Developer Plans to Replace Ailing MLK Plaza in Hough


Michelle Jarboe, Crain's

When Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza opened in 1972, the unusual shopping center was the centerpiece of a rebuilding effort in Cleveland's riot-scarred Hough neighborhood.

Gina Merritt believes that pocket of Hough can, once again, offer a path to better jobs, housing and stability. Her company, Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures LLC, recently bought the vacant center. Now she plans to raze it to make way for a mixed-use, mixed-income project.

"It's going to be very, very hard," said Merritt, a Washington, D.C.-based developer with a growing portfolio in Hough. "I'm sure people think I'm crazy, and I probably am."

In early February, a Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures affiliate paid $2.75 million for the plaza, which sits on 4.4 acres at Wade Park Avenue and Crawford Road, just up the hill from the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. Merritt expects to replace the aging complex with a series of new buildings, spanning 149 apartments, community facilities, live-work spaces and other uses.

The project will include a 7,500-square-foot market hall populated by local, Black-owned businesses. Entrepreneurs and residents will have the ability to acquire stakes in that building and earn income from the property. Merritt still is sorting through how such a community-ownership model might work. But she's committed to the idea of doing something creative.

"It will be an exercise in financial modeling and brain-trusting to figure out how to make it all make sense," she said. "We bought it because we just think it's an important project to do."

Designed by Robert P. Madison International, the first Black-owned architecture firm in Ohio, MLK Plaza is an oddity. Boxy townhouse-style apartments perch on top of a blocky base, an indoor-outdoor mall that once housed a grocery store and other staple retailers. Now signs outside the shuttered M&A Food store advertise money orders, bill-payment services and phones.

The Rev. Wesley Toles controlled the plaza for 35 years, after buying distressed debt on the property and taking title to the real estate. He once hoped to reinvigorate the center, but the odd layout of the building and the neighborhood's decline made it difficult to get financing.

Potential buyers approached Toles over the years. But most of them weren't "suitable," he said. Merritt, a Black, female developer with a civic bent to her projects, caught his interest.

After all, he pointed out, the property is named for Martin Luther King Jr. It sits less than a mile from the Cleveland Clinic's main campus, a major economic engine for the region. He wanted to find a buyer who would build something for the community — not just in the community.

"It was kind of a mandate from on high," said Toles, a 90-year-old volunteer pastor at Antioch Baptist Church on East 89th Street.

Public records show that Toles provided seller financing to help facilitate the purchase.

"I have said to Gina, 'I'm selling you the property, but I'm not running off any place. I'm available to do what I can to see it succeed,'" he said. "I'm hoping that she's successful in doing something for the people that need the help — the least among us."

The deal also hinged on a $1.5 million, low-interest loan from Cleveland Development Advisors, the real estate investment arm of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, records show.

"This is a great opportunity to replace a tired, vacant structure with a lively new entry point for Hough," Yvette Ittu, the organization's president and CEO, wrote in an email. "But it's equally notable to have diversity in our real estate community, especially in a diverse community with such a rich history. Gina has been working doggedly to purchase blighted properties and repurpose them into community assets."

Merritt entered the market in 2021, as the lead developer on the tricky makeover of a vacant apartment tower at 9410 Hough Ave. With her partner, SLSCO Ltd. of Texas, she's trying to close a financing gap on that affordable-housing deal, which will include a community center. Soaring interest rates and rising construction costs slowed their progress last year.

Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures also is acting as a fee developer, with no ownership stake, on a planned birthing center in Hough. Merritt's client is Birthing Beautiful Communities, a nonprofit that provides pregnancy and postpartum support with the goal of reducing the high infant mortality rate in economically distressed and predominantly Black neighborhoods.

And Eliza Bryant Village has picked Merritt to help redevelop its campus on Wade Park, in the wake of the long-term care facility's decision last year to close its nursing home. Located a mile west of MLK Plaza, the Eliza Bryant property still includes low-income senior housing, adult day care, home care and transportation and support services.

"We're getting calls from every corner asking us to look at their projects," Merritt said of outreach from churches, nonprofits and other property owners.

MLK Plaza captured her attention because of that blighted apartment building at 9410 Hough.

The tower acquisition included vacant land across the street from the shopping center. Merritt and SLSCO plan to build 50 apartments on that land to satisfy restrictive covenants imposed by the federal government — requirements that the developers replace affordable housing that once existed.

The downtrodden plaza was going to make it much harder to build and rent out new homes.

Now that Merritt has a master plan, and control of MLK Plaza, she's preparing to seek input on the project from neighbors. She secured predevelopment financing from Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit focused on affordable housing, upward mobility and racial equity.

"It's hard for me to even talk about this project without crying," she said, "because I just think people deserve better. Nothing against the pastor. He did the best he could with what he had. But when you have a whole community that's disinvested in, this is what happens."

The project is deeply personal for one member of Merritt's Cleveland team. So personal that Khrys Shefton, a senior development manager who joined Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures a year ago, did not share the backstory until after the acquisition closed.

"One of my father's first stores was at MLK Plaza," she told her boss during a Feb. 9 speaking event hosted by the women's leadership network of NAIOP Northern Ohio, a real estate trade group.

Shefton's father owned a Buster Brown shoe shop there in the property's heyday. The store didn't last. But the experience left a mark on her family.

Before her father died in 2021, he suffered from dementia, Shefton said during a subsequent interview. And the story he told and retold was about MLK Plaza, its tenants and its original role as a beacon for Black entrepreneurship.

"To be able to rebuild something that was meant for the advancement of Black people," she said, "that means so much."