Should Cleveland let Dan Gilbert tear down a 100-year-old building to make way for casino parking? Urban activists are getting ready to flood a meeting at City Hall Thursday to say no. They want the Landmarks Commission to block the demolition of the Columbia Building on Prospect Avenue, a designated city landmark built in 1908.
It’s the biggest historic-preservation battle in town since the fight over the Ameritrust Tower four years ago. Preservation Ohio, the Historic Gateway Neighborhood organization, and the Cleveland Coalition, an activist group of young professionals, want to save the Columbia, which used to house Myers University and has been vacant for years.
But Gilbert’s Rock Ohio Caesars says it needs new, modern parking connected to the Higbee Building casino. And Gilbert has Mayor Jackson’s administration on its side.
A clash like this probably became inevitable as soon as Mayor Jackson nudged Gilbert to start his Cleveland casino in the Higbee Building. The mayor is a guy who values his commitments to others. So now that Gilbert’s doing what Jackson asked, Jackson won’t say no to the parking plan Gilbert says he needs. That’s why Jackson’s chief of staff, Ken Silliman, came to May’s Landmarks Commission meeting and argued for demolishing the Columbia (upsetting this writer for Rust Wire).
The activists have a point when they say a mega-sized valet parking facility at one of Cleveland’s main intersections, with several lanes of in-and-out traffic, doesn’t honor Gilbert’s commitment to fit the casino into downtown’s urban fabric. The plan will surely make Prospect Avenue near East Fourth Street unfriendly to pedestrians.
But the casino operators are trying to attract customers like this letter writer who expect easy access to the slots. So when the preservationists say the casino should use older parking, like the May Co. structure across Prospect, Gilbert’s people wave it off. They want the ultra-convenient, ultra-modern parking you see at most every casino, from Las Vegas to Detroit and Windsor.
Cleveland wouldn’t be confronting this tradeoff between its history and its future if not for the casino’s move to the Higbee Building. That’s the bigger story here. You might remember that when we voted on Issue 3 in 2009, Gilbert was saying he intended to build our little Vegas along Huron Road, kind of hanging off of Tower City. You might also remember that, at first, people called Higbee’s a “temporary” casino site.
There’s nothing temporary about the Higbee casino anymore. Gilbert calls it “Phase I” and is poised to spend $350 million on it. “Phase II,” the Huron Road casino project, has been put off until 2015 at the earliest. Cleveland Magazine columnist Mike Roberts has predicted that Phase II will probably never be built.
Jackson is committed to making the Higbee casino site work, so the pressure on the Landmarks Commission is getting stronger. Last night, city council voted to sell a parking garage near Quicken Loans Arena to Rock Ohio Caesars — which plans to link it to the valet parking operation on the Columbia Building site. Two Jackson Administration officials, sure votes to tear the building down, sit on the 11-member Landmarks Commission. The other nine members are about to feel the pressure to OK the wrecking ball.