These are tough times for malls and shopping centers in America. Mostly, they are struggling with relevancy as millennials express a preference for places that blend seamlessly into their daily comings and goings.
The “ReImagining Severance” forum in Cleveland Heights last week was an important flexing of civic imagination at a time when its needed most. A few years back, Wal-Mart abandoned its anchor space and moved a mile east to a shopping center built on a former golf course. Other vacancies followed, and the property owners defaulted on their loan, sending it into foreclosure.
“We know there will be change,” said Bob Brown, former Cleveland Planning Director and committee member of forum host, FutureHeights. ”Now’s the time when we can have influence over what it will be.”
Severance was built in 1962 on the 136-acre estate of its wealthy namesake whose heirs demolished a mansion and paved over the grounds, making it the first mall in the Cleveland area. It has weathered stormy markets twice already—changing its format from indoor to outdoor mall to its current shopping center.
While no city officials participated, Brown said that the city will likely get involved in Severance’s future when it is asked for funding assistance or by zoning for new uses.
“We all know, if Severance was built today, it might look more like the rest of Cleveland Heights,” Brown, a longtime resident, said. “not like it was dropped in from a satellite.”
Former Cleveland Heights zoning administrator and FutureHeights board member, Vince Reddy, explained that the city has already set the ball in motion—rezoning the core of the site inside the public ring road—for mixed-use development.
“It permits the most intensive commercial and residential use (allowed by the city), explained Reddy. He added that a “regulating” land-use plan is also required.
Buildings currently cover 25% of the site, he added. By comparison, Coventry Road is 44% covered by buildings on an 11-acre commercial district.
Cleveland Heights resident and developer Roger Bliss offered that Severance’s next owner (the property goes to Sheriff’s sale this month) should go big—not tinker around the edges.
Bliss asserted that Severance could walk down the same path as Belmar, a dying mall that was redeveloped in 2004 into a walkable neighborhood in the suburb of Lakewood, Colorado.
Belmar appears as an example in Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson’s book, Retrofitting Suburbia. Developers spent millions of dollars knocking down vacant department stores and rebuilding a small scale, mixed-use town center. Ground floor retail with commercial and residential above, 23 new roads and parks were added, creating a neighborhood.
“It was quite an accomplishment,” said Bliss, “These projects are complicated and they take time, but there are plenty of examples of redevelopment."
Developer Peter Rubin, who lives in the adjacent Courtyards of Severance condo development—which his company built—likewise hopes Severance’s next iteration is as visionary. The key, he said, will be articulating a direction that aligns both with the city’s history and values like sustainability and pedestrian friendliness. That will help build what he called the political will to get it done.
Bliss concluded that Severance’s current low-density, single purpose land use is a big part of the reason it is underperforming.
“If we want to encourage efficient development patterns, we have to increase density.”