Written by William Marthaller
If you walk around downtown Cleveland, Ohio, you will be struck by the city’s impressive and beautiful historic buildings, evidence of the vast wealth that was once concentrated there. You will also notice many empty spaces largely devoid of pedestrians, the result of years of disregard for the city’s history and urban fabric in favor of cars and parking lots. Of course today we lament the loss of these structures and the dead zones that such poor planning has helped to create. Certainly we have learned our lesson, right?
Downtown Cleveland will soon be home to a new casino, a portion of which will occupy the historic and beautiful Higbee Department Store building- part of the impressive Terminal Tower complex on Public Square. The casino’s developer, Dan Gilbert (Rock Gaming) sold his vision to the public and downtown business owners with promises to integrate the casino into the existing fabric of the city and respect the downtown setting, vowing not to create a self contained “bunker” which would provide little benefit to downtown, and likely hurt street life and nearby entertainment areas.
Somehow in the process of planning and design for the casino, this promise has been forgotten. Gilbert and Rock Ventures have now applied for a demolition permit to remove the historic Columbia Block and replace it with a parking structure to service the new casino. The Columbia Block was constructed in 1908-1909 by a Great Lakes shipbuilder and was the first multi-story reinforced concrete building in Cleveland. The building became a Cleveland Landmark in 1982.
The plan also incorporates a pedestrian bridge which would awkwardly cut diagonally across this important intersection and slice into the National Register-listed Higbee Building. The casino developers insist that the pedestrian bridge and parking within 200 feet is necessary so that VIP’s have a good first impression and don’t have to go outside to enter the casino.
When the casino proposal came before the City Planning Commission it was approved with strong support from the Mayor. This Thursday, June 9th, the Cleveland Landmarks Commission will consider Rock Gaming’s request to demolish the Columbia Block. Despite the outcry from preservationists and neighborhood groups, it does not appear that the Casino has considered all viable alternatives to their plan. There are thousands of parking spaces within a 2 block radius of this particular site, so it’s hard to believe that all options have been exhausted and the city can justify the demolition of yet another historic building.
It’s understandable that the city is hungry for this investment, but it shouldn’t come at such a great cost to the historic character and the future appeal of downtown. If the Columbia Block is lost, yet another piece of Cleveland’s urban fabric will be gone forever, and the area’s pedestrian character will be badly damaged. Instead, with effort and sensitivity, the Casino‘s investment in downtown Cleveland could serve as an example of urban connectivity and reuse in an area with great potential.
William Marthaller is a Grants Manager at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He is a native and proud cheerleader of Cleveland, Ohio.