Bridging the Opportunity Divide

From Empty Parking Lots to Bustling Stores: The Ingenious Way That Cleveland’s Improving Its Economy

April 14, 2015
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From Empty Parking Lots to Bustling Stores: The Ingenious Way That Cleveland’s Improving Its Economy
Repurposed shipping containers host tiny retail shops in Cleveland's historic Warehouse District. Courtesy Historic Warehouse District Development Corporation
The cool, new place to set up shop.

Until recently, downtown Cleveland had a retail problem. Once anchored by eight department stores, lower Euclid Avenue and its offshoots had fallen from glamorous rival of New York’s Fifth Avenue to a nine square blocks of parking lots and numerous vacant buildings.

Retailers in the city’s historic Warehouse District struggled to keep up with their rent, finding their goods couldn’t fill the vast industrial warehouse spaces like trendy restaurants and popular nightclubs could. It seemed that mom-and-pop stores didn’t have a place downtown, and as a result, Victorian-era buildings were razed for parking lots.

But a creative idea by the folks at the district’s development corporation turned the area’s history as a center for wholesale storage and distribution on its head: They filled a large, ugly parking lot with three salvaged shipping containers. Fronting a busy sidewalk, each box now houses a miniature store, including Banyan Box and The Wandering Wardrobe, two boutique clothing stores, and an outlet selling paraphernalia for hometown football favorite, the Cleveland Browns.

“The way the project’s designed, they simulate a storefront wall, facing the sidewalk,” explains Thomas Starinsky, associate director of the Warehouse District Development Corporation. “They’re pretty simple. Take a shipping container and cut a hole in it.”

Perhaps because of its simplicity, the ingenious idea has worked. It’s diversifying the neighborhood and proving to other businesses that the district is a hip place to set up shop. Even during the winter, holiday shoppers turned out in droves. What was initially thought of as a risky bet has paid its rewards. Starinsky now has a waiting list with more than 40 businesses.

“The economic effects have been overwhelming, more significant than I imagined,” Starinksy says. “Just the fact that we have three new businesses downtown, and we’re actually adding jobs to the community with each 160 square feet.”

Small boxes, it seems, hold big commercial possibilities.
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