The opening of the CoventrYard Mall in 1977 signaled a new era for the Coventry business district in Cleveland Heights. Controversy over the actions and intentions of real estate developer Lewis A. Zipkin sparked a public discussion about the impact of gentrification along Coventry Road. For several years, entrepreneurs had leveraged the neighborhood's changes: using counterculture themes to market products and services to a broad audience. However, Zipkin's decision to fill his mall with upscale boutique-type shops clearly indicated a desire to reposition Coventry for outsiders. Adding fuel to the fire, a business dispute between Zipkin and resident/restaurateur Tom Fello raised questions about the manner in which the retail spaces were managed.
Five years prior to CoventrYard's opening, Zipkin had purchased two buildings at the corner of Euclid Heights Boulevard and Coventry Road. He removed the connecting wall and added a skylight. More than $300,000 in renovations were made in an effort to retain the architectural integrity of the structure, while converting it to a mini-mall. This was Zipkin's management style: invest heavily in redevelopment projects to create attractive, modern spaces that meet governmental codes. Rather than rely on tenants to build out their own spaces, Zipkin's 20-member staff completed or oversaw most renovation work. In return, he charged his tenants higher rents. His methods paid off. By the time CoventrYard was half full in 1978, commercial and private rents throughout the business district had skyrocketed. As leases expired, including Tommy Fello's, business owners had to decide whether to accept what they saw as exorbitant prices, or start from scratch at a new location.
Negotiations between Zipkin and Fello came to a standstill. For a brief time, the future of Tommy's seemed to be in jeopardy. Fello eventually found a new location (the former Coventry Cafe), but the dispute spoke to a larger concern: Many members of the community believed that the character of the neighborhood was being threatened and that longtime residents would be driven from their homes and businesses. Community responses frequently included idyllic memories of Jewish immigrants sitting communally alongside bikers, hippies, and art students at a local greasy spoon. In other words, the community's core identity was being touted as economic and social diversity, grittiness, cheap rents, and pedestrian lifestyle—characteristics that seemed at odds with Zipkin's (and some other businesspeople's) gentrified, homogenized vision.
But despite fond recollections, many structures in the area were deteriorating and did not meet building codes. Residents faced issues of crime and poverty. A healthy business district was essential. Thus, the CoventrYard debates reflected competing but not always realistic visions of what constituted progress for this eclectic community.
Similar debates over the pros and cons of gentrification are still being waged in the Coventry area—an ongoing balancing act between retaining local personality and affordability, and accommodating the wrenching and often expensive evolutions through which communities pass. Despite two devastating fires and an often-revolving door of lessees, some tenants, notably the Grog Shop and the Inn on Coventry, have been around long enough to be considered CoventrYard "fixtures."