Upstairs at Van Aken brings an urban living experience to suburban Shaker Heights

Community connectivity

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

Retired architect Richard Zingale had his eye on the Van Aken District from the get-go, when the mixed-use development that would take shape in Shaker Heights was little more than a combination of blueprints, conceptual renderings and big ideas.

Through personal and professional connections involved in the project from the early going – Zingale consulted with barber Chuck Falk on the design of the Eddy’s Barbershop that Falk opened at Van Aken – he was able to gain an insider’s perspective on the development. He liked what he saw. 

“I was able to see the project before they even put the first shovel in the ground. It had my interest immediately, and I followed it along through all of the stages of construction,” says the fit, kempt and fashionably bespectacled 67-year-old. 

It wasn’t only with a passing or even professional interest that Zingale kept tabs on Van Aken, however. At the same time, he and his spouse, neurologist Dr. Rob Wilson, and their son Zach Wilson – all members of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood – were looking for a new place to call home.

For about seven years, the trio had resided in a Moreland Courts condo in Shaker Heights that bordered Cleveland’s Shaker Square. Zingale and Wilson were in part interested in a more modern living space than the nearly 100-year-old Moreland Courts offered, and for Zach, whose bar mitzvah was this past spring and who’s entering young adulthood, they – and he – wanted to remain in Shaker Heights City School District.

Enter Upstairs at Van Aken, the official name given to the five-story, 103-unit residential space that’s literally upstairs from the retail, dining and business components that comprise the rest of Van Aken. Having long observed its progress, Zingale felt the time was right to invite his spouse and son for an Upstairs walk-through. They did so this past spring. 

“I brought them to see this unit, which was now completely finished, and we were like, ‘Whoa.’ The unit itself was very fetching,” recalls Zingale, noting its open design, commodious kitchen and attractive finishes. “And then we had a challenge because Zach is in the Shaker school system and it really agrees with him. The middle school is right up the street from here, and he can walk to school. … So, this checked a lot of boxes in a very major way.” 

The living room of Richard Zingale and Dr. Rob Wilson’s third-floor luxury apartment at Upstairs at Van Aken.

Amenities, programming stand out 

The family of three moved into Upstairs in late May – and they aren’t alone. Suggesting the RMS Investment Corp. development has been warmly welcomed to the neighborhood, Upstairs – which opened to residents slightly more than a year ago on Aug. 29, 2018 – is currently 99% full.

“We have a very diverse demographic of people,” says Jason Russell, Van Aken’s neighborhood general manager. “Some people are fresh out of college or a resident (doctor) at one of the hospitals. We have people who’ve downsized out of their homes – empty nesters. I think we truly have a wide range (of residents), which in many ways is reflective of the Shaker Heights community overall. It’s good to see, because a lot of new apartments in this region are typically (occupied by) younger folks.”

Between them, those residents occupy 67 one-bedroom and 36 two-bedroom units. The smallest space is a studio-style one-bedroom apartment at 559 square feet; the largest a two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom penthouse that occupies 1,949 square feet. Penthouses also feature a “flex room” that’s as large as a bedroom but doesn’t feature a closet as well as a private rooftop space. All told, there are 19 floor plans – all named after Shaker Heights streets or neighborhoods, like Zingale and Wilson’s “Moreland 2” floor plan – and prices range from about $1,200 to $6,600 per month.

Their dining room, adjacent to the living room, is part of the space’s open layout.

A “standard” finish at Upstairs, Russell says, means quartz countertops, a backsplash with dimensional tile, Whirlpool appliances and vinyl plank flooring, among other things. With each bump up in floor plan comes higher level finishes, and while specifics vary by plan, those upgrades take the form of higher-grade quartz, gas stoves instead of electric, kitchen islands with waterfall countertops, to name a few. In penthouses, which are on a secured floor, there are hardwood floors, wood cabinets, a higher ceiling, and in the master bathroom, there are heated marble floors.

