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Living With History

Tom Yablonsky’s Keen Eye for Redevelopment is Shaping Downtown Cleveland’s Housing Market

Even as a student, Tom Yablonsky (BA ’77) appreciated Cleveland’s historic architecture and saw its potential. Today, as many of those downtown structures are transforming into sleek, new living options, he’s in the center of a housing boom and advocating to preserve some of the city’s prized buildings. 

Yablonsky’s involvement with the downtown housing movement began in the mid-1980s, when he worked with the chamber of commerce to create the Downtown Housing Taskforce in 1988. Now as the executive vice president of Downtown Cleveland Alliance, and executive director of both the Historic Warehouse District Development Corporation and the Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corporation, he’s spared many a Cleveland landmark from the wrecking ball. 

That’s because, well before anyone else can see it, he envisions how those structures can anchor new downtown neighborhoods. 

The official term for renovating buildings for new purposes, like housing, is “adaptive reuse” and Yablonsky is one of its chief evangelists in Cleveland. He helps analyze the feasibility of building projects, and shares his vast knowledge of the city’s architectural history with potential developers while encouraging their preservation. This is all done in the context of creating a supportive neighborhood for all buildings, known as “placemaking,” or the creation of quality places for people to live, work, play and learn.  

Downtown’s adaptive reuse movement started in the Warehouse District in the early 1980s by artists and pioneers in the Bradley Building on West 6th Street, as part of a national grassroots movement to increase the supply of affordable housing. 

The Historic Warehouse District Development Corporation hired staff in 1985, and Yablonsky became executive director in February 1986, over-seeing some of its early projects including Grand Arcade Apartments on West St. Clair. The organization’s success laid the groundwork for the creation of other historic districts, historic preservation and adaptive reuse projects, 16 of which are currently part of the Warehouse District’s 20 residential buildings.

Today, Yablonsky is leading an effort to create Cleveland’s eighth historic district, the Erieview Historic District, which includes 1717 East Ninth (the 1958 East Ohio Gas Company headquarters), Erieview Tower, the Luckman (the Chesterfield Building) and the Reserve Square apartments.

Securing status as a historic district enables developers to raise funding to rehabilitate additional structures in need of reinvestment. And if Yablonsky is successful in getting the district’s buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places, they’re eligible for federal and state tax credits as well as conservation easements. 

Yablonsky’s work with supporting neighborhood-based partners is projected to bring tens of thousands more people to live in downtown Cleveland.  

Estimates see anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 residents over the next two decades, well above the initial goal of 20,000. 

“Cleveland has a great architectural history. You can’t do this just anywhere,” said Yablonsky. “These buildings are authentic; they’re not cookie-cutter. This is Cleveland taking advantage of its architectural historic assets to redefine itself.” 

Photo 1: The Beacon is downtown Cleveland’s first residential high-rise since 1974, featuring a rooftop sky lounge with views of the city.

Photo 2: Formerly the May Company department store, The May apartments opened in September 2020. The building is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and great care was taken to preserve or meticulously recreate its iconic features. 

Photo 3: East 4th Street, in the heart of downtown Cleveland, is a popular destination for city residents and tourists alike, offering world class dining and entertainment options.

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