Study shows increase in storefront vacancies, differences among districts
The number of vacant storefronts in Cleveland Heights has increased by about 6 percentage points since 2009, from 11.05 percent to 17.59 percent. Some commercial districts have seen a dramatic increase in vacancies, while others have remained the same or decreased slightly. Coventry Village, Fairmount Taylor, and Cedar Fairmount have the lowest vacancy rate, while Noble Monticello has the highest. While the vacancy rate for Severance has remained relatively constant, that is expected to change once Walmart leaves for Oakwood Commons in South Euclid.
The study, conducted by nonprofit FutureHeights, sought to measure the health of the city’s commercial districts and the effects of the recession by counting vacancies. FutureHeights conducted a similar study in 2009 by walking through each commercial district and counting the number of vacant and occupied storefronts. For the 2013 study, FutureHeights worked with the city’s former economic development director, Howard Thompson, to create a database of storefront properties in the commercial districts and, again, to walk each district to count the number of occupied and vacant storefronts.
Cleveland Heights has 12 commercial districts. The mix of businesses in each has changed since they first developed in the early 20th century. While the districts originally served their immediate neighborhoods, providing groceries and other household items, restaurants and other service businesses now make up a larger portion of each district’s tenants. Many districts also draw customers from the region, not just from the immediate neighborhood.
Storefront vacancies proved difficult to measure. First, the number of storefronts is difficult to determine because existing buildings can be split up into multiple storefronts, and a database of ground-level commercial addresses and square footage is not available. Vacancies also fluctuate seasonally. More businesses open during the spring and summer months, while many close during the cold Northeast Ohio winters, when shoppers spend less.
For the 2013 study, FutureHeights worked with the city to develop a database of street addresses and created a storefront quality scale, using national models. The quality scale is based on characteristics that are deemed important for visibility, safety and attractiveness, and consisted of an evaluation of three storefront components: the façade, windows, and signage (see chart). Each storefront started out with a maximum of four points. The rating was reduced by one point for each characteristic the storefront was missing. Each district was assigned a quality rating based on the average rating of its storefronts. A rating was not determinable for the Severance business district due to the fact that most of the stores follow a standardized model dictated by their company headquarters.
One of the models FutureHeights used in developing its quality rating is that of Vibrant Streets, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that has determined eight characteristics that contribute to making a retail district vibrant. These eight characteristics include being Managed, Retail-appropriate, Mixed, Safe, Championed, Anchored, Walkable and Unified. The group conducts seminars and has created a toolbox for retailers, community groups, government agencies, businesses, merchant associations, and others who seek to improve the vibrancy of their commercial districts.
Not surprisingly, those Heights districts that fulfill the first essential characteristic identified by Vibrant Streets, to be "managed"—those that are organized by a special improvement district (SID) or merchant associations—have the lowest vacancy rates.
Steve Presser, marketing director of the Coventry Village SID, said “Coventry has a long history of low vacancy. When people are looking, their first impression is important. We invest our money into the streetscape by maintaining and beautifying our district. Through our SID website and Facebook, we are able to market ourselves to potential business owners and consumers. By doing these things, we attract a great clientele.”
"Championed" is the Vibrant Streets characteristic that encompasses marketing activities. Those districts that are managed are able to combine their resources to actively champion and market their district to potential business tenants. While individual landlords may post signs advertising vacant properties, and prospective tenants may contact the city for help in finding a location, no comprehensive, user-friendly information source for Heights-based commercial properties exists.
Public and private investments in streetscapes and public art help make potential business owners more comfortable in investing their own resources into a district. Coventry Village undertook a massive streetscape improvement project a decade ago. Cedar Fairmount and Cedar Lee are poised to do the same.
The City of Cleveland Heights offers many programs that can help small business owners invest in their properties, such as a commercial loan program, a storefront renovation program and open communication with the SIDs and merchants’ associations. The city’s planning department conducted a strategic planning process in 2011 which outlined several key strategies for commercial district improvement, such as helping to develop SIDs in each neighborhood, tracking vacancy rates in each district, and addressing walkability and parking needs.
Kendra Dean is a graduate student at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences and is currently an intern at FutureHeights.