Tuesday, June 07, 2011

What Will Become of the Columbia Building?

From greencitybluelake.com:

Not stuck between Rock Gaming and a hard place

The Cleveland Landmarks Commission and a contingent of the area’s most influential architecture and design professionals told Dan Gilbert’s Rock Gaming ... to go back to the drawing board with a garish garage and valet zone for his temporary Caeser’s casino. They found much to dislike in the proposal, which would have turned lower Prospect into a suburban style development with huge driveways, a Las Vegas-style glassy gift shop, a parking garage and walkway over the street that punctured through the Higbee building all while knocking down or altering historic buildings.

The City Planning Commission had approved the plan as it, but Landmarks and the design community agreed that Rock Gaming hadn’t done all of the due diligence it promised when it bought up a block of buildings on Ontario and the south side of Prospect that include the local historic landmarked Columbia building and proposed razing them for a four-lane valet drop off zone, a gift shop and a walkway that would enable about 350 of the casino’s highest rollers to cross the street without letting their Pradas touch the pavement.

The outpouring of support for a new plan that didn’t include demolition and creating a huge driveway zone on Prospect was an unexpected turn. It was a groundswell that included 360 CSU students who formed a Facebook group, calling themselves Save Lower Prospect Avenue. It included the Cleveland Coalition, a new group of young professionals who are advocating for better design choices such as the new Group Plan Commission, which recently released its report calling for more respect and a better pedestrian experience from Gateway to the Malls (a corridor that is dominated on Ontario by stadia and parking garages).

“We’re concerned that the valet area is not living up to Rock Gaming’s commitment to integrate the casino with the city and respect its downtown setting,” said Cleveland Coalition member David Jurca. “Lower Prospect is one of the best (pedestrian) scaled areas in the city. Demolishing the Columbia for a valet zone would create an 80-foot wide barrier. It proposes channelizing pedestrians in a walkway above the street and obliterating Higbee’s historic context. We don’t oppose a garage, but do it without demolishing a historic structure.”
That vision is backed by the Gateway Historic District’s Master Plan, said the business development group’s associate director, Tom Starinsky. “Our master plan shows those buildings being reused.” The group has helped developers such as the Marons turn historic E. 4th Street into a major regional attraction. Starinksy believes an alternative can be found, even on the same block, that could satisfy the needs of Caeser’s to provide very close parking. He said he hopes to work with the development team in the coming week – a reprieve the Landmarks Commission unanimously granted the Columbia, a handsome 1909 building considered in the Chicago style which most recently served as home to Dyke College.

The Columbia building was recently treated to a $9 million upgrade of its mechanical systems, said the building’s former manager, Gabe Singerman. “I spoke to (Forest City CEO) Albert Ratner who agreed the Columbia would make a great 83-room boutique hotel. I’m upset. I think you guys could do better for yourself.”

In tabling the decision to demolish the Columbia, which Gilbert purchased through parking lot magnate, Lou Frangos, the Landmarks Commission urged Rock Gaming to seek the consultation of non-profit Gateway Development to devise a plan that will satisfy the 350 high rollers (and Caeser’s formula that calls for a walkway no longer than 200 ft.) while keeping the city’s important landmarks intact.
There were some powerful forces working for the developer at the public meeting – the city’s top brass showed up, many for the first time in their decades long service, to apply pressure to Mayor Jackson’s appointees on Landmarks. The tactic seemed to backfire as Commission members admitted the move was intimidating. As Commission member and trial lawyer Thomas Coffey pointed out, “What strikes me is (the preservation and design advocates) are not approaching this like a bunch of trial lawyers. They’re saying, the plans can be done without losing this building.

“There has not been one change in (Rock Gaming’s) position even after hearing the distinguished pleas we’ve heard today. They don’t know who owns the May Company Garage (across the street), and is it possible to do a valet service there.

“They tried bringing in the big wheels, but I know the mayor. He’s a good man. I don’t think he’d want this to be rammed through. Gateway has done a lot to get down to the nitty gritty and make things happen. I don’t think they’ve been involved in the way they could.”
Gateway was involved in mediating a resolution to not demolish the 19th century Stanley building when it fell into dispute between Rock Gaming and a minority owner. But the Columbia was not part of Rock Gaming’s plan even though it’s in far better condition. The plans call for a three-lane valet exit – with two left lanes and one right turning lane onto Prospect – the zone doesn’t connect to the North Gateway Garage where the majority of casino customers would park.

Commission member and Cleveland councilman Anthony Brancatelli mentioned at the tabling that a decision on a tax abatement in the form of a TIFF on the parking garage awaits approval from City Council at its June 6 session. Commission member and Cleveland Planning Director Bob Brown remarked that if the commission didn’t ask the applicant to go back to the drawing board officially within 45 days of the original review (which occurred two weeks ago), the project will automatically get approved (as happened with the Humphrey Mansion demolition at Euclid Beach).

Among the impassioned pleas to save the Columbia, Cleveland resident, urban planner and west side design review member Mandy Metcalf said the landmark designation was enacted for exactly this reason. “The Columbia takes up a small footprint (on the overall property). The Valet lanes could be incorporated into the (North Gateway) garage. We could make it comfortable to walk down the street” (ironically, with a tenant in the Columbia Building).

Rose Androtti recited a letter from the American Institute of Architects Cleveland Chapter, which opposes the demolition. “It would further erode the fabric of the historic district. We support the development of the casino, but the city has already lost lots of important buildings.”
Jane Busch of the Cleveland Restoration Society testified against the demolition, saying, “in rare instances a landmark building is sacrificed for the greater good, but all those options have not been explored. The Columbia is an important remnant of the streetscape which already lost its neighbors the Marine Buildings and the Mechanic’s Block.”

Downtown resident Brad Chase asked that the project go back to the drawing board because it didn’t support a pedestrian environment for the downtown residents like him and his family. “I’m appalled by the proposal to take down this building. I ask that this project go back to the drawing board. Taking this building down is not an improvement to making Cleveland a walk-able and bike-able and family safe environment.”

Gregory Soltis testified on behalf of the 360 members of the Save Lower Prospect Avenue group. “There are too many holes already in our city. It makes me sad to see the giant hole (surface parking lots) in the middle of the Warehouse District. It’s time to start acting like we deserve this. We can demand good design. Knocking down a building for a parking garage is not respect.”