a shopping mall and renovated rapid transit station. Nearby, the GATEWAY ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CORP., formed in 1990, used “sin tax” funding to build Jacobs Field (see PROGRESSIVE FIELD) for the CLEVELAND INDIANS and Gund Arena (see ROCKET MORTGAGE FIELDHOUSE) to lure the CLEVELAND CAVALIERS back to Downtown from the Richfield Coliseum they had occupied in suburban Summit Co. since 1974. Both new facilities opened in 1994, and the Indians’ 1995 and 1997 World Series appearances lifted the fortunes of the Gateway district’s restaurants and bars and led to the redevelopment of E. 4th St. into a pedestrianized entertainment district in the early 2000s. The I.M. Pei-designed ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM (1995) instantly became the city’s most iconic attraction, although the Baltimore Inner Harbor-inspired NORTH COAST HARBOR concept it anchored remained only partially realized long after CLEVELAND TOMORROW’s Civic Vision 2000 and Beyond (1998) introduced major plans for the area. Most of the major restoration work on Playhouse Sq. theaters was finished by the late 1990s, making Playhouse Square. the largest theater complex in the U.S. outside New York. The Playhouse Square Foundation utilized a growing portfolio of real estate investments to supplement box-office revenue and implemented streetscape enhancements, including Times Square-inspired treatments in the new Star Plaza (now USBank Plaza) at Huron Rd. and Euclid Ave. However, for most of the 1980-90s, the most popular attraction in Downtown was one that grew without a coordinated plan. The Flats became a bawdy nightlife district whose clubs and bars drew comparisons to Bourbon St. in New Orleans before revelers’ excesses led to the hotspot’s demise.

The departure of many companies' national headquarters (e.g. BP, Eaton, TRW) in the 1970s-90s, the loss of approx. 100,000 jobs in Cuyahoga County in the 2000s, the “Great Recession” of 2007, and struggling local professional sports franchises impeded but did not prevent Downtown’s reinvention. The Euclid Corridor Transportation Project construction in 2005-08 emptied most of the few remaining retail stores on Euclid Ave., but the resulting Healthline bus rapid transit route catalyzed revitalization along the city’s historic retail spine. Downtown remained a patchwork of revitalization and dereliction into the 2010s, but new developments began to effect greater cohesion.

The Downtown Cleveland Alliance, formed in 2005, created a “special improvement district” to finance “downtown ambassadors,” street cleaning, signage, and free trolley buses that connected nodes of activity. Millennials’ interest in Downtown living, historic preservation tax credits, and low interest rates stimulated a flurry of renovations of empty or underutilized buildings into apartments in the 2010s. Notable examples included the Standard Bldg. (The Standard), Halle Bros. Bldg. (Residences at Halle), and CLEVELAND ATHLETIC CLUB Bldg. (The Athlon). The renovation of Ameritrust Tower into “The 9” by Streetsboro, Ohio-based Geis Co. included a hotel, luxury apartments, and, importantly for Downtown residents, a transformation of the adjacent Cleveland Trust banking lobby into a Heinen’s grocery store. By the second half of the 2010s, with few unrenovated buildings remaining and Downtown apartment occupancy remaining above 95%, developers built the 29-story Beacon (2019) and the 34-story Lumen (2020), Downtown’s first purpose-built apartment towers completed in more than 45 years.

Other developments in the 2010s focused on building Downtown into a strong convention and tourism market. After the city attracted the 2016 Republican National Convention, local leaders rushed to complete the first expansion to the city’s convention center in 50 years, and an adjacent “medical mart” named the Global Center for Health Innovation also opened. Several new hotels opened in historic former office buildings, and Hilton built a 32-story hotel next to the convention center and medical mart. In keeping with new wayfinding signage throughout Downtown, Playhouse Square Foundation. undertook new streetscape enhancements in 2014 that included L.E.D. signs, grand entry arches, and the “world’s largest outdoor chandelier,” sponsored by the EAST CLEVELAND-based GENERAL ELECTRIC Lighting Division. Mayor Frank Jackson appointed a new Group Plan Commission that executed a long-anticipated major Public Sq. redesign (2016). The development was not without controversy. Echoing MAYOR DENNIS KUCINICH’s disdain for civic leaders’ fixation on Downtown in the late 1970s, Greater Cleveland Congregations protested in 2017 the use of public funding to renovate the former Gund Arena.

Downtown is among the few Cleveland SPAs that have increased in population over the past few decades. Its population increased from 6,484 in 1990 to 9,893 in 2010 (53% in 20 years) before soaring to an estimated 17,500 in 2018. In 2010, Downtown’s population was 44% white, 44% African American, 8% Asian, and 4% others. Approx. 30% were in the 25-34 age bracket, and 71% lived in 1-person households, compared to 39% citywide. Downtown is home to 5 public parks, the Campus Intl. School, as well as the seats of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland (ST. JOHN CATHEDRAL) and Episcopal Diocese of Ohio (TRINITY CATHEDRAL).

Mark Souther

Last updated: 4/6/2020

Fogelson, Robert M. Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Isenberg, Alison. Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Kerr, Daniel. Derelict Paradise: Homelessness and Urban Development in Cleveland. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.

Souther, J. Mark. Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation.” Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017.

Black, white and red text reading Western Reserve Historical Society

View image at WRHS.

See also RETAIL


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