For years, the city has talked about developing an arts district just east of downtown. The goal was to foster an environment in which artists could thrive, sparking creativity that would fuel a marquee destination for visitors. 

Now, the city has altered the landscape of the Superior Arts District. 

Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration announced Nov. 29 that the ArtCraft building – a seven-story brick and pane-glass building spanning two blocks at Superior Avenue and East 25th Street –  will be converted into the new police headquarters. 

More than a century old, the building has housed artists’ studios for more than three decades and was seen as the district anchor. The move has artists and others questioning whether the city is abandoning its commitment to creating the arts district that many creatives have envisioned for years.  

The announcement caught many by surprise, though changes had been coming for a while. 

The ArtCraft building, which rests next to Interstate 90 and looks north to the lake, was sold in September. The new owners told tenants in October that most would have to move by mid-December because the building was being redeveloped. Some tenants interviewed for this story said they were left with the impression that the building would be turned into luxury apartments. 

Aidan Meany, founder and creative director of Found Surface, which makes environmentally sustainable clothing, was among them. He didn’t want to see luxury housing there because he, like many of the artists interviewed, believes the ArtCraft should be kept as “a safe haven for artists and small businesses.”  

Meany and other tenants interviewed said turning the building into the police headquarters sends a strong message to the arts community.

“The city is essentially kicking out small businesses and creators,” said Meany, a tenant for about six months who plans to relocate  nearby. “That action isn’t being done by some commercial real estate company that’s trying to make a move and doesn’t understand the city. It’s being done by the city itself. It’s super frustrating to see. “

The Bibb administration disagrees.

“Mayor Bibb and the administration certainly support the city’s arts and entrepreneurial communities,” Press Secretary Marie Zickefoose wrote in an email. “The selection of ArtCraft is solely based on the RFP [Request for Proposal] process as the best option for the requirements, timeline and budget of the new police HQ.”

What’s in a name?

In many ways, Superior Arts District is only a name. In an email to Signal Cleveland, Zickefoose wrote that the district  is “generally known as an area where artists live and work.”  The city doesn’t have any programs specifically aimed at helping district artists and spinning off their cache to make the area a destination. Some cities with official arts districts have  special programs, such as those requiring that a certain number of new or redeveloped units be set aside as affordable for artists.

The email also mentioned the Superior Arts Improvement District, in which property owners within the district pay assessments to provide services such as sidewalk cleaning and safety patrols. The nonprofit’s web page doesn’t mention any programs specifically for artists. Signal Cleveland has contacted the organization for additional information but has not yet heard back.

Having these old buildings as an affordable place for artists to work is becoming less available as things are getting redeveloped. “It is kind of squeezing them out.”

Brent Ferguson, co-owner of Guitar Riot

There is also no mention of the ArtCraft, which is probably the best-known artists’ building in the district. The structure has a storied past. It ranges from once providing workspaces for more than 100 artists to hosting well-attended events such as its annual holiday market and open houses. Some of the former tenants have gone on to have businesses that are known nationally, such as FOUNT, “a fine leather bag design house.” 

This is why many tenants see ArtCraft’s demise as a place for artists as more significant than the end of an era for just one building.

“It has served a crucial role in the art community,” Meany said.

District becoming unaffordable for many artists

While the adaptive reuse of the ArtCraft as a police station may have caught tenants off guard, it is part of what they say is an increasing trend in the district. The affordable former industrial and commercial spaces they need for their work, a hallmark of the district for decades, are becoming scarcer. It’s being upgraded and redeveloped for high-end housing, for corporate offices and for other uses that can fetch much higher rents and purchase prices than those most artist-entrepreneurs can pay.  With downtown’s high-end housing market and West Side neighborhoods such as Tremont gentrifying, many artists fear the district is next.  

After 10 years at the Artcraft, Brent Ferguson, co-owner of Guitar Riot, which makes “the finest quality, hand-made electric guitars, amplifiers, pedals and more,” is moving the business next year to 4601 Lorain Ave. on the city’s West Side.

“Having these old buildings as an affordable place for artists to work is becoming less available as things are getting redeveloped,” he said. “It is kind of squeezing them out.”

Displaced ArtCraft tenants learned this first-hand as several of them scrambled to find places to rent on short notice.

Most of them, like Frank Trebar and Cassie Pyles-Trebar, wanted to stay in the area. The husband and wife have run Blush Bloom Boudoir, a boudoir and glamour photography business, at the ArtCraft since 2020. Though parts of the building are in disrepair, they, like many of the displaced tenants, say the ArtCraft’s attributes outweigh its deficiencies. Being clustered among other artists gave opportunities for collaboration, enhanced collegiality and sparked creativity. The cheap rent and central location, right off I-90, were unbeatable. For photographers, the huge windows that flood studios with much- sought- after natural light are highly desirable.

Even knowing the rental trends in the area, the couple hoped they could find a place nearby that was not substantially more expensive than their $6-per-square-foot rent. But anything close to that cost was unheated warehouse space or units requiring substantial renovation. After considering about 30 locations, the only affordable and suitable space they could find in time was in Chester Township in Geauga County.

“It was the suburbs just because there’s a shortage of spaces in the area,“ Trebar said. “Anything that was affordable went instantly.”

Pyles-Trebar holds back tears when she speaks of being forced to leave the ArtCraft.

“It’s an absolutely gorgeous space,” she said of her studio. “I have beautiful hardwood floors, 10-foot windows on both sides in the space. I have an absolutely breathtaking skyline view.”

Zelle Johnson, owner of Recognizze Studios, a photo studio that also rents studio space to other creators, has been an ArtCraft tenant since 2020. Though he had heard of the difficulty  previously displaced tenants in other buildings had had finding new space, he hadn’t imagined his search would have been even harder.

