Beginning in the late 1950s, the City of Shaker Heights took a number of actions designed to keep the Moreland neighborhood's historic shopping center at the intersection of Chagrin Boulevard and Lee Road vibrant and a favored place for Shaker Heights shoppers. Among these were renaming it Shaker Town Center in 1984 and promoting it as the city's downtown shopping district. But what the city proposed to do in 1987 was perhaps the most extraordinary of all.
The history of commercial activity at the intersection of Chagrin Boulevard and Lee Road goes back more than 150 years to when the area was still part of Warrensville Township. In or about 1866, at the northeast corner of the intersection--where the Shaker Town Center Convenience Shopping Center now stands--Alonzo and Rachel Gillette opened a tavern which for decades served people traveling on the Kinsman plank road to and from Cleveland and other cities. Retail shopping stores, however, at or near the intersection, did not appear until much later.
In 1920, as a result of the annexation of East View village to Shaker Heights, the intersection, which was by this time called Kinsman-Lee Corners, became part of the Van Sweringen brothers' planned suburb. The first retail businesses located at or near the intersection were operated out of a string of houses on the north side of Kinsman Road (Chagrin Boulevard), east of Lee Road. According to a 1923 Cleveland Directory, one of the earliest of these was a grocery store owned by Czech immigrants John and Ella Buzek at 16611 Kinsman. Buzek's grocery store operated for only a few short years before the land upon which it sat was sold and the house razed to make room for a one-story brick commercial building erected on the northeast corner in 1925. The Kinlee Building, with seven store fronts facing Kinsman Road and five facing Lee Road, was home to a number of early Shaker Heights retail stores, including Shaker Heights Hardware Store, one of the city's oldest extant retail businesses.
Other commercial buildings soon followed at or near this intersection, which a Plain Dealer article in 1926 called one of the fastest growing commercial areas in Cuyahoga County. Notable among them was the Lee-Kinsman Building, erected on the northwest corner of the intersection in 1929. Located on land previously owned by the Van Sweringens, it was one of only a few of the early-era commercial buildings at Kinsman-Lee Corners that reflected the Van Sweringens' exacting standards. Two stories tall, and with a semi-circular facade that fronted both Kinsman and Lee Roads, it was designed by the same architectural firm responsible for Shaker Square.
By 1931, the area surrounding the intersection, with its rich assortment of commercial retail buildings on Kinsman and Lee Roads, was now being referred to as the Kinsman-Lee Shopping Center. For many years thereafter, it was a vibrant retail shopping place for Shaker residents, featuring such well-known past and present Shaker businesses as Heinen's grocery store, Kinsman-Lee Bowling, Shaker Theater, The Village Market, Glin's Grocery and Meat Market, Horton's Jewelers, Budin's Delicatessen, Sol's Delicatessen, Chin's Kin Lee Restaurant, Leonello's Restaurant, Gays Shoe Store, F.W. Woolworth, Lota Kelly Sportswear, Baskin-Robbins, Hough Bakery, Just Rite Cleaners, and C.C. Nicholls Sporting Goods, just to name a few. However, by the mid 1950s, its early twentieth century urban design featuring store fronts located close to the street and limited off street parking made it obsolescent. Adding to the shopping center's woes was neglected maintenance by building owners, a matter which the local merchants association complained about to the city as early as 1957. Matters only worsened when the 1960s decade arrived and the first regional shopping malls to the north and east opened, drawing Shaker shoppers out of the city. Finally adding to the city's and merchants' concerns was ongoing racial transition in the southwestern neighborhoods of the city, which was seen as contributing to white flight from the shopping center.
Concerns over the negative impact that these conditions at the Chagrin-Lee-Avalon Shopping Center--as the retail shopping area was now called following the name change of Kinsman Road in Shaker Heights in 1959--led the city government to take action, initially to protect its tax base, but later also to attempt to preserve the integrated status of its southwestern neighborhoods. One of the first actions it took was, in 1960, to purchase the deteriorating Kinlee Building, located on the northeast corner of the Chagrin-Lee intersection. The building was razed and the land sold to a developer who built Chagrin-Lee Plaza, a two and one-half story commercial and medical office building which was set back from the intersection in order to provide more off street parking for patrons. In the years that followed, the city took additional actions, including actively working with the Chagrin-Lee-Avalon merchants association to improve the the shopping center area. These collaborative efforts included streetscape improvements, additional off street parking, low cost building improvement loans, free planning services, and the "Be a Shaker Shopper" public relations program. In 1984, the city and merchants association also took the dramatic step of rebranding the entire shopping center as Shaker Town Center and promoting it as the city's downtown shopping center.
Despite all of these actions, however, by 1987 the city had concluded, based on studies by the Cuyahoga County Regional Planning Commission and various other planners consultants, and the report of the Shaker Towne Centre Citizens Advisory Committee appointed by Shaker Heights Mayor Stephen J. Alfred, that a more radical change was needed. In order for the Chagrin-Lee-Avalon Shopping Center to become competitive with nearby regional shopping centers and malls, and bring Shaker residents--particularly white residents--back to the shopping center, it would be necessary to extensively rebuild the center and provide for its ownership and operation by a single business entity. Accordingly, the city proposed to purchase ten acres of shopping center properties on the northeast corner of Chagrin Boulevard and Lee Road, raze the buildings, and sell the land to a developer to build and operate a convenience shopping center there.
Shortly after it was made public, the city's redevelopment proposal was met with opposition from a number of retail business owners, some of whom alleged that the purpose behind it was to remove African American merchants and African American shoppers from the center. Thereafter, in June 1989, when Shaker Heights city council authorized the city administration to proceed with the redevelopment proposal, several of the objecting business owners and a self-styled "tax fighter" gathered signatures and filed initiative petitions with the city, seeking to roll back local taxes and to renovate, rather than redevelop, Shaker Town Center. In the November 1989 election, both initiatives were soundly defeated, permitting the city to proceed as planned. During the period 1990-1992, all land purchases were made, the site was cleared, a developer was selected, and the new convenience shopping center was built, featuring as its anchor tenants long-time Shaker businesses, Heinen's Grocery Store and Shaker Heights Hardware Store.
The new convenience shopping center of Shaker Town Center has now operated on the northeast corner of Chagrin Boulevard and Lee Road for a quarter of a century. Changes have been made to it over the years, including the construction of a north-south street through the center to provide better access to Van Aken Boulevard as well as to the retail stores on the south side of Chagrin Boulevard. At least one scholar has criticized the redevelopment, because of its emphasis on higher-end stores designed to attract a higher economic class of shopper, as well-intentioned, but, given the close proximity of Cleveland's Mount Pleasant neighborhood to the shopping center, economically wrong-headed. A survey of local newspaper articles, however, suggests that the redevelopment of the shopping center has been largely viewed by the general public as a success and Shaker Town Center has served as a model for at least one other Cleveland suburb seeking to reinvigorate its aging retail center.