It's a beautiful, crisp spring day at the West Side Market. The sun is shining, the leaves are budding on the trees and everyone's happy. Except those two guys fighting over parking, leaning out the windows of their cars and spewing vitriol at each other.
"Asshole!," a middle-aged guy in a minivan yells at a pickup-truck driver who cut him off.
Welcome to Saturday morning at Cleveland's venerable, 102-year-old public market, where parking problems are so pronounced, grown men are having fits of road rage.
The market has always been busy on Saturdays. Yet recently, thanks to the popularity of this institution and businesses on West 25th Street, the neighborhood has a parking crunch like, um, a real city. It's not uncommon to see cars circling the lot in an endless shuffle, then returning to the street to look for a spot somewhere else. Or, one would surmise, they head back to the freeway and hop on back to wherever they came from.
In short, the market's success has become its problem. Yet addressing the challenges has proved to be elusive so far. The market's greatest strength – its history as a local institution, part of our shared heritage as Clevelanders – also makes it a place that's stubbornly slow to embrace change. And while no one wants it to become a cheesy tourist trap selling T-shirts and tchotchkes, no one wants it to be irrelevant, either.
"Why change?" some would argue. The market is fine. It attracts a million visitors a year and vendors say sales are still rising in the wake of the centennial. That sentiment overlooks the fact that there are plenty of challenges here, as well. Beyond the parking problem, which vendors say is No. 1, the buildings have a backlog of repairs. And then there are the shoppers who bitch about rotten produce, and plenty of others who say the hours are inconvenient. Others ask: Why aren't there more local foods?
That last frustration came to a head recently in a blog post entitled "Cleveland West Side Market: The Dinosaur in the Room" that was shared a gazillion times on Facebook.
"Yes, the market is a great place for cheap produce and affordable meat options," wrote Jason Burchaski on 52 Weeks of Cleveland. "However, the market is stuck in a time warp, minus a couple new specialty shops and those who choose to sell organic produce, local produce, and farm-raised meats. The problem is the latter are few and far between, with many vendors selling absolute garbage that might have fallen off the truck. I say it is time the market cleans up before it goes the way of the dinosaur."
Eric Wobser, current executive director of Ohio City Incorporated (OCI), a nonprofit group whose mission is to guide the area's redevelopment, who just announced he's taken a job as Sandusky's city manager and will begin his new position as soon as next month, agrees changes are needed.
"I'm always worried about the market's long-term future," he admits. "I think the vendors realize they can take advantage of being an iconic, historic place, hold onto what's great about the past without being beholden to it, and transition to a successful future."
Embracing change may be what helps the West Side Market enjoy another successful 100 years. Here are five changes to look out for in Cleveland's beloved public market.
Fixing the parking crunch
City officials are working on a plan to consolidate and redevelop the West Side Market lots and probably charge for parking. Details of the plan could be announced this year.
The parking problem at the market is not new. There are two lots here, the main lot and the Hick's lot, both of them free. The city, which owns the market, proposed a plan to install ticket booths and charge a modest fee of two dollars per hour a few years ago. Spaces would turn over more quickly, and shoppers could park 90 minutes for free.
Yet the idea didn't go over so well. The vendors' association, which has a lease on the parking lot that expires in August, shot down the plan in rather dramatic, public fashion.
"We've lasted 100 years without their intervention," Vince Bertonaschi, an old-school butcher who's been a market veteran for decades, told the Plain Dealer. "They're not interested in helping us last the way we are. We are the West Side Market that won the awards because we're still an old-fashioned market. If you want to turn this into a concession stand, then tell us, and maybe we should pack up and go home."
Bertonaschi, known as a bulldog who helped get the city's attention, was afraid charging for parking would keep customers away. Yet under the current system, visitors who grab a pint of beer on West 25th can park all day for free – without buying so much as a smokie. So it would seem that having free parking isn't helping vendors much, either.
Bertonaschi is no longer president of the vendors' association. While the new president, Tommy Boutros, also doesn't support charging for parking, he's less adversarial and sees the writing on the wall. "No one wants to pay, but it's not up to us," he says.
Other market vendors that Scene spoke with say paid parking is a fine idea. "We've been fighting for traditions that aren't necessarily good traditions," says Bob Holcepl, owner of City Roast. "I think it would be okay to charge people something for parking."
City officials are now moving ahead on a plan to consolidate the two parking lots and close part of West 24th Street to improve the traffic flow. This project would create at least 150 additional parking spaces, possibly more. The city secured $500,000 from the Ohio EPA for green infrastructure and has committed $1.2 million from its own budget. The total cost is about $2.9 million, and officials are now looking for other sources of money.
As of now, city officials remain mum on whether they'll charge for parking. Wobser also says nothing's finalized, but hints at changes ahead: "We're working out rates and how it will be managed, but there has to be some mechanism to turn over parking. I think you'll see a lot of changes over the next 12 to 24 months that are forward thinking."