Maingate Market Place Makes Front Page News!
The intersection of East 55th Street and Woodland Avenue, one of the busiest in Cleveland, is dominated by gas stations, fast food joints and lots of asphalt and concrete.
If the Maingate Business Development Corp. has its way, five acres of sunburned grass and weeds at the southwest corner of the intersection could sprout something healthier and more appealing than the present landscape -- a new East Side market.
Conceived as the gateway to the large but little-noticed cluster of food wholesaling businesses in the area, the Maingate Market Place would be the East Side's answer to the West Side Market.
It would also bring fresh food to low-income neighborhoods in the area, while giving a nondescript part of the city a far more prominent place on the mental map of the region.
"This has the ability to draw from all of Northeast Ohio, but also to be the front door to the neighborhood," said Michael May, executive director of the Maingate Corp.
The nonprofit organization represents 500 businesses with 15,000 employees in the city's little-noticed food distribution and industrial zone, which swings in an arc from the Cuyahoga River to East 93rd Street.
Over the past year, May has quietly promoted Maingate's vision for the $30 million project. It would include a seasonal farmers market, restaurants, retail outlets for local food distributors plus the renovation of an office and warehouse building just west of the intersection, owned by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
Maingate will formally test the viability of the idea in mid-September by sending a request for proposals to developers. The main challenge is money. Maingate Corp. can't finance the development independently, but hopes a private developer will step up.
The vision is very much back-to-the-future. In the 1940s, before explosive growth in the city's suburbs, East 55th and Woodland was a dense, vibrant retail district.
May said the Maingate Market could restore vitality to the intersection and call attention to nearby businesses such as the Northern Ohio Food Terminal, which houses a large slice of the region's wholesale food industry.
It would also boost prior redevelopment projects in the area, including Arbor Park Village, an attractive, federally subsidized housing project built in the 2000s, which replaced the blighted Longwood apartments.
Conceptual plans drawn by the Cleveland architecture firm of Dorsky Hodgson Parrish Yue call for a 50,000-square-foot farmers market on five acres of city-owned land facing the big intersection, with an arcade leading to a pair of restaurants, specialty food shops and a greenhouse.
The main building would be open-air, but would also have enclosed areas to keep it running year-round, May said.
"It would be a food and farmers market through the more friendly months, but also a venue for activities, entertainment, festivals and holiday gatherings," he said.
The school district building west of the intersection, built in the 1930s as an office and factory for General Electric, would be renovated with a year-round public market on the ground floor and with spaces for culinary education and offices above.
May said the school district would lease back the building's third floor, which is now used as a computer data center.
In total, the project would encompass more than 10 acres of property and roughly 270,000 square feet of construction.
So far, the concept is receiving a strong positive response from city officials, neighbors and foundation officers.
In March, the Cleveland Planning Commission approved the market enthusiastically.
"This proposal is a way of capitalizing on assets" such as the Northern Ohio Food Terminal, said Robert Brown, the city's planning director. "It's a great marriage of retail with a wholesale facility."
Lillian Kuri, the Cleveland Foundation's program director for architecture, urban design and sustainable development, said Maingate Market "is a fabulous idea."
"It's going to take something that is already an important economic engine for the future, like food, and turn it into and anchor for the community. From a strategic planning point of view, it's top-notch."
Kuri also said the market would bring fresh food to a "food desert" on the city's East Side, where supermarkets are scarce -- an irony considering the massive wholesaling operations in the neighborhood.
Eliot Gelb, president of Ohio Farmers Inc., which operates a food service distribution plant on 13.5 acres just south of the site proposed for Maingate Market, said it would bring new prominence to the wholesaling district. It would also capitalize on the area's close proximity to Interstates 490 and 77.
"I think they'd get a lot of visibility," Gelb said. "A lot of people would go through there."
May said that part of the motivation behind the project is to prevent the last open property at the intersection from filling up with another gas station or drive-through business. On a hot July morning, the roar of traffic mingles with the aroma of tailpipes and fried food.
Brown said he agrees strongly with May's logic.
"If there were a modern, classy destination" at the intersection, "you would get people going to that corner," Brown said.
It's uncertain how much Maingate or its developer would have to pay to acquire the property needed for the project. Discussions have been cordial, but Maingate hasn't asked about prices. For their part, officials for the district and the city say they haven't evaluated how much the property might be worth.
May said he doesn't want to make the "asks" until he hears from developers.
"It's chicken-egg," he said.
Nevertheless, May said he hopes the city would simply give the five acres to Maingate or charge only a nominal amount.
"These kinds of projects are costly, so obviously if [the cost of] land can be brought down as part of the financing. That's a great jump start," May said.
Brown said it would be premature to discuss what the land might be worth. A spokesman for the school district said the same of the district's building.
Still, May is hopeful.
The market, he said, "is going to be a great gathering place for people of the immediate area and all of Northeast Ohio. We really want to see it be a draw throughout the region"
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