Throughout his 35 years as a developer, Robert Stark has masterminded neighborhood shopping centers of various sizes. But the president of Cleveland-based Stark Enterprises has shifted the rudder at his firm. From now on, Stark pledges the company will focus exclusively on “community cores” — a mixed-use concept that Stark ambitiously hopes will eventually reshape U.S. cities and keep the United States competitive in a rapidly shifting global economy.

The developer describes the concept as “a mixed-use neighborhood with a mission.” That mission is to combine all the aspects of modern city or suburban life in one area with as much density and as many varied purposes as possible. The goal is to generate vitality and energy, attracting more people and further boosting the dynamism in a loop of positive feedback.

The community cores go beyond run-of-the-mill mixed-use developments in several ways. The projects should be at least six city blocks in size and must be situated at the crossroads of a community's main thoroughfare — which by necessity makes a community core an in-fill development, Stark says. Depending on circumstances, cores may be suitable to exurbs and inner-ring suburbs as well as downtown areas.

On the horizon for Stark is a far more ambitious and grand-scale element of that legacy. Stark Enterprises is planning to revitalize downtown Cleveland with a massive redevelopment of its warehouse district. The project's total size will range from three million to five million square feet, featuring a roughly even mix of office, retail, residential and hotel space. The Warehouse District will cost $1.5 billion, but that doesn't include future potential expansions. The first phase will cost $450 million.

Stark calls it the “SoHo of the Midwest,” except he hopes it will surpass SoHo by presenting a greater mix of uses in a denser footprint. The area will feature the community core's typical short blocks and walkable streets, while holding on to some of the old warehouses that suggest the city's history. Buildings in the interior of the development will average eight stories in height, but some structures on the perimeter will reach 25 stories to help establish the district's boundaries.

Defining the core

What qualities must community cores embody? Preferably, projects should sit on intersections of Main and Main, not just of a town or city, but of an entire region. Stark says community cores should serve the region's needs by providing retail, office space, residential units and facilities devoted to the arts, higher education facilities and health and wellness. High-density, vertical stacking and an eye toward self-containment cement the mix.

Stark points out that retail does not draw foot traffic — rather, the reverse is true. “The sheer demand or presence of population, of pedestrian activity, is the raison d'être for retail to be there…. It's a flip.”

The developer's focus on elements beyond retail “is right on the money,” says Ralph Ireland, executive vice president of development with Steiner + Associates in Columbus, Ohio. Ireland says his firm's approach to mixed use, which they call “new town centers” rather than community cores, shares much in common with Stark's — in fact, Steiner's group even uses examples of Stark's work in their presentations.

Their mixed-use developments stand apart, Ireland says, because they feature elements other than retail that drive traffic, such as arts centers and libraries. Likewise, apartments and condos are expensive to build but are key to the developments, Ireland says. “It's not a decision you make because it's going to make you a lot of money,” he says. “You make that decision because it's the right thing to do for the environment you're creating.”

Equally important is the core's appeal to office workers. Stark believes that today's employees in their 20s and 30s appreciate the options of leaving the office to work on their laptops in the park or arranging meetings at sidewalk cafes rather than in boardrooms.

In developing the community core concept, Stark says he was inspired by the example of European cities that began rebuilding their urban centers in the 1980s. Ultimately, his goal is to help American cities compete in the global economy with those cities in Europe and around the world. North America is suffering from a “malaise” brought about by its urban infrastructure becoming obsolete, he says, and he fears that the United States will fall behind if it does not adapt.

Yet, Stark also approaches his work and ideas from an artistic, even humanist perspective. He studied literature in college and considers himself a “poet/developer.” When asked which poet would be his closest analogue, he answered, “Any existentialist will do, because it all really boils down to a greater sense of purposefulness.”

Cores going large scale

Crocker Park, a growing mixed-use development in Westlake, Ohio, about 15 miles west of Cleveland, serves as what Stark calls the “laboratory” for the community core approach. The 75-acre, $480 million development opened in 2004. It takes up 12 city blocks and sits between two east-west thoroughfares, Interstates 90 and 480.

Stark's firm has begun a two-block, $75 million expansion at Crocker Park, which will include two parks. That, however, is just the beginning of a much larger $250 million expansion that will eventually double the development's size. Crocker Park will grow to include a hotel, a permanent outdoor farmers' market, and facilities for a University of Phoenix outpost and a local community college, as well as additional retail, residential units and office space. Stark hopes to break ground on the expansion next spring. The developer considers Crocker Park a success, pointing to the rental rates on residential units that he says are 50 percent higher than the highest rents elsewhere in the area.

Crocker Park is also noteworthy for drawing visitors from throughout the Cleveland market, says John Eisen, managing principal with StreetSense in Bethesda, Md. And Stark's community core projects stand out among mixed-use developments, Eisen says, for the complexity of their vertical integration and for the political hoops Stark had to jump through to get them built.

That Stark was able to see Crocker Park through is a testament to his enthusiasm and devotion, Eisen says. “The guy is really loaded with intensity and commitment to what he does, and he's about legacy, too,” he says.

A promotional write-up on Stark Enterprises' Web site echoes the developer's characteristically grand and sweeping terms for his vision. “It is a transformation so powerful and well orchestrated that it will generate the energy to change attitudes and perceptions; it will impact the economy the moment it is activated. Time is of the essence; the competition around the world is not waiting for us,” it reads.

Stark expects the Cleveland City Council to approve the project in May, giving him the green flag. He hopes to begin leasing real estate at RECon and break ground on the district project next spring. If all goes according to plan, the first phase would open in 2011.

Meanwhile, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, has also hired Stark Enterprises to consult on a development, and the developer is eying another project somewhere in Kentucky — he won't disclose where.

MANAGEMENT OFFICE

PROBLEM:

Robert Stark saw the design of American cities becoming obsolete and feared U.S. urban centers would lose ground against redeveloping cities around the globe.

SOLUTION:

Stark developed a form of mixed-use development that he calls the “community core,” which strategically positions large multiuse properties in the middle of their regions. The dense, vertically integrated developments blend a wide range of uses to create a dynamic, diverse atmosphere.

BUZZ:

Stark is expanding Crocker Park, his signature development in Westlake, Ohio, and is poised to break ground on a massive overhaul of Cleveland's historic warehouse district.

DATA:

Crocker Park will eventually double in size to 24 city blocks with a price tag of about $800 million. Stark's warehouse district project will cover upwards of 5 million square feet, at a cost of about $1.5 billion.