Empty nesters, professionals and families flocking to Duck Island

With unmet demand for custom, for-sale housing on the west side and in downtown Cleveland, Duck Island has become a hot area for new housing starts in the city of Cleveland.

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Duck Island, a tucked-away corner of the west side that reputedly got its name because criminals “ducked” here when hiding from the police, was once a part of Cleveland where ambitious development plans went to die. Yet in the past 10 years, with unmet demand for custom, for-sale housing on the west side and downtown, Duck Island has become a hot area for new housing starts in the city of Cleveland.  

Matt Berges, a developer who specializes in energy-efficient homes and lives with his family in the neighborhood, has built 45 custom homes here in the past decade. He has a similar amount planned. Other developers, including Knez Homes, Civic Builders and Sam McNulty of Market Garden Brewery, have also built homes in the area, which is sequestered along the side streets off of Abbey Road and nestled in between Ohio City and Tremont.

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The result has been a wholesale transformation of the area of older homes and empty lots into a densely-built community with a mix of old and new. The construction activity has driven up prices for empty lots, which often go for $75,000 or $100,000, and tipped custom home prices well above $500,000.

The area’s appeal, of course, is its close proximity to amenities like downtown, the West Side Market and the Towpath Trail as well as its stunning views of the industrial Cuyahoga Valley and the downtown skyline. Yet beyond this, Berges said homebuyers are also drawn to the opportunity to custom-build a home in the city.  

“We’re getting our share of empty nesters moving in from the suburbs (giving up their larger houses), but we are also getting quite a few first time or second time home buyers,” he said in an email, stressing that the limited supply of lots in the area has driven up demand. “It’s really hard to find 4 or 5-bedroom houses in the city, but we have families with four kids, parents that work from home, and families with multiple generations in one house. So, lots of our newer homes are being built with a ground-floor bedroom, whether it be for a spare, a home office, or for aging in place.”

Antonin Robert, president of community development for GBX Group in the Campus District, moved to a newly-built home in Duck Island earlier this year. He and his wife wanted to downsize, so they ditched their larger, suburban home in Concord Township after their three kids went off to college and graduate school. “We wanted to be close to everything that downtown has to offer, and to be in a walkable area,” said Robert.

The Antonins custom-built a new, four bedroom home on West 18th Street, joining a small community of empty nesters, professionals and young families living there. They traded in their larger vehicles for smaller ones that fit in their new, compact urban garage. During non-Covid times, Roberts’ new home also scaled down his commute considerably, and in the summer, he and his wife ride their ebikes on the Towpath.

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There’s a need for development that caters to the needs of empty nesters, he said. “There’s a large amount of empty nesters who want to be downtown, but Cleveland doesn’t have the product to meet their needs,” he said. “Everything we looked at (before custom-building their home) was a little smaller than we needed. We’ve got three kids in college and graduate school, so we still see them coming home and we knew that we needed more space.”

One advantage of living here is that the homes are low-maintenance, and an association takes care of cutting the grass. Yet perhaps the best part is the views and proximity to everything the city has to offer. “We go out on our back deck and have a view of the Guardians (of Traffic) with the city in the background,” said Robert. “We can see the fireworks at Progressive Field. At night, we look out at the colors of the city. Our backyard is the city.”

The area has also afforded opportunities for inter-generational living. Chris Tudico, director of college counseling and alumni advising at St. Martin DePorres High School in Cleveland, bought a home here with his wife in 2017 after renting in Tremont and Ohio City for five years. The couple has two young children, and Tudico’s parents live in an in-law suite in the basement.

When friends ask him where he lives, Robert says he often doesn’t say Duck Island because people don’t know what he’s talking about. “Sometimes I say Tremont, sometimes I say Ohio City,” he said.

At the end of the day, neighborhood boundaries don’t matter much. He simply enjoys being part of the central city. “I see myself as part of a broader downtown,” he said.

Berges is currently working on several new developments, including new homes at West 20th and Follett in the $400,000’s. While this price point is on the higher end, it’s an opportunity for younger professionals and families who want to build a custom home that meets their needs. “We have the ability to match the home to the situation you have. We’re going to continue to work to find additional sites, keep it going and offer custom options.”

Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.

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