Friday, May 21, 2010

Med Mart moving ahead -- finally!

All you kids who've been squirming in your seats, wondering when the show on downtown's Malls will start, can calm down now.

After a year of painfully slow negotiations, the land's all nailed down for the Medical Mart and convention center project. The stubborn Sportsman's Restaurant owner is getting paid $3.1 million -- almost 10 times what her little vintage corned-beef joint is worth. The stubborn mayor finally got what he wants: a deal that helps fix up Public Auditorium and preserves the lake views from Lakeside Avenue.

Architects are designing. The construction manager's hired. We're going to see the plans roll out, starting today, when the city planning commission takes a look at some early concepts. MMPI still says it'll break ground in October. That means I'll lose my favorite cheap downtown parking spot, but what else?

Steven Litt's analysis in today's Plain Dealer explains how MMPI addressed the mayor's concerns and preserved those lake views. Remember how I mentioned last week that Mall C won't be raised more than a foot? That's because the convention center exhibit halls won't go under it after all. They'll be under Mall B and -- this is the clever new part -- under the Medical Mart building on St. Clair. They'll build meeting rooms and a ballroom with a great view of the lake under Mall C.

I still think Mall B will look weird once this is all over, with the top of the convention center popping out of the ground, messing with Daniel Burnham's 1903 vision of a grand civic space. (Litt's only new hint about Mall B: "stairwell pavilions" will go right from street level to the convention center floor.) But then, Mall B is already full of concrete and empty of people. Maybe, despite the higher elevation, ParkWorks and the landscape architect can do something better there.

Most important, MMPI can break ground before long and get back to competing with the medical marts proposed in Nashville and New York. Today on the radio, I heard prosecutor Bill Mason praise the county commissioners for nailing it all down. Mason knows how tough it was, since his office does their legal work. Few people in town are in the mood to give the commissioners credit for anything, but at least give them props for nailing down a complex, five-way land and development deal.

Getting the land will cost more than anyone expected, and the big headline today will spark more criticism from those who don't want the project built at all. But now Cleveland can move on to the next debate: what the Medical Mart, new convention center, and new malls should look like, how they'll work, how they'll fit in with what's around them.

To read my June 2009 Inside Business feature about the risks and potential rewards of the Medical Mart as a business venture, click here. (Public Auditorium isn't part of the project anymore, and the groundbreaking date has changed slightly, but the rest of the details in my story hold up a year later.)

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