Perspective: Flats East Bank built on patience, persistence, partnership

10:32 AM, Apr 13, 2013   |    comments
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Lots of big Cleveland projects are being launched this year.

The first of two Innerbelt bridges will replace a rickety gateway as the main artery to the heart of the city.

A new convention center, combined with the Global Center for Health Innovation, will get Cleveland back in the serious business of bringing large groups of visitors to a more vibrant downtown.

But the project that may ultimately have the most dramatic impact on Cleveland's future development will be in a spot once known for free-flowing beer and rowdy night life.

The Flats East Bank is preparing to start welcoming office workers and visitors in late May and early June. And new residents will arrive soon after that.

It will ultimately become an instant neighborhood that will be the first major waterfront project mixing working, living and nightlife along Cleveland's woefully underdeveloped waterfront.

The first new downtown office building in 20 years will be the flagship home of Ernst and Young, the accounting giant with Cleveland roots. Other businesses, and the law firm of Tucker Ellis, will move into the gleaming office tower.

A smorgasbord of national and local restaurants and night clubs are eagerly signing on to be part of what's happening.

It won't be your "father's Flats." It will be much more. And it's all happening because of one man's dream and his family's dedication.

For years, late developer Bart Wolstein tried to sell a vision of making the Flats into the kind of waterfront that drew residents, visitors and life to lakefront and riverfront communities in places like Baltimore, Chicago and San Francisco.

He expended lots of time, effort and money touting the idea and buying up property from a bunch of diverse owners. When he died, his family vowed to keep the dream alive and make the project happen.

I remember covering the enthusiastic "finally it's happening" press conference, announcing the city's buy-in on then-Mayor Jane Campbell's watch. But before the project could get off the ground, the economy collapsed and financing for speculative projects dried up.

The project was mothballed for a while. But Scott Wolstein and his development partners didn't pull the plug. They kept working to obtain financing from about 30 private and public sources.

That included some creative ideas. Some foreign investors from places like Brazil, Argentina and India kicked in dollars under a federal program that helped them get immigration rights in exchange for job-creating investment.

That brought millions of needed assistance.

Mayor Frank Jackson's administration gave the project support. Now he points to it as the poster child example that should encourage other developers to see that overdue waterfront development in Cleveland may be difficult but do-able.

Jackson envisions Cleveland's downtown becoming a 24-hour city. Phase Two of the East Bank project will include building 250 apartments.

But the demand for downtown housing from young professionals and creative types craving city living is growing. Wolstein thinks the project could easily include 1,000 housing units.

The project's delays have created fortuitous timing. It will likely have more impact opening in concert with other downtown improvements, one complementing the other.

There will be lots of ribbon cuttings this year. But those on the East Bank may be the most significant. As Bart's widow, Iris, said at a recent press conference, "He's looking down and smiling" at how his dream turned out.

It should play a big role in a new Cleveland era where persistence and partnering will pay off.


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