Robert Stark lives to break ground. â€œItâ€™s kind of like a farmerâ€™s reflex, something new is about to grow,â€ he says.
His latest multibillion-dollar development plan in the Warehouse District, his most ambitious vision to date, is about growing a whole new city.
Stark pictures West Third, West Sixth and West Ninth streets as spectacular European-style boulevards that extend from Superior Avenue to the waterfront.
He envisions boardwalks along the river and lakefront that extend far enough that if someone were to skate or bike along the path, it could take more than a half hour to get from one end to the other.
He sees the Warehouse District bustling with retail shops, office space, and residential condominiums and apartments built vertically, linking the city and Public Square to the river and the lake.
And all this by 2010, predicts the 55-year-old Beachwood native.
â€œThe development proposal is not just about the Warehouse District; itâ€™s about extending the grid of West Third, West Sixth and West Ninth north to the lake, not just the streets, but taking the whole platform (the very land itself),â€ says Stark, CEO of Stark Enterprises Inc.
â€œBuilding platforms over the railroad tracks and down to the waterâ€™s edge so there is a seamless connection between Public Square and the lake.â€
Robert Stark, CEO of Stark Enterprises Inc.
Photo by Eric Mull
Stark Enterprises is at the forefront of building a new city, capitalizing on the success of the Warehouse District. According to Stark, Cleveland no longer needs to depend on the Dan Gilberts or the Peter Lewises to bring their companies with thousands of employees to town. People will be attracted to Cleveland if the city simply demonstrates it is ahead of the curve. But it canâ€™t start incrementally – a block of retail here and a street of office space there – because itâ€™s not transformational, he says.
â€œIf we take a small, small percentage of [the marketâ€™s] 4.5 million people, like two percent – and I would guess the demand for this kind of lifestyle is much greater than two percent – we have more people than we can handle,â€ says Stark, who has been working on the plan for more than two years. â€œSo itâ€™s really a model that exists in our region.â€
There is a shift in focus in America today to an urban lifestyle, a neighborhood built where one can both live and work. Shopping centers such as Tower City Center and the Galleria were a way for the city to compete with the suburbs. But, cities are about being on the street. And thatâ€™s what Stark is trying to create.
â€œWhatâ€™s cool about this whole thing, now that this lifestyle is taking hold, the suburbs canâ€™t do it,â€ he says. â€œAnd it creates the opportunity for a reversal of the flow out of the cities to a certain percentage of flow back into the city from the region. And when that happens, we create a marketable community that can even attract people from outside the city.â€
But the pieces of the puzzle – retail, residential and office space – separately donâ€™t have the same impact. Put them together in a mixed-use community, a development built vertically that includes all three components, and you have an explosion. â€œYou have the tipping point that the Warehouse District has been waiting for,â€ says Stark, who is Clevelandâ€™s answer to a new urban reality.
Standing more than six feet tall, the confident Stark does not take no for an answer. When making a point, he speaks with his hands spread high in the air and a slight elevation in his voice. Starkâ€™s intimidating demeanor reflects his determination and follow-through on his visions.
â€œBob is very enthusiastic, passionate and creative,â€ says John S. Carney, partner at Cleveland-based Carney & Carney, chairman of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, and a real estate owner and developer in Cleveland, who has worked with Stark since 1997, first on Crocker Park and now on the downtown development. â€œHe has the tenacity that when he starts a project and comes to a brick wall, to him, thereâ€™s a way through it or around it. And in my opinion, Bob can do it.â€
Stark graduated from the University of Rochester as a premed student in 1973. After being wait-listed for medical school, he decided to develop a small piece of land his mother owned on the corner of Mayfield Road and Woodrow Avenue in Mayfield Heights in the fall of that year. It included a Color Tile store and an adjacent frame store.
For Stark, the experience reawakened childhood memories. And from that moment, he knew his calling was in development, following in the footsteps of his father Fred, who died when Stark was a young teen. Fred was the first developer to bring Zayreâ€™s Department Store to Cleveland, before the discount store revolution.
â€œI love the smell of the ground being turned over as the first part of a new development,â€ says Stark. â€œThatâ€™s kind of a metaphysical experience for me and I remember that smell when my father would lift me up on big equipment on-site.â€
In 1975, he enrolled in law school at Case Western Reserve University because Stark felt he needed a legal education for development work.
Since then, Stark Enterprises has developed more than 5.5 million square feet of commercial and residential space. The companyâ€™s long list of developments includes Rosemont Commons in Fairlawn, The Strip in Canton, the Promenade of Westlake (now the Promenade at Crocker Park) and Eton Chagrin Boulevard in Woodmere.
To Stark, developers must put a lot of projects in the pipeline because some may not progress.
â€œI donâ€™t think that Iâ€™m too spread out,â€ says Stark, who is currently working on the second phases of Crocker Park and Eton Chagrin Boulevard, where he is creating the first fashion co-op in America. â€œIâ€™m very focused on sharing the principles and truths about new urbanism that emerged from the development of Crocker Park.â€
Because of the Warehouse District projectâ€™s size in nature – estimated at 500 acres – the plan will create a place unrecognizable to Clevelanders. If Starkâ€™s patch of land, stretching from West Third to West Ninth streets and from Superior Avenue to St. Clair Avenue, costs $1 billion to develop, then the land to the water and river, most of which is owned by the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 billion to develop – creating the new city he envisions.
