Severance should be candidates' top priority

Severance Town Center is a shell of its former self. Its troubles are obvious to anyone who visits the property and sees the vacant storefronts, the closed Regal Cinema and I-Hop, the massive empty building that once housed a Walmart, and expanses of asphalt that were once filled with the cars of shoppers.

The question now facing Cleveland Heights is this: How can Severance Town Center be redeveloped so that it again becomes a productive asset for Cleveland Heights—providing needed services and generating tax dollars to help relieve the tax burden on residents?

As Cleveland Heights prepares to elect its first mayor, it is my hope that its citizens will demand that all candidates for mayor, and for city council, address this issue.

A new idea—an enclosed shopping mall: Decades after most of Cleveland Heights had been nearly fully developed as a first-ring Cleveland suburb, a large site remained available for development. It was the estate of John L. Severance and his family, one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Cleveland’s history.

In 1963, Severance Town Center opened on the grounds of the former estate as the first enclosed shopping mall in Ohio, with multi-story department stores—Higbee’s and Halle’s—anchoring each end of it, connected by a corridor filled with smaller stores. 

It was a new shopping experience for Clevelanders, drawing customers to Cleveland Heights from throughout the region during the 1960s and ‘70s. At that time, the region’s freeway network was not fully in place, so being located on a major road like Mayfield was enough to make Severance a competitive regional destination for shopping.

Expansion and “un-malling": As the region’s freeway network grew with the opening of I-271, I-480 and US 422, Severance’s location became less competitive; shoppers and businesses were drawn to newer centers closer to freeway interchanges.

Severance’s owners reacted by adding a Gold Circle discount department store in 1981, and a large food court in 1986. These changes were not enough to save the interior mall, most of which was demolished by 1998. 

Severance then transformed into what is called an outdoor “power center,” anchored by a Home Depot and a Walmart, along with a Marshalls and a Borders bookstore. [Of those, only Home Depot and Marshalls remain.]

Decline and foreclosure: Despite the updates, Severance continued to decline and, in December 2014, went into mortgage foreclosure, with management turned over to a court-appointed receiver.

While Severance was in receivership, awaiting auction, FutureHeights hosted a community meeting on Oct. 21, 2015, attended by nearly 200 people, to discuss options for its future. Ideas generated at the meeting included everything from senior housing and related health-care facilities to light industrial “maker” spaces, and even a Chautauqua-like cultural and educational center.

Hope was expressed at the meeting that city government would be proactive in reaching out to find a new owner who would meet the community’s expectations for transforming Severance. That did not happen; in 2016, the Namdar Realty Group, based in Great Neck, N.Y., purchased it at a public auction for $10.5 million.

Since then, Namdar, which owns more than 400 properties nationwide and specializes in acquiring distressed properties, has managed Severance without making a significant reinvestment in it.

The future of Severance: One could say, “Severance is too big to fail”; or, more accurately, “Severance is too big and too important to Cleveland Heights to be allowed to fail.”

A glimpse into what might be part of Severance’s future came between 2000 and 2007, when Peter Rubin’s Coral Company redeveloped the northeast segment of Severance with 50 owner-occupied townhomes—the Courtyards of Severance. Another glimpse into a possible future came more recently, with the establishment and proposed expansion of a MetroHealth hospital.

Some observers have suggested that Severance be reconfigured to feel more like the rest of Cleveland Heights.

The revitalization of Severance should be a top priority for Cleveland Heights’ new administration. What are your thoughts about its future? 

Robert Brown

Robert N. Brown is a city planner with 45 years of experience, including nine years as Cleveland's city planning director. A Cleveland Heights resident for more than 40 years, he is the co-chair of the FutureHeights Planning & Development Committee. He can be reached at citybobbrown@gmail.com.

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Volume 14, Issue 6, Posted 10:37 AM, 05.27.2021