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RMS hopes to create ‘new downtown’ at Van Aken District

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The transformation of the 1950s-era Van Aken Shopping Center to today’s Van Aken District – with apartments that will rise 199 feet, 6 inches into the air in the city’s tallest building – took shape from planning efforts that go back more than two decades.

The vision was “to create a vibrant, walkable, mixed-use district, one that had interesting buildings and landscaping, something that had a central gathering spot, that the transit station should be iconic,” Joyce Braverman, planning director for the city of Shaker Heights, told the Cleveland Jewish News July 9.

“And the final part of the vision was a connection to the existing neighborhood,” she said. “That connection is what makes Van Aken different than a lot of other new developments.”

Van Aken District includes housing known as the Upstairs at Van Aken, which consists of 103 apartment units on the upper floors of the mixed-use district. The new building will add 228 units across Farnsleigh Road.

Connecting to the neighborhood 

One of the architectural features that helps Van Aken District connect to its neighbors is a loggia to protect those who are approaching the district from off site, Jon Ratner, president of RMS Investment Corp. of Shaker Heights, explained to the Cleveland Jewish News during a July 7 tour of the mixed-use district. Ratner spoke of the vibrancy of the district, with rentable work space on the first floor, as well as a small grocery, restaurants, shops and offices.

In addition, there is a quarter-acre park, dubbed the living room, that includes climbing rocks, small tables and chairs, near Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream. That space is used to screen movies, hold yoga sessions and block parties – as well as for parties and informal gatherings by members of the public.

Also at the Van Aken District, there is an outdoor farmers market each Thursday and each Friday a band plays in the early evening.

Public art on site

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“We have incorporated art through the site,” said Ratner, including Debra Sue Solecki’s images of a shape shifter known as Ubu, which in some sense refers to Van Aken District’s transformation from shopping center to mixed use district. There is also sculpture by local sculptor Don Stewart and an art installation called Stratus, which hangs above an alley near the Market Hall. Ratner credited District Gallery at Van Aken District for making that happen.

“So it’s important for us to bring the community forward,” he said. Artwork from students at Shaker Heights High School is on display in the Market Hall as well.

A central space to eat 

The Market Hall features small restaurants dotted through a central area with tables and chairs.

“So when we were planning this, from like 2012 to 2016, we really saw the explosion of food halls or market halls around the country,” Ratner said. “And we knew that there was an opportunity for us to do this in the former grocery site. What it took, though, was curating of a lot of very small shops.”


Van Aken District transitioned during the COVID-19 pandemic by blocking part of Tuttle Road in front of the Market Hall to create an outdoor seating area for diners.

He said the challenge for the developers was “to align on a vision of what we wanted to deliver to the customer, with all of these individual small shops.”

The benefit, he said, “is we gave all of these small shops or local entrepreneurs the opportunity to get into business, with much lower investment.”

The concept allows the small restaurants to launch businesses with a very small amount of space, Ratner said.

A family legacy 

Prior to its transformation as Van Aken District, the site was the Van Aken Shopping Center, developed by Ratner’s cousin, Albert Ratner, in 1955, which Jon Ratner called “a community anchor.”

“I like to say if you’re 40 and above and you grew up on the east side of Cleveland, you have some memory of the Van Aken District, whether it’s where you had your first job, you bought your prom dress or your wedding suit. So much of the community had memories here from Draeger’s ice cream to Sand’s Blue Line Cafe and Pearl of the Orient, and just so many great shops, so many great restaurants that really created sort of the fabric of this community for four decades.”

Times change 

Ratner said times changed, with the opening of Beachwood Place in 1978, with the building of Interstate 480, and with additional housing to the east.

“It’s true that the Van Aken Shopping Center in its original formation sort of fell into a little bit of a down period,” Ratner said. “So we wanted to, you know, to recreate that and sort of create a new generation of memories for the users of this site. And so we tore down the original center in 2016, and all but the grocery store building, which was relatively new. And then we reopened it as the Van Aken District in 2018.”

A new downtown 

He said the vision was to create Shaker’s “new downtown.”

“Creating a whole new set of stores and shops and places for the community to come and experience and live their lives and create these memories has come to fruition,” Ratner said. “So we couldn’t be more happy about it. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not up here that I don’t run into somebody that sort of comes up to me understanding my role at the project and … thanks me genuinely for changing the neighborhood and changing the way that they are able to live their lives.”

The park on site 

He said critical to that piece was the creation of the green space.

“We knew what was critical towards a long term successor was creating place,” Ratner said. “The world of retail is changing a lot, has gone from bricks and mortar to online. … So what still attracts people to place and what brings them out? Well, it’s creating opportunities for real experiences for interaction to get together with friends and neighbors.”


The living room has tables, chairs, a climbing rock and outdoor piano.

