Local developer Peter Rubin offers new focus
for Shaker Square
By Lee Chilcote
It’s hard to resist comparing Shaker Square
to its new fangled imitators. Despite their attempts at faux-urban
design– from the brick-lined sidewalks to the cheery lampposts
– the new “lifestyle center” pays a kind of unconscious
tribute to the Square and its predecessors.
One of the first outdoor shopping areas in the country
when built in 1929, Shaker Square has its own legacy that Peter
Rubin, its new owner, is hoping can be dusted off, shined up and
made viable again.
There are, however, lots of challenges in bringing
back the Square. Redeveloped five years ago with new shops that
tried to offer an alternative to suburban malls, it didn’t
fare well after suffering the loss of anchor tenants The Gap, Wild
Oats and Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Ultimately, the lack of profitability
in that iteration of the Square caused the new owners to hand their
asset back to Key Bank and walk away.
Rubin owns a development firm called the Coral Company,
which has a track record of bringing successful retail to Cleveland’s
first ring suburbs. After successfully bidding to become the new
owner, he has already secured major tenants to fill some of the
gaps left by other stores’ departure.
Will Rubin’s plans be enough to revive the struggling
Square? Can this retail district compete with newer suburban developments?
At the heart of it, the Square’s redevelopment begs this key
question – can a genuine retail ‘village’ with
a 75-year ‘legacy’ of serving an urban neighborhood
defeat its imitator? Perhaps more importantly, should it even try?
LEE CHILCOTE: Shaker Square was redeveloped several
years ago, with millions in private and public investment. It reopened
to great fanfare, but quickly lost several anchor stores. It’s
been hemorrhaging ever since, and is currently at nearly 50% vacancy.
PETER RUBIN: I’m not sure what qualifies me to be an expert
on that question. I have views about it, like everyone else that
cares about Shaker Square. I’ll offer them, but they’re
certainly not gospel.
The redevelopment in 2000 brought a lot of new life
to the Square. A lot of the good things that were done are still
there, or their indirect impact is still there – from physical
issues, like the expanded space that became the grocery store, to
the image that was created that Shaker Square is a place to go for
entertainment. The cinema reopened and restaurants were added that
continue to thrive and attract a really diverse audience.
So I’m asked a lot, what happened? People are
expecting some negative answer about all of the bad things that
happened. I think it’s important for people to remember all
of the good things that have happened and still remain. When we
stepped in last December and began working on Shaker Square, we
were three out of four rungs up the ladder already because of what
had been done by the previous owners.
The pieces of that redevelopment that are no longer
there, that didn’t have staying power, probably had to do
with some external factors, and some internal factors. The grocery
store that was put in hasn’t done well at their other location
in the regional market, either. They had some serious operating
issues, and their market appeal was relatively narrow. It was an
organic, health-conscious grocery store with a quite limited offering,
and it was smaller than competitive stores. This meant that it had
to execute exceptionally well to be successful, because its market
was smaller. The problem was complicated by issues of access, security
and parking that everyone was concerned about at Shaker Square.
The bookstore is a sad instance of the fact that there
are too many bookstores – there’s saturation of the
market. Since Joseph Beth opened that store, they opened another
store in the market, and Barnes and Noble opened a store at Eton
Collection. So if you live somewhere in between, suddenly you have
choices, and this cut into the business of the store at Shaker Square.
Most of the other stores at the Square have done reasonably well.
So I think it was partly the market, partly execution and partly
LC: Some say that the previous developers, in going
for a more upscale audience, missed a potential market. Do you feel
there’s any truth to that, in the sense that the mix of retail
at Shaker Square didn’t appeal to many of the residents living
around the Square?
PR: That may be the case. Wild Oats has a narrow audience.
A lot of smart people thought that Shaker Square was a place that
this audience would come to, but either because the audience wasn’t
there or wouldn’t come there, or because they didn’t
execute the concept well enough to make that audience happy, this
turned out to be a mistake.
