Fueling the future – Why Cleveland rocks so much more than you might think Featured

7:26am EDT December 20, 2013
Sam McNulty, columnist Sam McNulty, columnist

I first visited Ohio City in the early ’80s with my parents and six siblings to shop at the West Side Market, and I remember my immigrant mother and first-generation father sharing their love of the old-world vibrancy of the market. I also remember how dilapidated the surrounding neighborhood was — but how it had a soul and energy that the insipid suburbs lacked.

Fast forward to the early ’90s. I was studying urban planning at Cleveland State University’s Urban Studies College, and I had a number of opportunities to study aboard. There was a trip to my family’s farm in Ireland and later a summer in Poland, along with more than a dozen backpacking trips to Europe, Asia, South America, the Middle East and all across North America. I’d become fascinated with cities and the way the best of them can make the lives of their citizens robust and happy. 

These travels inspired new ideas to bring back home and have also made me love Cleveland all the more. It seems that the people who complain about Cleveland are the ones who don’t have a passport.  

The rebirth begins

I opened my first restaurant on a whim during my junior year at CSU. After an eight-year run, CSU refused to renew the lease and I was on the hunt for a new location. After considering cities across the country and overseas, I realized how lucky we were to live in Cleveland at that moment in time. The opportunity present in this “post-industrial frontier” was astounding, and there was no better example than Ohio City. Wanting to control our real estate, my business partners and I were able to purchase the real estate for our first Ohio City venture — McNulty’s Bier Markt, Bar Cento and Speakeasy — for $400,000.

That’s less than my Manhattan friends were paying for a closet-sized condo. The year was 2003, and people all over thought we were crazy to invest in blighted Ohio City. They thought we were completely insane when we bought the building across the street that was condemned and vacant to open Market Garden Brewery.

Then something happened: We were joined by many other like-minded entrepreneurs who opened fantastic owner-operated businesses like Crop Bistro, Soho Kitchen, Bonbon Pastry, Joy Machines Bike Shop, Johnnyville Slugger Custom Baseball Bats, Vision Yoga and many more. 

The skeptics went quiet when they saw that the rising tide actually was lifting all ships. The urban pioneering Conway brothers of Great Lakes Brewing Co. saw record sales at their 25-year-old brewpub. The 101-year-old West Side Market hasn’t been this busy in decades. And now our biggest challenge in Ohio City is finding parking for the thousands of cars that visit each week.  

But something else happened too. All of a sudden, everyone wanted in on Ohio City. The rent on my one bedroom apartment above Third Federal Savings & Loan went up to $1,075 per month and a years-long waiting list formed for housing in the neighborhood.

As of this writing, there was only one available storefront north of Lorain Avenue and nearly 500 residential units are under construction or shovel-ready within a 10-minute bike ride. I just bought a scruffy piece of land a three-minute walk away and will build seven fee-simple townhomes where my mortgage will be less than my current rent. Naysayers will cry “gentrification,” progressive thinkers will see that progress and revitalization is happening at a pace and scale rarely seen.

Recognizing the need to diversify Ohio City’s retail so it’s not simply a restaurant/bar/brewpub district, we are actively promoting and collaborating with other forms of retail. And we’re putting our money where our mouths are by purchasing the Culinary Arts Building on West 24th Street and working to convert it to a 43,000-square-foot fermentation facility with a retail store open six days a week selling our house-made beer, whiskey, cheese, charcuterie, kombucha, vinegar, pickles and so on. We’ll also offer tours, classes, cooking demonstrations and culinary training programs on site.

Get back on your feet

So what does the future hold for Ohio City?

Now that the commercial corridor is vibrant and largely full, the big push is on housing. As the oldest residential neighborhood in Cleveland, we’ve got an amazing stock of beautiful historic homes. While most have been painstakingly restored, there are still historic restoration opportunities. New construction — both for sale and for rent — is where we can bring in the thousands of housing units that are in demand. I’m in the process of buying buildable land within a 15-minute bike ride of the West Side Market to meet the huge demand for housing close to the energy of West 25th Street. 

There is much concern voiced about the high demand for parking in Ohio City. While it’s a great problem to have, it also performs double duty as a motivation to build out our neighborhood densely and vertically, with a strong bent toward public transport, protected bike lanes and walkable areas. When I move into the new townhomes in Duck Island (just next to the Velvet Tango Room), my walk to work will go from crossing the street to a whopping three minutes. And what was once a blighted piece of derelict land at the corner of Abbey Road and Columbus Avenue will soon be home to seven townhomes.

Sometimes people cringe when they hear words like density, walkability and bike lanes. Funny how they love these things in cities like Paris that were designed before the automobile became the exclusive focus of city planners. It’s ironic when the same people that are skeptical of bicycle commuting in the winter would think nothing of skiing at sub-zero temperatures and enjoying a beer après-skiing ankle deep in snow. Maybe it’s time we start living the lifestyle we so admire when we holiday overseas. Or more likely, it’s getting back to Cleveland’s roots. 

Ohio City was once a dense, vibrant, walkable neighborhood with department stores, hardware shops, dentists, doctors, taverns and breweries galore. I hope it will be once again. We certainly are well on our way ... and the best is yet to come! ●

Sam McNulty is an entrepreneur and owner of Market Garden Brewery & Distillery, Nano Brew, Bar Cento, Speakeasy and McNulty’s Bier Markt in Ohio City. For more information, visit www.marketgardenbrewery.com.