Monday, April 02, 2007

CoolCleveland: "Cleveland State University Works to Transform Its Soviet Block"

Great Article from Lee in CoolCleveland last week. I can testify to the great things happening here and I can add, you ain't seen anything yet. The university will be updating their master plan later this year once the College of Education and Student Center are out of the schematic design process. Some likely additions to the updated master plan might include a new building for the College of Science and an expansion of the College of Urban Affairs. Of course, all of this depends on private funding.

Cleveland State University Works to Transform Its Soviet Block

“We are like a city of 20,000 residents,” says Boyle, the Senior VP of Business Development for CSU. “We have to create demand on our campus for housing and other amenities, and then show others that the demand is there.”

Boyle led CSU’s Master Plan efforts, completed in 2004, and three years later, the $250 million investment is beginning to show – a new, landscaped plaza by the student center, a green-built rec center, five hundred new dorm rooms in Fenn Tower.

We are standing by the student plaza, which is situated between Euclid and Chester Avenues at the heart of campus. A redesign has broken up the once barren concrete into a softer, more inviting green, a landscape of shrubs, flowerbeds and paving stones. The plaza has the laid-back feel of a college quad – a stark contrast to the grey, prison-like buildings around it.

Plaza renovations included taking down a stand of trees, opening up the vista to downtown Cleveland. When CSU was founded in the 1960s, the defensive style of campus architecture (a trademark of Urban Renewal, more Soviet than Socratic) walled off the campus from the city. The new Master Plan has unveiled a visceral connection to downtown, a metaphor for changes at work here.

With the Euclid Corridor project taking shape just beyond its sidewalks, the campus these days is filled with hard hats, cranes and orange barrels. Yet how long will it take CSU, given limited capital dollars and flat enrollment, to make a dent in the project “wish list” of its ambitious Master Plan? And how will CSU attract the private investment needed (bars, restaurants, retail and apartments) to complement its Master Plan, turning the “collegetown” idea into a reality?

Some area business owners express skepticism, even as they back CSU’s efforts to remake itself. “Our business is hurting,” says Dave Kaufman, co-owner of Brothers Printing, which has been on Euclid Ave., across from the CSU campus, since 1974. “CSU was inward-thinking for so long. They built these tunnels that take people off the street; there’s no one on Euclid anymore. But the Master Plan is definitely an improvement, and Schwartz is doing a good job. The construction isn’t helping – but I see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

No master developer has stepped up to redevelop Euclid between East 18th and 24th Streets, and that makes CSU’s “big bet” at redeveloping its campus seem more challenging. Planners dream of a “collegetown” here – older office buildings turned into market-rate apartments, restaurants and retail buzzing below.

“We’ve got 15,000 students across the street,” says Bill Beckenbach, Director of the Quadrangle Development Corp. “Something’s gotta happen here.” He says that 1900 Euclid Avenue, a conversion of a former office building to eighty plus apartments, has done well. Hopefully, he says, this will encourage others.

During a recent tour of the 1900 Euclid Lofts, Rachel Holden, Assistant Property Manager for Somerville Development, cited twelve vacant units out of about eighty. At points, she said, vacancy has hovered at just 3-5 percent. The one and two bedroom suites here offer lake and city views from the upper floors; most contain tall ceilings, fireplaces and in-suite laundry. Tenants park in an attached garage. As far as plans to redevelop the area around the property, Holden says she “hears rumors, but it’s taken a long time” for plans to materialize.

Despite these challenges, Boyle argues that the Master Plan has already changed CSU’s image: “Previously, the high school juniors would come with their parents, and all we could show them was an old Holiday Inn we’d converted to housing [Viking Hall] and Rascal House with its mediocre pizza. Now, we can show them the new housing on campus, the rec center and downtown. They say, ‘Whoah, this is something I want to consider.’”

Ed Mills, CSU’s Chief Enrollment Officer, agrees. “The developments on campus, especially the rec center and Fenn Tower, are making a positive impression on visitors,” he says. Mills cites a bump in applications from full-time students that want to live on campus, as well as students who are from outside of Northeast Ohio. The new developments, he says, have also helped to attract parents of full-time students who want their freshman son or daughter to live on campus.

Terry Schwartz of Kent State University’s Urban Design Center, which helped CSU to develop its Master Plan, says that CSU’s efforts to “turn its campus inside out” and “engage the campus with the community” are part of a national trend. “Cities are figuring out how to partner with universities to leverage resources,” she says, “and universities are realizing they have to fish or cut bait on urban areas.” One of the most notable examples in our region is Ohio State University’s redevelopment of High Street in Columbus. In University Circle, Case Western is working to redevelop the intersection of Ford and Euclid.

With President Michael Schwartz at the helm, CSU has also launched an effort to improve its rankings, and to restructure admissions so that students are of a higher caliber. By doing so, the university hopes to boost its four-year-student population, creating the critical mass needed to spur private development.

Two other examples of completed building projects are the rec center and Fenn Tower. According to Boyle, the rec center, funded mostly by student parking fees, is used by about 700 people per day. CSU is applying for a “LEED Silver” rating because it’s a green building. The exterior design blends a red, collegiate brick with metal windows that are more urban in feel. Set almost to the edge of the street, the oversized, floor to ceiling windows allow a visual interaction between occupants and passers-by. Inside, the workout areas are positioned to capture views of downtown and Lake Erie. Placed along Chester at the campus’s eastern edge, it’s a vivid symbol of CSU’s new image.