When we started studying the demographics of Shaker
Square more closely, one of the conclusions that we came to is that
Shaker Square is a city itself. If you look at the demographics
of the fictional city of Shaker Square, it’s really diverse
– racially, economically, educationally. This means that for
Shaker Square to be the town center for that city, it needs to be
Most of the businesses that opened with the previous
development are still there. It’s an unfortunate media problem
that the ones that closed are the big ones – the Gap, Wild
Oats, Joseph Beth. These businesses don’t represent the majority
of the merchants, who are still doing well despite several years
of ugly turmoil.
Every retailer delivers to a certain market, and our job now is
to put together the retailers that will deliver to the people that
live in the fictional city of Shaker Square.
LC: Tell me about your plans for the Square’s
PR: I think where our vision for Shaker Square veers
off from anything that’s been considered before is in seeing
the Square in two realms – the private realm and the public
realm. All of the attention of the last 75 years – and Shaker
Square is celebrating its 75th birthday in November – has
been paid to the private realm, the space behind the storefronts
and the entry doors. Of course, we’ve been spending a lot
of time dealing with that realm, and finding the right tenants,
the right grocery store, the right retailers. We’re trying
to come up with a diverse offering of retailers that feed off of
each other, so that each time we put a merchant in, it adds value
to the others.
Where we’ve veered off is in the public realm,
which has essentially remained the same at the Square for the last
75 years – even as conditions in the private realm and the
community around it have changed. Without going into detail about
the improvements we’re pursuing, it is our intention to convert
the public realm into active public space. Performance space, social
space, interactive space. We’re working on a collaboration
with several community stakeholders interested in public spaces.
We want to create reading gardens. We want performances in the summer.
We want Shaker Square to be a place people remember not just because
you can walk around and window shop, but because there’s activity
The green space on either side of the rapid tracks
is publicly owned. The quarter acre, semi-circular pieces of land
on the north and south sides of Shaker Boulevard are a part of what
we own. We have several million dollars worth of public infrastructure
LC: There’s a lot on the drawing board right
now – outdoor performance space, an ice rink, a reading garden
and a children’s garden. Are you receiving any public subsidy
for this project?
PR: We’re getting a lot of public investment
in our effort to redevelop Shaker Square, and not just in the public
spaces. One of the strengths of the Square, and ultimately of Cleveland,
is the willingness of all of the stakeholders with an interest in
Shaker Square to invest in it. It’s no secret that the Cleveland
Foundation is lending us money on a low interest basis to help make
this happen – as well as the Cleveland Development Partnership,
NPI, the city of Cleveland and other sources. This project is being
funded by a real community patchwork of capital sources.
As far as the performance space located on the south
side of the Square goes, it’s pretty firm that that’s
what we’re going to do. We want to build a performance platform
with some kind of covering over it, a structural roof, space that
is fully electrified and amplified. There would be seating cut below
grade so that people could sit on blankets, lawn chairs. We’ve
had a lot of feedback on the ice rink on the north side. There may
not be an ice rink, it may just be a series of passive gardens where
people can sit and read.
LC: Have you encountered any skepticism from the partners
that were involved in the redevelopment a few years ago?
PR: No skepticism. Some of the people now providing
financing did so five years ago, so there’s disappointment
on their part, but no skepticism or unwillingness.
LC: Tell me a little bit about your background. What
draws you to taking on such a large project as Shaker Square?
PR: I moved to Cleveland when I got out of law school
25 years ago, to an apartment on Kemper Road. Shaker Square was
the place I went to, both to take the Rapid downtown to work and
for my household shopping. I was new to Cleveland, and I thought
Shaker Square was a really unique place. In all of its lives, it’s
always had this sense of place and arrival that so many developers
are now trying to create out of whole cloth. It’s here. It’s
in place. It’s been evolving for 75 years.
When I moved to Cleveland twenty five years ago, I
never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to be Shaker Square’s
steward. And it’s a perfect evolution of the Coral Company’s
growth curve. Our business is to focus on urban and First Suburban
redevelopment. We have a large portfolio of urban retail properties.
We are a residential developer as well. We’re local and we’re
heavily involved as a company and individually in community affairs.
