Cities reinvent themselves. And so the rise of small box—a project to retrofit steel shipping containers into micro-retail spaces for Cleveland’s Warehouse District—fits neatly in that category.
The Warehouse District’s history is studded with reinvention. It’s may be as close to New York’s West Village as Cleveland gets. Gorgeous, Civil War-era buildings once stood there. By the 1960s, entire blocks between St. Clair, W. 6th, Superior and W. 3rd streets were left to rot or fell to arson and eventually the wrecking ball. The hole was paved over and sold off as parking.
The buildings still standing—the Hoyt Block, the Hat Factory and the like—were converted to mixed-use space in the 1980s when federal historic tax credits were invented and some enterprising young Clevelanders saw in the old garment factories, hardware and dry goods stores lots of elbow room for draughtsmen, artists, residents and a revival of commerce.
Known for its high end restaurants, The Warehouse District has struggled to reintroduce retail. There was a mini-renaissance in the 1990s with clothiers and a bookstore, but they arrived before the residential base reached critical mass, and didn’t survive the Recession.
After decades of stalled hopes for replacing the sea of asphalt at the center with bricks and mortar, small box will drop next spring. It’s low risk appealed to non-profit developer, Historic Warehouse District. The idea emerges from the pop-up or temporary use movement. Or, perhaps its the American zeitgeist that says no place is too precious, no land value or median rent is too high to try something new.
“We can create inexpensive rates and critical mass because you can put whatever you want in them,” explains Warehouse District Associate Director Thomas Starinsky. “The goal is grow a conversation about retail downtown.”
He was inspired by the Dekalb Market, retail in shipping crates in Brooklyn, New York that has since been replaced by bricks-and-mortar development.
“We’re talking about a 3-5 year solution and then, hopefully, development happens,” Starinsky says.
In the span of four weeks this fall, small box went from idea to a “go” when it won two awards from Enterprise Community Partners, a $10,000 grant and their Nurture an Idea competition which awards $10,000 to a project that collects the most donations through crowdsource website, Crowdrise. Small box bested eight others in raising more than $19,000 from individuals.
Having nearly $40,000 in hand helps, but small box is going forward because of the convergence of individuals committed to making it work. The team includes Michael Rastatter, a real estate broker and sustainability advocate, who will oversee the design, construction and management of small box. The owner of a home and a parcel of vacant land on Cleveland’s Near West Side, Rastatter spent the housing market downturn thinking about what he could build on the land that would be marketable. While surfing the Web he saw shoe giant Puma operating retail in a recycled shipping container.
“It was seemingly quick to assemble and could be done affordably for a single family home,” Rastatter recalls.
Rastetter struck up a conversation with fellow Cleveland Landmarks Commission member, architect Bill Mason, and hired him to draw a rendering of a two-story house made from shipping crates for his vacant lot. Earlier this year, Rastatter started marketing a “fully designed, energy modeled home” through his company, Cleveland Container Structures.
Ideas converged when the Landmarks Commission reviewed a public realm plan for the Warehouse District last spring.
“Businesses in the Warehouse District were saying, this is a great place to do business but underlying that we need something to shake it up a little bit,” Starinsky said.
The creative team includes Ashley Shaw, who has worked on projects with the Warehouse District, including the Downtown Farmer’s Market.
The publicity of the Enterprise competition was a boon. Starinsky has fielded calls from a potential investor and seven prospective tenants whom he characterizes as ‘maker-class’ such as clothiers, small goods, even bike repair.
The 150-square-foot spaces will be fully conditioned and built to suit, including electrical. Plumbing will not be available so restaurants need not apply. That decision was made to respect the district’s many restaurants, Starinsky said, though specialty foods like ice cream would be accepted.
The exact location will depend on which parking lot operator is most keen to negotiate terms where leases remain below market rate. They’ve identified five possible parking lots in the district, and anticipate an initial build out of five crates, plus an enhanced public space that could include a promenade and “pocket park.”
“We want to create a social market place with programming and pop up events,” Starinksi said. “We had 180 individuals donate to this. They ranged from twentysomethings to established professionals. There’s a cool factor with reuse and doing something creative to address two issues, introducing retail and the parking lots that we love to hate.”