Another change on campus is Fenn Tower. One of the few scraps of historic fabric left on campus, the building’s exterior, lobby and ballrooms have been restored, and the rest converted to 438 beds of student housing. These rooms are ninety percent full. With the addition of Fenn, CSU’s housing supply has doubled from 500 to 950 beds. Other features of this Art Deco gem include two gorgeous ballrooms, three new classrooms and a computer lab. Boyle, who sees demand for another 500 rooms, wants to add convenience retail to the lobby.

Student fees, parking revenues and state funds are paying for these campus improvements. The state provides about $6.5 million per year for capital projects. CSU has used some of its future state allocations, issuing bonds to pay for projects, then paying those bonds back once the state issues funding. Research suggests that older campuses across the nation face similar challenges – many are scrambling to update classrooms and dorms for today’s students, and like CSU, they are taking on capital projects in the face of limited dollars.

Projects in the works include a new administration building on Euclid, and the restoration of Howe Mansion, one of the original “Millionaire’s Row” mansions, as offices and conference space. These projects are across from Fenn Tower and next to Trinity Commons, where a few years ago Trinity Cathedral developed a coffee shop/cafe, religious bookstore and fair trade gift store.

Boyle hopes to secure a pub/restaurant for the ground floor of these buildings. “The major competition we’ll have is people brown-bagging their lunches,” he says, due to the lack of restaurants on campus. It will have outdoor seating in an attractive courtyard – something of a novelty in a university known for its above-ground tunnels. The new admin buildings will also move the President from the relative seclusion of his Rhodes Tower perch to a more visible, public office.

The Howe restoration is a story in and of itself. This spacious brick home, though not as grand as another landmark restored by CSU, Mather Mansion, was in need of renovation when the university bought it years ago. The boarded-up building just sat there, however, until the Master Plan led CSU to the idea of developing a “front-office” complex on Euclid. Getting there wasn’t easy.

“Have you ever seen the movie ‘The Money Pit’?” Hugh Holley, the Construction Manager with CSU in charge of the project, asks me during a tour. “Some days, renovating this house feels a bit like that. I wonder if we should have just taken a match to it! But in the end, I think it’ll be worth it.”

The Howe renovation preserved the historic wood paneling, an ornate wooden banister, and five of the original nine fireplaces. Contractors installed new wood windows, and re-created some of the historic cove ceilings. In essence, a new building was created inside of an old shell. Both the Howe Mansion and the new admin building will be heated by a geothermal system. It will draw heat from hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface via an elaborate system of heat pumps. Since CSU owns both buildings, they will realize the energy savings. Holley says engineers estimate the payback at 7-10 years.

Other projects that are funded but still in the pipeline include a new College of Education beside Fenn Tower, a glassy entrance to Marshall Law School, and a new student center. The latter is a centerpiece. The CSU “Cage” – a glass and steel monolith that Boyle describes as having “the acoustics of an echo chamber” and as “a nightmare to heat and cool” – will be torn down and replaced. CSU will build a larger bookstore within the center, accessible to people living or working downtown as well as students. They will also consolidate food services there.

According to the Master Plan, this is just the beginning. Terry Schwartz describes the larger goals that will shape CSU’s development plans as concentrating campus activities between Chester and Euclid, developing housing to the north and south, and consolidating parking in multi-level structures, thus freeing up land for development. Other goals include preserving historic buildings, making north-south streets easier to navigate and more pedestrian friendly and creating connections between the convocation center and Euclid. Long-term projects include reusing land freed up by the Innerbelt project, and creating a “Varsity Village” that will enhance CSU’s sports identity and create a new residential community around the athletic fields, between Chester and Payne Aves.

Though CSU’s investments will hopefully act as a catalyst, time will tell whether private developers take the bait. Currently, the buildings on Euclid between East 18th and 24th are concentrated among three owners – Heartland Developers, Brothers Printing, and Gus Frangos. Heartland Developers is a Shaker Heights developer well-known for building townhomes and condos in the city and inner-ring suburbs; Frangos is an attorney and parking lot owner.

“Brothers Printing is an amateur developer, Heartland has not moved on their project yet, and Frangos is primarily a parking lot owner,” says Beckenbach, who could not say when the “collegetown” project would be launched.

Mark Priemer of Heartland Developers describes Euclid Ave. between East 18th and 24th as a “superblock” with great potential, but says that Heartland is still in a “holding period” of waiting for the Euclid Corridor project to be completed. In the meantime, they are putting together plans for the building, which is slated for a residential use, either apartments or for-sale condominiums.

Regardless of how quickly the private sector follows CSU’s lead, evident in the battery of cranes and dumptrucks on campus is the patient turning of dull, gray concrete into something more interesting – and sometimes beautiful.

“These buildings are poured-in-place concrete, so they’re tough to change or demolish; it’s a bit like putting lipstick on a pig,” Terry Schwartz says wryly. “For years, CSU has been moving people from the parking lot, to the classroom, and back to the parking lot again. We’re trying to get beyond that bunker mentality.”

From Cool Cleveland contributor Lee Chilcote

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Page last modified on March 27, 2007, at 10:17 AM