Little Italy investments seek balance between history, future of neighborhood

CLEVELAND, Ohio — It’s one of Cleveland’s oldest neighborhoods, but even Little Italy isn’t immune to change. Development and new investment in the historic district have been welcomed by some and skeptically received by others who worry about damaging the neighborhood’s character.

“The experience is incredible. It’s just old buildings, narrow streets,” said Joe Starvaggi of Little Italy’s characteristic nostalgia.

Starvaggi is the third generation of his family to run Mama Santa’s on Mayfield Road. The family-owned restaurant is a popular mainstay on Little Italy’s main drag.

“Once you come here and try our food, we’ll probably see you again,” Starvaggi said.

The eatery is flanked by other longtime businesses. But there have been recent newcomers welcomed into the established mix.

“They’re loving our steaks. Our tomahawks and bistecca florentines are flying off the shelf,” said Ryan O’Driscoll, the executive chef at Tutto Carne.

The boutique Italian steakhouse moved into a historic property on Murray Hill in mid-May

“They’ve welcomed us with open arms,” O’Driscoll said of neighbors and the business community.

Other new investments have been greeted with some doubt. In recent years, new high-density housing has moved into the neighborhood. The latest proposed project is a three-story, 14-unit apartment building on the corner of Cornell and Random roads. The facility would replace two early 20th Century homes.

“I’m really hesitant to demolish historic existing structures in an historic area,” said Cleveland Landmarks Commission member Michele Anderson during a presentation of the project at a Landmarks Commission meeting this past spring.

Developers of the project explained during the meeting that the existing structures are in poor condition and would be more expensive to renovate than raze and build anew.

They have changed the design several times based on community and Commission feedback to make it more cohesive with its surroundings. Unlike some of its modern neighbors, the building proposal features multi-level decks and gable roofs, similar to what can be found on the neighborhood’s older properties.

“We’re using that mix of materials to help be a part of the neighborhood, but also give a sense of scale to our project as well,” said Kevin Oliver of Oliver Architecture during the late April Landmarks Commission meeting.

The high-density housing would accommodate the needs of many nearby Case Western students, but some hope it doesn’t come at the cost of the neighborhood’s character.

“Don’t knock down everything and make it brand spanking new because then you do lose too much history,” said recent CWRU grad Jess Xiaolong, who lives in a nearby rental home. “But depending on how much and who it’s affecting, a building here and there isn’t terrible.”

Some longtime residents in the neighborhood are resistant to changes, but others point out thoughtful investment is critical to any community’s future.

“Some older folks maybe don’t like the new changes, just because they’re so used to their neighborhood for so long. They don’t want to see anything really change. I understand where they’re coming from, but some change is really necessary,” Starvaggi said. “But old vacant buildings should be replaced. A little change is not bad.”

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