Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Mall vs. Tower City

The most interesting part of Cleveland city council’s Med Mart hearing was how hard MMPI worked to try to save money at the Forest City and Mall sites.

They chose to build on the Mall because they figured out a way to fit what they needed on the existing convention center’s foundation. They say they can get some conferences and trade shows into a renovated Public Auditorium within a year. Meanwhile, they’ll tear off the top of Mall B, start over from the foundation, and build a better convention center in three years. To replace the outdated, gloomy current convention center, with columns 30 feet apart and 22 foot ceilings, they’ll get rid of the parking above the convention hall and build a 30-foot ceiling, with columns 90 feet apart. Big glass windows to the north will look out on the lake.

The Medical Mart will be on St. Clair, between the Marriott and the county administration building. The county won’t have to move anytime soon, but MMPI has that land in mind as a place it might expand later. The Mall landscape will be rebuilt just a little higher, but not much. No plans yet to bridge the cliff to create easier access to the Amtrak station or the Rock Hall. Chris Kennedy of Medical Mart says connections to the north were “not part of our scope” but worth “a public dialogue” (meaning MMPI won’t pay for it).

Sounds like MMPI tried a lot harder to make the Mall site work than the Partnership did -- and they saw the obvious problems with the Tower City site, which the Partnership did not.

The developer went through five designs for a mart and center at Tower City and four at the Mall, trying to cut costs. They knew the county couldn’t afford the Greater Cleveland Partnership’s recommendation to build at Tower City for $538 million. So they took the Forest City/Partnership idea apart piece by piece.

First they figured out that Forest City’s supposedly generous offer of space in the Higbee Building for the Medical Mart would have obligated them to $3 million a year in operating costs. So they looked at including the Medical Mart in the new convention building south of Huron Road. They studied whether to build the main trade show hall and its truck docks under Huron (which meant tearing out a bunch of the parking structure and girders that hold up the road) or to put the main hall next to Huron Road (which made the center too small). They couldn’t figure out a way to make it big enough and still affordable.

The Forest City site was always awkward: wedged on a slope, tall and thin, with the exhibit hall and truck docks hanging in the air. Forest City convinced a panel of friendly local CEOs that it could work, but they couldn’t convince MMPI, which is going to put its money on the line. The business community probably isn’t done complaining, but MMPI made a good case today why the Mall is the best place to build.

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