In Casino Controversy, Cleveland Leaders Risk, Once Again, Ignoring Past Mistakes

This rebirth was to be a referendum on all the past deaths. Because this time our leaders got it, as the latest Cleveland renaissance was less about a convention center and a casino than it was about the urban fabric. Stand alone splashes were out, then. Building from within was in—with the importance on place, space, and connectivity a sort of confession to wash our past planning sins clean.

The Columbia Building currently stands where the glass structure is on the left. The existing Stanley Building remains in the middle. The car port is to the right. Like Sesame Street said, "one of these things is not like the other".

But then casino developer Rock Ventures wanted a parking garage/valet staging area to grease entry and exit. And to get it they wanted to demolish the landmarked Columbia Building, with the subsequent car port to be attached to the architectural chest of the city via an elevated glass walkway. And the leaders quickly said yes: the Planning Commission, the mayor’s office. And so it came to this: the Landmark’s Commission meeting, with a substantial public turnout ready and pissed. Or a public sick of hearing how Cleveland is but one last transgression away.


It was standing room only as the architects from KA architecture began the presentation, the packaging. The necessity of another parking garage was a first topic. “We must have control of safe, proximate parking to the casino itself,” said architect Craig Wasserman. Wasserman went on to say that every effort to reuse the Columbia Building was looked at, but that it couldn’t be used for parking, and that “working around the Columbia would compromise the service of the valet.”

Echoed Marcus Glover, the General Manager of the Horseshoe Casino: “One of the things consistent across the board [with successful inner city casinos] is parking. The great ones drop you off right in front.”

“Right in front”, the “service of the valet”: it is at this point that the issue before the Commission was not so much the need for parking as it was the requirement of a doped-up valet spot, aka the “Welcome Center”. More exactly, the new parking garage would add a mere 300 “high value” spots, which prompted one Commission member to ask if alternatives were exhausted so as to avoid demolishing the Columbia. Specifically, that 700-spot garage in the former May Co. building—the one underused and a stone’s throw away from the proposed staging area—was it inquired about for use or renovation? It wasn’t said Glover. Why the member asked? Dark, too small for SUV’s, its emptiness proof of its decrepitude—such was the response.

Yet the response was more than that. As the argument from Team Horseshoe soon bent to the argument that they know casinos, and they know how shit is run. And it is run like this according to Glover: “We are a marketing company and our mission is to drive foot traffic that will allow us to maximize and operationalize our market.” Maximization in this case entailed climate-control, convenience, and above all: “a sense of arrival”. Glover then pointed to an image of New Orleans’ 8-lane valet entryway as a model for inner city downtown’s to follow. “The sense of arrival is fantastic,” he’d go on to say. One local urban designer, though, disagreed, referring to the Bayou model as “a loading dock” in subsequent public comments.

The City was nonetheless impressed, soon parading the Mayor’s Chief of Staff and the City Council President up before the Commission as if to put a civic cleanse to what could be a public stain.

Said the Mayor’s man Ken Silliman, “[The casino] is a major win for the City of Cleveland.” Outside of basic cheerleading, however, Silliman’s overall message was a bit dissociative, saying that what sets Cleveland apart is its distinctiveness, which in large part is embodied in its standing, structural history. “If you look at the recent film making here”, he’d continue, “the reason why they pick Cleveland is largely because of its historical setting”. Why Silliman, then, stood in the “unprecedented position of coming before the Commission to advocate for the demolition of the Columbia Building” was uncertain, not to mention unhelpful to Team Horseshoe’s cause.

This dissociation, however, is in fact part of a larger mixed messaging coming out of City Hall of late. In fact, the Mayor appointed a Group Planning Commission whose job it was to ensure that Downtown would be scaled, connected, and pedestrian-friendly—but not insular with its big-ticket projects. Yet in this city littered with a long history of uncertain futures comes an indecisive leadership, a wanting leadership—which is to say no leadership at all. And it is precisely such a milieu in which the promises of some other destination become the hopes filling the void of not believing in the city that is yourselves.

Another chunk of the city’s flesh down the memory hole, then. A memory hole that was in fact proved to have birthed the plan for the Welcome Center in the first place.

You see, it was nearing the end of the Commission meeting when Thomas Caffey, a trial lawyer and Commission member, spoke. His request was straightforward enough, speaking to Team Horseshoe in general: “Can anyone tell me what life was like back then? Who built the building? When was it built?”

Courtesy of Cleveland Landmarks Commission

The team fuddled. No date of birth. No designer. Nothing except a comment from the architect that it was “nice background building”. Caffey expressed understandable concern as to the lack of research into what was going to be torn down. Said Caffey, speaking to the Commission’s conundrum succinctly and eloquently: “You are asking us to okay the idea of a Welcome Center having been deemed superior to preserving what’s there even though you don’t know what’s there.”

And it is precisely this mixed messaging that has been killing Cleveland for decades. The mixed message of designing a welcoming to a place with no knowledge of that place’s evolution—the mixed messaging of City Hall advocating for the urban fabric with a saw in hand—the mixed messaging of pride becoming irrelevance.

Yet given the turnout at the meeting there appears there’s a large chunk of the public that is no longer listening. Instead they spoke so as to fill in that memory gap that keeps wiping Cleveland’s identity out. Said Gregory Coltis, speaking on behalf of the Save Lower Prospect Avenue group. “There are too many holes already in our city. It makes me sad to see the giant hole (surface parking lots) in the middle of the Warehouse District. It’s time to start acting like we deserve this [good design]. Knocking down a building for a parking garage is not respect.”

(The Landmarks Commission tabled the vote until June 9th. Stay tuned.)

–Richey Piiparinen

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