The living room allows for that.

“It really speaks to our intention of being open and being inclusive and having the mandate and district feel comfortable and accessible for the very broad community,” Ratner said.

Laurels for Van Aken District 

Van Aken District was one of 23 finalists in the Urban Land Institute for Americas Awards for Excellence in May, recognizing “real estate projects that achieve the highest standard of excellence.”

The finalists were chosen “ by a multidisciplinary jury of ULI members representing a range of real estate and land use expertise, including development, finance, planning, urban design, architecture and landscape architecture,” according to the Urban Land Institute’s website.

What's next 

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Mackenzie Makepeace, development director at RMS, said the Farnsleigh corner site is a logical next step for residential construction.

“We feel like this is just a great site for residential,” she told the CJN July 7. “We’re so close to the hub that was created through the first phase of development.”

In addition, she said, having residential units across the street will increase residential density, which should help the retailers at Van Aken District.

“We’re not just creating a standalone building that happens to be next to what we’ve already created,” she said. “It’s a continuation of .. what we started so many years ago.”

She said the split building will “bring a lot of residential density in a tall tower, but break up that mass along Farnsleigh.”

She said the sight lines down Walker Road were created by the cutouts.

She also spoke to the decision to build tall.


There are plans to transform Shaker Plaza in the future.

Vertical versus horizontal

“The height allows us to bring more residents to the space while kind of opening up the back of the site for green space,” she said.

Makepeace said she hopes the new apartment building will attract “a great mix of people, just like the city of Shaker does,” with units ranging from 600 square feet for one-bedroom apartments to penthouse units that will be nearly 3,000 square feet.

She said the Farnsleigh lot is closer to the Farnsleigh RTA stop than it is to the end of the line.

“So this should allow residents really easy access to downtown,” she said. “To the airport if they choose, and we’re hoping that this encourages people to become either one-car no-car families.”

Density as a goal 

Ratner said it was the success of the first units at Van Aken District that allowed RMS to consider the yet-to-be-built apartments on Farnsleigh and Van Aken.

Over the past 21 years, the city developed six major plans, and held 61 public meetings around the development of Van Aken District.



“So there’s been a lot of input from the community in crafting this vision,” Braverman explained.

That might be why the city Planning Commission approved the final design for the two-tower apartment building at the corner of Farnsleigh Road and Van Aken Boulevard in a unanimous vote June 2, albeit with conditions and requests for additional detail.

Braverman explained that RMS is developing the Van Aken District “one parcel at a time.”

“This is a development style I support because it’s more authentic,” Braverman said, adding that the variance allowing the entire building to be dedicated to residential – rather than a mix of retail and residential – made sense on that site, and that it fits into the district’s overall mix.

Looking ahead 

The corner of Chagrin Boulevard and Warrensville Center Road is slated for development, Braverman said, as is the former Qua Buick lot on the corner of Farnsleigh and Warrensville Center roads across from Shaker Rocks.

“There is a lot of interest out there on that parcel,” said Braverman, adding a request for proposals is being worked on for the Qua Buick lot, which is now an empty lot. “So, we do feel the time is right to get that going.”

The city also owns a vacant lot south of Wendy’s on Warrensville Center Road and the city has been working with the owner of an adjacent parcel to that one as well on a possible redevelopment plan.

RTA, meanwhile, plans to redevelop its end-of-the-line station, helping to complete the city’s vision of the land.


The end of the line RTA stop tucks right next to Van Aken District. There are plans to transform that station.

Along the way, the city has received grants to reconfigure the intersection.

Braverman said RTA considered extending the blue line to Harvard Road or to Northfield Road. Both concepts were thought not to be easily funded and haven’t been realized, but RTA is now in the midst of planning a replacement for its station.

In 2023, the city of Shaker Heights will do additional work at the rapid transit station stop intersection with where it intersects with Tuttle Road.

Flexing with COVID-19 pandemic

Van Aken District was designed to allow for flexible space on Tuttle Road, where during the COVID-19 pandemic, the road was closed in front of the Market Hall, fake grass was laid down and picnic tables with umbrellas were installed on the street for outdoor seating in a streeterie. That transformation, Ratner said, allowed restaurant operators to continue to operate through the pandemic.

The Van Aken District has had an expanded “DORA,” or “Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area” since last spring, and this past winter the DORA included a few igloos outside the Market Hall.

“We had worked with the city already sort of on a predetermined plan as to how we could close that street,” Ratner said. “So we didn’t need to go through a long and lengthy approval process.”

He said that streeterie will be open on an annual basis during warmer weather.

“We love it,” Ratner said. “I think the community loves it. And it just speaks to some of the kind of creativity and authenticity with which we developed the Van Aken District ... and then continue to bring it forward.”

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