At 50, Severance faces challenges

An aerial view of the Severance estate from the west in 1949. Courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project.

Heights residents are now accustomed to the 1960s-vintage Severance Town Center in our midst, though the site was still the lushly landscaped 161-acre estate of John L. Severance as late as the 1950s, decades after the surrounding residential neighborhoods were developed.

In 1953, Severance Millikin, a nephew, hired the Austin Company to develop plans for future use of the Severance property. Austin opened its since-demolished headquarters there in 1960 and the Winmar Company of Seattle broke ground in 1962 for Ohio's first automobile-era enclosed shopping mall. The center opened in 1963, anchored by branches of old-line Cleveland department stores, Halle's and Higbee's. Most perimeter properties—those located outside Severance Circle—were still unoccupied. Austin's campus, in the northeast corner of the perimeter, was the exception.

The new mall competed with Cedar Center in University Heights, which opened in 1956, and would face many other competitors beginning with Richmond Mall in 1966, and the formidable Beachwood Place in 1978.

Severance Mall underwent major renovation in 1972 and a new wing anchored by discounter Gold Circle opened off the south end of the mall in 1981. A year later, the entire Halle's chain was liquidated by an investor group that had purchased it from Chicago-based Marshall Field's. Gold Circle closed its underperforming Severance store in 1984.

A $20-million renovation in 1986 replaced Gold Circle with a food court and several new stores. Dillard's bought Higbee's in 1987 but kept the Higbee's name until 1992. Joseph Horne Company of Pittsburgh, a chain whose Ohio stores would soon to be acquired by Dillard's, opened in the long-vacant Halle's space in 1989, and both anchor stores carried the Dillard's name when they closed in 1995.

Severance's anchor stores were demolished in 1996. The rest of the mall was dismantled in 1998, though the steel skeleton and some inner spaces were retained. The original convenience wing also survived, now anchored by a Dave's Market. The center opened in its current format—as a double-sided strip center—in 2000, with a Home Depot store occupying the former Halle's site and Walmart and Regal Cinemas where Higbee's once stood. Winmar sold the property in 2004. At the same time, privately-owned Severance Circle and its four access roads were rebuilt and turned over to the City of Cleveland Heights as public streets. It is currently managed by Pine Tree Commercial Realty of Northbrook, Ill.

The reconfigured retail center once again faces challenges. Several smaller stores are vacant and the 126,000-square-foot Walmart store will go dark this summer when its much larger replacement opens in South Euclid. The center's 600,000 square feet of retail space will then be 30-percent vacant.

Of course, Severance consists of more than the core retail center. Numerous residential properties, including three mid-rise apartment buildings, a converted office building, and the Courtyards of Severance townhouse community (occupying the former Austin campus), are joined by the Cleveland Heights City Hall, a post office, a Kaiser Permanente facility, and other entities on the outside of Severance Circle.

The Severance estate would almost certainly be developed differently if done today, but the original 1956 preliminary land-use plan was forward-looking for its time. It limited retail and commercial uses to inside Severance Circle, restricted perimeter properties to office, institutional, and residential uses, and required a 150-foot-deep wooded buffer between the Severance buildings and surrounding residences. In keeping with the time, Severance was laid out without much regard for pedestrian circulation, but it has always been somewhat friendly to public transit and continues to be served by RTA routes 9 and 37.

Severance's preliminary land-use plan was revised by the city in 2000. The revision began to address the adverse retail trends and the challenge of getting to the shopping center without an automobile. The 150-foot buffer was retained. Though the types of permitted uses were adjusted, restrictions on retail and commercial development remained in order to avoid what the revised plan called "the visual blight of uncoordinated strip development."

In keeping with the revised plan, a sidewalk and bike lane—accommodating counter-clockwise traffic only—were added in the early 2000s, but the site remains difficult and uninviting for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Perhaps the challenges now facing Severance—which despite its problems provides the community with access to a wide array of goods and services—present an opportunity to once again rethink its form and content.

Vince Reddy

Vince Reddy, a 16-year resident and the former zoning administrator of the City of Cleveland Heights, is a member of the Future Heights Board of Directors.

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Volume 6, Issue 5, Posted 4:21 PM, 04.30.2013