So it’s a perfectly natural extension of what we do. We were
also enthusiastic about value creation possibilities. Despite some
of the value setbacks that we’ve seen over the last couple
of years, we are powerfully optimistic about the Square’s
LC: I’m going to ask you the question that I’m
sure everyone is asking you – that is, how do you see Shaker
Square competing with some of the newer, lifestyle-oriented malls
such as Legacy Village?
PR: I don’t think we can compete, and if we
tried, I think we would lose. So I think what we have to do is to
be different. There are qualities of Shaker Square that you can’t
recreate at Eton or Crocker Park or Legacy Village. And there are
qualities at those developments we can’t create. We don’t
have room for large national retailers. So what we have is a place
with two personalities. During the day, it’ll be the community
shopping place for your household needs – from groceries on
down the line. In the evening, it’ll light up as a cinema
and restaurant district. With the second personality, we’ll
draw from the entire east side, and probably from the west side
The answer is that Shaker Square will not try to compete
with Legacy and Eton because we can’t. We will try to remain
this sort of iconoclastic, community-based, walking, mass transit
oriented, interactive place that people go to because they want
a more urban experience – the real thing. They want the real
LC: As opposed to the manufactured one!
PR: Or just the new one, anyhow. Someone said to me
the other day that Shaker Square has a 75 year legacy. Legacy Village
LC: What about security and parking? Are those concerns
that people have about the Square?
PR: Big concerns. We’re working with Shaker
Square Area Development Corporation and other stakeholders to find
more parking, for one thing. All of Shaker Square has 500 parking
spaces, so there’s enough parking, but one of our issues is
that we need to make it more accessible and easier for people to
find. This won’t solve the problem, but it’ll help.
So we’re undertaking a graphic design research project to
create a single visual icon for Shaker Square. There are four different
logos that appear at the Square now – that’s a bad way
to run our business.
We need to play on the incredible value of the Shaker
Square brand, and we’re going to do that in one way by coming
up with a single, architectural, visual icon. Then we want to use
it over and over again to let people know where the Square is. The
effort to let people know where parking is shouldn’t begin
when you get to Shaker Boulevard. It should start at Coventry and
Buckeye and 116th and Fairhill! And at the Shoreway… we’re
talking to ODOT about getting signage for the Shoreway, so that
people start identifying where their destination is when they get
off at the exit.
For the parking, we want an icon that will take them right to a
parking space. We need to repeat a message over and over again about
how to get to the parking. Generally, shoppers become invested in
the process, which they go through to get to the grocery store and
back. University Square, at the corner of Cedar and Warrensville,
is a pioneering effort to get people to shop in a different way
– in a vertical mall. What you have to do, when you try to
get people to change their patterns, is to give them the signals
they need to change direction.
Security is also critical. Shaker Square doesn’t
suffer from a lot of security breaches; it suffers from bad public
relations. For one thing, we’re going to preach how safe and
secure Shaker Square is. But we’ll also continue what Key
Bank started, which is continuous patrols, and raising the quality
of security, not just the quantity. There’s a complement of
private officers and off duty public officers that patrol the Square
continuously. We’ll implement a system where they’ll
check into each store on a regular basis. They’ll keep walking
around the Square and poking their heads into the stores, asking
if everything is OK. We want to spread their presence around and
get the most out of it.
LC: What’s your targeted retail mix? What kinds
of stores do you hope to attract?
PR: There are two categories, household convenience
and shopping. That’s the daytime personality, such as a grocery
store, shoe store or optical store that will complement the stores
that are already there. We want to try to create as broad a mix
of household, day-to-day stores as we can get.
The other category is restaurants that complement
what we have now as well as the cinema. There are restaurants there
now – Luchitas, Sushi on the Square, Ballaton, Yours Truly
and Fire – so we need to add restaurant selections that fit
somewhere in between.
We have a commitment from another high-end restaurant
to take over the Bronte space. We’ve signed a lease with an
ice cream shop, which will fit in and provide folks with another
option for dessert, to keep them at the Square a little longer.