â€œOver the last 10 to 15 years, the heroes who have gone in and redeveloped the warehouse structures â€¦ are missing two basic components to make the warehouse district a very sustainable, long-term option for people to look at and live in – more density, not enough people on the streets, and too many vacant spaces that invite vagrants,â€ he says. â€œRight now itâ€™s just restaurants and bars, and no real retail.â€
Stark agrees to accomplish this task it must be a collaborative effort. To name a few, Stark is working with the Warehouse District Assoc., the Greater Cleveland Partnership, Downtown Cleveland Alliance, the Port Authority, the city and county commissioners.
Stark is currently in joint-venture development agreements with landowners – including the Asher family, Jimmy Kassouf and Russ Khoury – between the blocks from Superior Avenue to St. Clair Avenue and West Third Street to West Ninth Street. Purchasing these properties depends on the timeline of the development, he says. There is also strong, positive interest from a host of retailers.
â€œThis represents a significance of the properties required to move forward,â€ says Stark, an expert on mixed-use development. â€œMy approach in general is to try to avoid eminent domain proceedings and instead include, to the extent that itâ€™s possible, the existing property owners as partners in the development.â€
The first phase of the Warehouse District consists of about 1 million square feet of retail space and 3 million to 4 million square feet of mixed use. In all, the development will be eight to 12 stories high, with two levels of retail on the street, anywhere from one to three levels of parking, and four or five levels of boutique hotels, condos, apartments and office space.
â€œIf I were to develop downtown, I would want to see it more heavily weighted toward residential than retail – to attract 25,000 people must be the goal or it wonâ€™t change the character and feel of downtown,â€ says Ned Hill, vice president of Economic Development at Cleveland State University. â€œBut Iâ€™m in love with [Starkâ€™s] boldness and chutzpah; we need more of that around here.â€
Playing a major role in creating this â€œnew cityâ€ is the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, which will continue the stretch of development to the waterâ€™s edge, riding on the success of Starkâ€™s plan. The Port, which has the authority to act as a developer, can lease space to the developers and have an ongoing revenue stream to support its future initiatives. The Port will then be forced to move its operations out of the path of development to Whiskey Island.
Stark has met with every member of the board of the Port Authority, which has embraced the notion that it will develop the land it owns, and finance it themselves, he says.
â€œWe are in the process of doing a feasibility analysis to move the Port to the west side of the river – both from a physical and financial standpoint,â€ says Gary Failor, president of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority. â€œThe board has not made any decisions to lease or sell [its 60 acres of land] to a developer, but this is definitely in the works.â€
â€œItâ€™s a revolutionary and very exciting, positive step forward on their part to even be studying it,â€ says Stark. â€œSo I envision that while we are building this out, [the Port] will be building out their infrastructure.â€
Assuming timing is right, when Stark opens his mixed-use development in the Warehouse District, the Port Authority will just be completing their infrastructure and will be ready to capitalize on Starkâ€™s opening.
â€œI think a plan always starts out looking one way and can end up another, but [Stark] has a great track record of pulling off his plans,â€ says Failor.
In addition, as part of the City of Clevelandâ€™s Lakefront Plan, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) initiated the Lakefront West Project to take the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway or Route 2 down to a street-level boulevard roughly at West Sixth Street to eliminate the â€œBerlin Wallâ€ that separates the land from the lake, as Stark refers to it. A key goal of the project is to establish multimodal connections to the waterâ€™s edge. Receiving $49 million in federal transportation funds in 2005, ODOT plans to begin construction in 2009.
â€œThat freeway is an example of the worst kind of sprawl that uses the city as a shortcut,â€ Stark says. â€œIt brought a freeway right through the center of the city.â€
â€œThe answer for our city is to do something that is transformative and this has that potential,â€ says Stark. â€œIt also, as you can see, utilizes the great assets of this city that weâ€™ve never quite figured out.â€
That answer lies in mixed-use communities. Multiuse developments like Easton in Columbus, which are spread out on the ground in pods for each component – office, retail and residential – miss out on the dynamics of mixed-use developments. When you mix the components together, it creates a new identity for them. Being able to walk between where you work and live, and use the outdoors as your conference room, is vital and dynamic.
â€œHaving a lot of people doing different things in the same place is what creates the urban dynamic â€¦ and creates the lifestyle that you associate with that kind of environment,â€ says Stark, who refers to himself as a community builder. â€œSustainable urban communities are about mixed use and density – both.â€
To Starkâ€™s knowledge, no one has vertically integrated all three components.
Has the success of Crocker Park and Eton Chagrin Boulevard made Stark a Cleveland celebrity? Maybe. â€œI will tell you that there are many perfect strangers who come up to me and thank me for enriching their environment, and thatâ€™s, when all is said and done, what we are about today – creating communities and people places, and thatâ€™s about mixed-use, density and pedestrianism.â€