Client: Gina Merritt, founder of Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures
Client Location: Cleveland, OH
CDFI: Cleveland Development Advisors
CDFI Service Area: Ohio
Financing for property acquisition, with support from the Finance Justice Fund
Built in 1972 as one of the first projects built after Cleveland’s Hough Riots, Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza was meant to serve as a beacon of progress for Black entrepreneurship and the rebuilding of the Hough community. Over time, however, widespread disinvestment in the neighborhood eroded retail, leaving the shopping center largely vacant.
When developer Gina Merritt looked at the vacant, once-bustling plaza with a fresh set of eyes, she saw possibilities for economic empowerment for individuals and Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs. She noted there was a market rate development in the area, but most of the people in the community couldn’t live in those developments because they were too expensive.
In response, Merritt’s company, Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures, LLD paid $2.75 million to purchase the plaza for redevelopment in early 2023. They plan to tear down the current structure and build a new mixed-use, mixed-income project in a series of buildings. Merritt is projecting to start the construction phase of the first building by 2025.
The first phase of development will include 89 residential units and 6,700 square feet of commercial space for tenants. The second phase will include 60 one-and two-bedroom units and 7,500 square feet of commercial space. The project will have a community ownership model, offering residents and business owners the opportunity to buy shares in the development.
Cleveland Development Advisors (CDA), the real estate investment arm of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, helped make the project possible with a $25,000 grant in 2022 and a subsequent $1.5 million low-interest acquisition loan.
“We believe this [more infusions of private capital for nearby projects] will happen around the reimagined MLK Plaza,” said Yvette Ittu, president of CDA. “This project will have a ripple effect in this community uplifting a distressed area and this investment will pay off both with near-term and future social, economic, and physical community improvements.”
The development’s market hall will create affordable spaces for about a dozen small Black-owned businesses to operate. That investment supports the business community and generates additional investment. Merritt also has a partnership with Cuyahoga Community College’s entrepreneurship program and will provide support for dozens more Black-owned businesses through a pitch competition, helping to create generational wealth.
“If it was not for CDA, I would not have been able to take down this property,” said Merritt. “They recognized the potential of this project and believed in our work from the very beginning. They wanted to facilitate rather than creating the typical obstacles that I had encountered in the past with more traditional lenders. The grant was a true catalyst for my work in Cleveland.”
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