“I went through so many websites looking for the right price.” Johnson said. “They assume because you need a commercial space you’re making all this money. I’m not.”

He was able to find a nearby space to rent for about 20 percent more than what he had paid at the ArtCraft. He’s hoping future displacement is less likely since he’s moving into an owner-occupied building and the landlord is a maker. Still, the rent hike means he’ll have less to put into building his business.

Ferguson of Guitar Riot said the previous owners had let tenants know about two years ago that the building would likely be sold. He said the ArtCraft had become a shadow of its former self, with maintenance declining and many tenants moving out.

“It used to be jam packed every day, and now it’s a ghost town,”  Ferguson said.

He laments that younger businessowners such as Johnson, who is 29, won’t be able to benefit from being long-term tenants like he was.

“As a retail guitar business, being at the ArtCraft building allowed us to start our business at a really affordable rent,” Ferguson said. “So, that was wonderful and it paid off greatly for the business.”

Should more have been done for displaced tenants?

Tenants interviewed said they learned from media reports that the ArtCraft was becoming a police station. It was then that they learned that the city intends to begin negotiating with TurnDev, a commercial development and redevelopment company that bought the ArtCraft in September. City Council will have to approve the purchase of the building that began as a clothing factory.

Converting the ArtCraft is a departure from the plan of former Mayor Frank Jackson, who wanted to construct the new police headquarters along the Opportunity Corridor in the Kinsman neighborhood. Several months ago, Bibb said he was reconsidering that site but didn’t give any new locations. He said renovating the ArtCraft as the police headquarters could be $40 million cheaper than building a new HQ.

Tenants interviewed said the city buying the building had apparently been in the works for a while. They also said that city officials most certainly knew that most tenants would be given two months’ notice to leave. Several tenants interviewed said the administration should have assigned someone to tell them about resources, help them in finding new rental space, etc. 

Zickefoose said that ArtCraft’s owners “offered tenants assistance and accommodations to help with the transition.”

Jon Pinney, managing Partner at KJK, which is associated with TurnDev, said the owners did help the displaced tenants. He said all tenants were given free rent and utilities until they were required to leave the building, which was extended up until March 2023 for those requesting additional time. 

Pinney said the company didn’t arbitrarily give tenants two months to move.

“We regret having to vacate the building, but we made this difficult decision after consulting our insurance carriers and safety consultants,” he wrote in an email to Signal Cleveland. “At the time we made this decision, we were unaware that the Cleveland Division of Police Headquarters was even an option–it had nothing to do with it whatsoever.”

Pinney said the company also offered to help tenants in their search for new space. Other support included waiving “all prior past due balances and committed to return all security deposits regardless of the condition of tenant spaces.”  

“Overall, we project that we will forgive in excess of $150,000 of rent and utilities during this process,” he wrote. “We also spent over $50,000 making immediate repairs to the building systems for the safety and comfort of our tenants during this process. We are also maintaining full staffing levels in the building until the last tenant vacates.” 

Pinney wouldn’t say how many tenants were in the building. People interviewed for this story placed the figure at between 30 and 50.

But for tenants who couldn’t afford to stay in the area or now have to pay much higher rent, the help is little more than a gesture. Many tenants said that having to move during the Christmas holiday shopping season is cutting into their profits because they are taking time away from marketing and selling products.

“Two months was nice, but it wasn’t enough,” Johnson said.

Pinney has made this offer to tenants: “We encourage any tenant in need of further assistance to call us.”

Will there be more affordable rental space?

Jeremy Johnson, no relation to Zelle Johnson, is president and CEO of Assembly for the Arts, the regional arts council, which “seeks to expand the pie of resources for and increase equity within Greater Cleveland’s arts and culture sector.” He said the organization believes that keeping affordable rental space for artists is important. The Assembly intends to work with the artist liaison the Bibb administration is scheduled to name next year on this and other matters.

“The most important thing we could do is be sure that we are developing policies at a government level, with input from the people, that seek to mitigate the effects of development,” he said. “We at the Assembly are very much looking forward to working with the city, and also the county, on policies that create not just a city of the arts, but a city of equity.”

Rebecca Bartulovic is co-manager of HumanHeART Studios, which was in the ArtCraft for just under a year. She believes that the city and policymakers should support affordable rental space for artists. Though the business will be relocating in the area, she believes that the ArtCraft should have remained an artists’ building.

“From the time I came in here, I could say my business started doing way better,” she said. “We would have events, and so many people from all over would come out.

“I just wonder what it would have been like if there were even more artists here and if somebody who actually cared about the art community was looking out for the building,” Bartulovic said. “But, they’re just trying to renovate everything and make it more expensive.”

Pinney said TurnDev is concerned about affordable housing for artists.

“We genuinely tried to be sensitive to the needs of our tenants and the artist community,” he wrote.  “We are also exploring additional acquisitions for the purpose of providing more affordable artist space and retail opportunities.”

Displaced tenant Trebar hopes so but is still unconvinced. He and his wife want to return to Cleveland, but he doubts if it will be in the Superior Arts District. They found an affordable space under renovation, not far away in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood. It won’t be ready for months, so they opted for Chester Township.

He believes the district is poised to become like many places throughout the United States that artists once called home. They made a place cool before being forced out by high rents.

“Unfortunately, people with money are looking to come into that area to do the things that they want to do,” Trebar said of the district. “When that happens, you just don’t have the ability to continue being there.”

Economics Reporter (she/her)
Olivera, an award-winning journalist, covered labor, employment and workforce issues for several years at The Plain Dealer. She broke the story in 2013 of a food drive held for Walmart workers who made too little to afford Thanksgiving dinner. Olivera has received state and national awards for her coverage, including those from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW). She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Olivera believes the sweet spot of high-impact journalism is combining strong storytelling with data analysis.