Thursday, January 7, 2010

Med Mart won't be on Mall bluff

Looks like the crisis with the Medical Mart project is over. Developer MMPI has abandoned its controversial proposal to build the Mart on Mall C, the bluff overlooking the lake. It's ready to build on St. Clair Avenue again, now that negotiations for the land are making progress. Groundbreaking could happen by October.

That's the news from the county commissioners' meeting this morning. Laura Johnston has the details on the Plain Dealer's new Cuyahoga County Insider blog, and so does Tom Beres on

Also announced today is a new construction agreement between the county and MMPI, detailing some rules and oversight the developer will follow while building the publicly financed Mart and convention center. It also describes how MMPI is using the $333,333 a month construction manager's fee from the county. That fee has been widely criticized, especially this fall, when the project stalled.

Most everyone who wants the Medical Mart built will be relieved to know the Mart plans have returned to the St. Clair site. Civic-minded fans of the downtown Mall will be happy too. Lots of opposition flared up to the idea of messing with Daniel Burnham's famous downtown plan by building the Mart on public parkland.

It also bypasses a political standoff between Cleveland City Hall and MMPI. Mayor Frank Jackson and city council were furious that MMPI made its case for building on the Mall by releasing its list of expensive problems it found in Public Auditorium. City officials demanded that MMPI help fix up the aging building as a sort of payback for having publicized its problems -- a weird argument that came pretty close to shooting the messenger.

There's still plenty of fallout from the November dust-up. Jackson and council will probably still make it hard for MMPI to finalize the purchase of the current convention center site -- they'll ask, rightly, what the plan is for separating it from Public Hall. Later, MMPI will need the city's approval for its building plans.

The November debate also may have affected Joe Cimperman's standing in City Hall. One reason he's fallen out with council president Martin Sweeney is his solo move to get MMPI to attend public meetings about the Mart, the PD's City Hall blog reports.

Dropping Public Auditorium from the plans still means Cleveland's Medical Mart loses its "first mover" advantage. MMPI originally planned to set up medical showrooms in the building this year, as a way of beating proposed New York and Nashville medical marts to market. Now it's a sprint to see who can open first. That's why Peter Lawson Jones quipped, "Take that, Nashville," as he approved the construction agreement today. (Meanwhile, the New York developers tried to speed up their project today by announcing they'll scale it back and lease a mart site, not build new.)

But the big news is, Cleveland's Med Mart is back on track, Cleveland City Hall recedes as a player, and the county has reasserted itself as MMPI's main partner. The county stepped up negotiations with the owners of the office building and parking garage across from the Key Marriott (see this Dec. 24 PD article), and those talks sound close to bearing fruit.

Administrators even have a plan to deal with the last holdout on St. Clair. They are thinking of seizing the last property, the Sportsman's Restaurant, by eminent domain -- not to hand over to MMPI, a move that could be challenged in court, but for a county park right next to the Med Mart site! Clever. Update, 1/8: This print-edition PD story says negotiations with the Sportsman are going well. So odds are, the county won't need eminent domain.

To read my article on the Medical Mart project from the June 2009 issue of Inside Business, click here.

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