I found this and thought I'd post it. It's written by Larry Durstin, who used to do the "Hearts & Minds" column when the Free Times was solid. It's posted on Cleveland Current
, an independent column-based website that seems to have come and gone and has come again.
Who Killed the Flats?
Image In the summer of 1991, Bart Wolstein summoned then Cleveland City Councilman Bill Patmon to his corporate offices in Beachwood for a luncheon meeting to talk about various city projects. During the meeting, Wolstein led Patton to a large, scale model of the Flats East Bank, an exact and elaborate replica of the area as it was that summer.
Recalls Patmon: “While I was admiring the model, Bart took the top layer off the replica and revealed a mixed use development almost identical to the current project that his son is now proposing. He said, ‘“This is the direction the Wolsteins are going.’”
When Patmon had his meeting with Bart Wolstein, the East Bank was rolling and it was difficult to understand why anyone would want to redevelop such a gravy train. It was a nationally known party place, the second largest tourist attraction in the state of Ohio behind Cedar Point. The Flats was the downtown engine fueling Cleveland’s dramatic revival from its burning river image to designation as an All-American city. Cash registers were overflowing and many of the local business owners who had gone out on a financial limb over the previous decade to build this once dormant area into a boom town were reaping huge rewards. There appeared to be no end in sight to either the rampant revelry or the swelling profits.
But as we all know, there was an end to it. Within a dozen years, the bustling party haven became a virtual ghost town ready to be redeveloped in the near-exact image of Bart Wolstein’s 1991 vision. The question is: How and why did it happen?
If you listen to the conventional wisdom, there was a combination of factors which led to the demise of the East Bank. There was the infamous Riverfest of 1993 in which groups of roving young African-Americans allegedly descended on the scene, frightening the white families that made up the bulk of those attending, prompting the annual event to be cancelled. (It should be noted that the perception of the Flats in the African-American community at that time was that blacks were not welcome there — a perception that remained strong throughout the next decade).
Also, at that time the Warehouse District — just up the hill from the East Bank — was beginning to flourish, drawing a growing number of tourists and many locals who were put off by the rowdy atmosphere in some of the East Bank establishments. The Warehouse District became the place where the “adults” who had “outgrown” the Flats went to party downtown.
Yet, while its raucous image grew and the migration up the hill kept flowing, the East Bank was still producing a ton of money for the owners of its thriving establishments. And the biggest single owner of property on the East Bank was Bart Wolstein. Throughout the ‘90s, there was a constant buzz about the big ideas for the area being dreamed up by Wolstein.
Bart was the pond’s biggest fish and he wanted the place to be more family friendly. He was going to bring in this or that national franchise and was going to change entire strips of land into something new and bold. Nary a week went by without whispers of those big plans for the wonderfully fresh entertainment district Wolstein would build to replace the still-thriving but obviously troublesome playground. Plans that were only being held back by the group of independent owners who were clinging to the status quo.
Mike White, Cleveland’s second-ever African-American mayor who served from 1990 to 2002, knew a thing or two about those independent owners and, it could be argued, had an axe to grind with a few them. White, who was viewed as being in the pocket of Forest City Enterprises Sam Miller, the city’s largest developer and a rival of Wolstein, reportedly was taking a lot of heat from the black community about blacks being unwelcome in the Flats and being under-represented in its work force.
So White decided to call a meeting with representatives of the Flats Oxbow Association, the area’s development group. According to the Association’s Executive Director, Tom Newman, here’s what happened: “One day in early 2000 Joe Mazzola, then executive director of Flats Oxbow, and I were summoned to City Hall to see the Mayor. Two of his staff were in attendance. The Mayor zipped in, sat down and told us that he didn’t care if ‘sh!t piles up in the streets,’ he wasn’t about to do another thing for the Flats until he saw more black faces working in the Flats establishments . . .’and I mean the front of the house, not the back.’ This is restaurant lingo meaning hosts, hostesses, waiters, bartenders as opposed to dishwashers, sweepers and salad girls. The mayor then rose abruptly and scurried out as quickly as he had come in.”
With White already upset with the lack of blacks in “front of the house” positions in the Flats and the growing concern among the chamber of commerce types that the wild behavior on the East Bank was chipping away at the perception of Cleveland as an All-American town, the summer of 2000 provided the events that — many argue — sealed the area’s fate.
In that summer, five people drowned in the Cuyahoga River in the vicinity of the Flats. In response, White created the Flats Safety Task Force — made up of members from the city’s fire, police, building and housing departments — to address health and safety concerns in the area. To help accomplish this, the task force selected for inspections certain establishments it thought presented code enforcement violations and decided what course of action was appropriate.
According to White this was a strong and needed tactic to prevent more deaths and disturbances. To others, including some of the independent owners who had butted heads with White over the years, it was the unleashing of Gestapo tactics designed to drive them out of business and open the area for a big developer to swoop in and take over.
In February of 2001, PDU, Inc., owners of the club Heaven & Earth, negotiated to sell its club to Dazner, Inc. for $400,000 and planned on finalizing the purchase on March 5. However, at 11 pm on Friday, March 2, the Safety Task Force — led by its chairman, Robert Vilkas, Commissioner of Cleveland’s Division of Building and Housing — came to the East Bank club to inspect the premises, checked all of the patrons and found no underage violations. But Vilskas ordered Heaven & Earth immediately closed and summoned Cleveland carpenters, who had been waiting in a truck nearby, to board up the club.
On March 4, Danzer informed PDU that it was no longer interested in purchasing Heaven & Earth because of the raid. Due to a drastic slump in business, PDU was unable to pay its bills and eventually sold the club to Dazner in May, 2001, for the reduced price of $129,000. PDU ended up suing the city of Cleveland for its tactics and was awarded $345,000 in damages by a jury, a decision that was later appealed and overturned.
Several other independent clubs were subsequently raided and temporarily shut down by the task force, causing a number of these establishments to suffer severe financial hits and prompting others to abandon their businesses altogether. None of Wolstein’s properties were ever raided or boarded up. To many, the message was clear: Mike White was executing a selective campaign of harassment of the small businessmen on the East Bank.
By the time Jane Campbell took office in January, 2002, the East Bank was becoming a shadow of its once glorious self and the talk had already turned to what, if anything, could be done to revitalize it. Many in power agreed that it would take more than a band-aid to fix this particular development problem. The Plain Dealer editorialized against the independent owners, charging that they were slumlords, and suggesting that big ideas were needed if the East Bank was to be saved.
And it just so happened that the Wolsteins, though owning less than a third of the East Bank’s properties and way behind Forest City in influence with the new mayor, just happened to have a really big idea — one that is ready to come to fruition in he next few years, nearly two decades after it was put on the drawing board.