Gambling With Cleveland's History

Posted on: June 8th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 6 Comments

Written by William Marthaller

The Columbia Building is at risk for demolition to build a new parking garage. (Photo: Cleveland Landmarks Commission)

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.

Plans to spear the historic Higbee Building with a pedestrian bridge from the new parking garage. (Click image to enlarge)

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.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.


6 Responses

  1. Robert B. Hurd

    June 8, 2011

    Spent a few days in downtown Cleveland this past March.
    What a valuable collection of historic commercial architecture.
    Do not stand by and allow its erosion and destruction!

  2. Sarah Greenberg

    June 8, 2011

    I am also a native and proud cheerleader of Cleveland, Ohio, and a former employee of the National Trust. I’m outraged by how the developers have changed their tune, and stunned that this plan got past the Mayor and Planning Commission. Thank you William for this thoughtful piece. Hopefully by bringing more national attention to this issue they will feel pressure to find a better solution before it’s too late for yet another piece of Cleveland’s history.

  3. Catherine Crawford

    June 8, 2011

    I was the 5th generation born in Cleveland and have roots back to Marietta in 1788. I am a great granddaughter of James A. Braden, founder of Braden-Sutphen Ink. I am a great niece of William Alfred Bohnard, a highly regarded Cleveland architect in the late 1890s to 1930. He formed Bohnard and Parsson and designed many of these fine buildings! It saddens me terribly to see such a marvelous and memory-filled city in such decline. I know live in Philadelphia which has been wrestling with the casino issue for sometime. What a stupid and short-sighted way to make a few bucks – and ruin history and culture. I pray someone stops the destruction of the architectural gems in Cleveland – including the raiding by the Cleveland Clinic!

  4. Michelle Stanifer

    June 9, 2011

    Here! Here! Canterine Crawford! Our great-grandfathers must have known each other, as mine, John Moore, was the contractor responsible for the Old Arcade of the Terminal Tower. It sickens me what this current administration is doing to our history and the legacy it is surely leaving behind.

    The casinos were on the ballots again and again. We defeated them repeatedly and it wasn’t until the economy took a downturn that people were willing to allow them to infiltrate because they believed in the promise of jobs.

    My heart is broken. It will not feel good to say in 5 years, “I told you so.”

  5. Jessica Ugarte

    June 12, 2011

    Just an update: The Landmarks Commission voted (with one dissenting member and two self-recused because of conflicts of interest) to issue a COA for the demolition of the Columbia building. The LC’s approval for demolition was made contingent on the Casino developer reaching an agreement with the State about taxes- which has now happened.
    You can see the article about that here:

    I was at the meeting on Thursday (which was full to capacity with people standing and spilling out into the hallway), and I must say I was amazed that the Cleveland LC approved the demolition of a Cleveland Landmark to make way for a new building whose plans are obviously not final- the developer himself testified that the one perspective drawing and several schematic site plans that were shown were not final designs.
    They want a skybridge, but they may not get approval for that and will then need to address the pedestrian needs. The front of the building? Oh, well that perspective design was not final, they’ll be working on that. Don’t worry, what they end up giving Cleveland will be great.

    So, the LC approved the demolition of an important Landmarked building without knowing exactly what they would be getting in return from that loss. Which, in my experience with other LCs, is a highly irregular occurance.
    Strangely, even some Commissioners who expressed unhappiness with the plans voted yes…

  6. Jessica Ugarte

    June 12, 2011

    My apologies, the vote was three dissenting and four for approval.