We’re in discussion with several casual eateries, because
they will complement what we have here currently. We’ll stay
away from any use that will be directly competitive with the restaurants
we have now.
LC: I understand that you have a letter of intent
signed with Dave’s Supermarket.
PR: We actually have a signed lease. Dave’s
was our first choice all along. We were told that the reason the
Coral Company was selected by Key Bank and the people they consulted
with was because we are locally owned, and this is our hometown.
I live nearby and shop at Shaker Square. Dave’s is our counterpart
in the grocery business. [Dave’s owner Bert Saltzman] really
understands Cleveland, and particularly how to serve diverse demographics.
And they’re a healthy, growing company. They’re opening
a store in Akron, their first venture outside the Cleveland marketplace.
We had discussions with all the grocery store chains you could list
and more, and our first choice all along was Dave’s. They
understand the market best, from providing an expanded prepared
foods and takeout selection, to the day-to-day groceries that people
need – Cheerios, milk, bread…
LC: Do you have any other signed leases?
PR: We have commitments from East Coast Original Custard
and Sergio’s – they plan to open a second restaurant
on the Square.
LC: Do you think that you can provide enough options
that people who live near the Square can do the majority of their
PR: That’s why I said earlier that we won’t
try to imitate Legacy Village. These lifestyle centers are not intended
to be your household shopping place, and they’re not about
convenience. When someone goes shopping, they’re looking for
value in one of several ways. They’re looking for price value,
selection value and convenience value. The last one, convenience
value, is really time. What’s the most important commodity
people have when they shop today? Time. That’s what neighborhood
shopping is about.
Obviously, we think the answer to your question is yes, because
we’re investing a lot of money in that answer! If we make
it easiest for people who live around the Square to do their grocery,
camera and shoe shopping here, they will. We have to make it more
convenient for them – we have to save them time. It’s
up to the merchants to deliver competitive price and product.
LC: What about local versus national retailers? Do
you find it difficult to attract national retailers to the Square,
given what’s happened over the last few years?
PR: There are two challenges to attracting national
retailers here. One is that Shaker Square is too small for them.
We’ve been contacted by many of the country’s largest
retail chains, but we don’t have a way to accommodate them.
We had a major retailer that wanted 100,000 square feet –
all of Shaker Square is only 160,000!
The second challenge is that we don’t happen
to believe that the Square is a national retailer location. If you’re
going to be the community shopping center, you have to provide community
businesses and merchants. There will be some national retailers
here, but they will be in categories where we couldn’t find
LC: You’re planning a condo building behind
Shaker Square. What are your targeted price points, and who do you
hope will live there?
PR: At this point, all of our thinking about the residential
piece, which we’re calling One Shaker Square, is intuitive.
We’re excited about the residential portion of the development,
and that’s because there are few locations on the east side
where you can be at a public transportation place to get to the
Browns game easily – or to the next World Series! It’s
also very close to University Circle.
So we think the targeted buyers are going to be downtown
workers and people who work at University Circle. They’ll
also probably be young professionals or mature couples (empty nesters
or close to empty nesters).
This demographic consideration helps to drive what
the unit layouts and sizes will be. We’ll be in two price
points – units in the lower end range, around $200-$250,000,
for a young professional or couple, and others in the $400-500,000
range for large, generous units targeted towards mature couples.
LC: How many years down the road is this?
PR: Hopefully there will be two years of planning
and approvals, and then we’ll break ground in 2006. There
are very few physical infrastructure limitations we’ve come
across yet. The biggest issue will be understanding the market,
doing the research to make sure that we design the right product,
and then making sure it fits in, that we accommodate community and
LC: Where will it be located?
PR: Behind the former bookstore space is a parking
lot. We already own the property, so we’re hoping to work
out an arrangement for structured parking, so that Moreland Courts
will be able to utilize the parking as well. They currently have
parking that is simply a cover over at-grade parking, and this is
As our interview came to an end, Rubin indicated
one last time that he’s excited about the possibilities at
Shaker Square. Time will tell about its ability to compete with
suburban developments, but the new tenants signing up hold promise