Zingale and Wilson’s kitchen features an island with a waterfall countertop.

Other Upstairs features: a large community room residents can freely use or reserve for entertaining guests; a rooftop deck with grills available for cooking; reserved underground parking or free first-come, first-serve surface lot parking; storage rooms available for rent; and pet-friendliness, so long as the weight of that pet – or pets – stays below Upstairs’ 100-pound limit. 

Upstairs’ rooftop deck in part faces east, toward Warrensville Center Road.

But Upstairs’ biggest draw might be its location. For starters, it’s a public transportation hub, serving as a stop for three of the Greater Cleveland Rapid Transit Authority’s bus routes as well as its rapid transit Blue Line, which simplifies travel to downtown Cleveland while providing a distinctly urban appeal to living there.

More meaningfully, however, Van Aken’s location – in concert with how its operated and its mix of locally owned stores – is designed to cultivate community. 

“That local experience, it really plays out when you go to Market Hall,” Russell says. “Residents will stop in for their morning coffee or morning pastry and know everyone by name, and oh by the way, they’re talking to the owner when they come down here. I think that level of human interaction is what we’re losing in retail, frankly, and so having that experience where someone knows your name, you don’t have to say a word and the order just shows up – that’s an experience we provide here at Van Aken that I think puts us above our competitors.”

Programming is another draw. From weekly farmers markets to seasonal outdoor movie nights and beer gardens, Van Aken schedules events as diverse as its mix of residents and business tenants. It partnered with the Cleveland Flea over the summer, and this fall, Russell says Van Aken is partnering with ESPN Radio to host family-friendly tailgates during Cleveland Browns games. 

“A number of events are mostly family-friendly,” he says. “That’s our primary demographic here.” 

The community room is available for residents to use or reserve.

City living, suburban setting

That sense of community and the diverse programming play a large part in Zingale and Wilson’s overall satisfaction with living Upstairs. 

“It was so hopeful to see people come together in a public space like that – and they’re not necessarily shopping or anything, they’re just hanging out – when (elsewhere) you see everyone on their phone or on their computer, disengaged,” says the 52-year-old Wilson. “It’s very hopeful to see people engaged like that on a consistent basis, and I think that’s one of the most attractive things about Van Aken District.”

“What RMS has done – and very consistently – is programming,” Zingale adds. “The programming promotes community – and an emerging community, because I think it’s refinding itself. We’ll see what happens during the winter, but summer was all of this energy and activity.”

Zingale credits Van Aken’s early success to both Russell and Jon Ratner, president of RMS Investment Corp., which is headquartered at Van Aken.

“Jon Ratner is very present. He’s out and about, and he’s asking great questions. When Nature’s Oasis opened, he’d ask, ‘What do you think? Can you put a meal together in here?’” he says, referring to the all-natural foods market and cafe at Van Aken. “Jon is very visible.”

A Northeast Ohio native, Zingale lived in Tampa, Fla., for about 32 years prior to moving back to Cleveland – along with Wilson and Zach. When they left Florida, they moved out of a space on the 20th floor of a high rise in Tampa’s Hyde Park neighborhood, which he compared to Shaker Heights in that it offered an urban environment despite being outside of the city’s central business district. 

Signage welcomes residents and visitors to Upstairs.

Zingale says he’s drawn to the energy of vibrant public spaces and Van Aken meets his metropolitan needs.

“It’s probably one of the most urban spaces without being in the central business district. You have the opportunity to go down and get a coffee, you can go down and get a paper. Even in the secondary set of retail, which is across the tracks, there’s a wine shop, a Subway and a Donato’s Pizza. So, it’s an opportunity to walk to satisfy a lot of the domestic necessities throughout the day,” he says, recalling a recent walk to nearby Walgreens to pick up laundry detergent he hadn’t realized he’d run out of.

“I like meeting friends and family here for lunch and for dinner,” Zingale adds. “There’s a lot (to do) without having to get into a car.” 

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