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Friday, October 4, 2019

Jack Casino's Proposed Pedestrian Bridge Gets Green Light From Cleveland Planning Commission, Final Approval Still Awaits

Posted By on Fri, Oct 4, 2019 at 2:32 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY PETE PATTAKOS
  • Photo by Pete Pattakos

After receiving approval from the Downtown/Flats Design Review Committee yesterday, the Jack Casino's proposal to build a second pedestrian bridge, this one above Ontario connecting the May Company building and parking garage to the Higbee Building, passed the planning commission this morning on a 3-2 vote. It will go back before design review to address a handful of concerns raised Thursday and then reappear before the planning commission for final approval.

Jack's arguments — presented by Len Komoroski of Jack Entertainment/the Cavs/Dan Gilbert's general family of businesses, Craig Wasserman of Nelson architects, and Gino Del Pup of Jack Entertainment — focused on three separate issues they argued were all interconnected.

As for how a pedestrian bridge was the only, best or even "a" solution at all was never made clear. That was thanks partially to a committee that, for the most part, never pressed the representatives for any reasoning more substantive than a generally shared feeling that Ontario Street could be better and It's Dan Gilbert, and He Owns a Bunch of Stuff, so let's just say yes.

Komoroski led off with a stirring jargonoliloquy, declaring the pedestrian skyway would be a "catalyst" for the revitalization of that stretch of Ontario, ushering in a new era of increased foot traffic that would drive street-level retail and investment.

How, exactly, would a pedestrian skyway add to foot traffic when people would be parking in the May Company garage and either going to offices in the Higbee Building or the casino?

The answer was that it just would, which was good enough for everyone, apparently. Density, Cleveland planning chief Fred Collier said, was good, and packing as many people as possible into downtown, and thus collecting income taxes and having them spend discretionary dollars downtown, is good.

Which... is good.

And it seems that desire, and the shared desire to make Ontario Street something more aesthetically pleasing and vibrant than it is, is the justification by which the city is going to let this happen when there's little evidence that a pedestrian bridge is needed to achieve it.

Bedrock currently has around 100,000 square feet of unleased office space in the Higbee Building, the Jack team told the commission today. And the reason the vacancy — something like 80%, they estimated — has endured so long is because prospective tenants have complained about the lack of covered parking.

The May Company garage, which is a dark and old structure that Bedrock also owns and which it will be renovating in a $35 million project, is one of the two main reasons it wants the skyway. It wants to lease those offices. And it wants more people to be able to park and walk directly into the casino. (Filling a parking garage they own that currently runs at about 70% capacity would be a cherry on top.) That's it. Everything else is a sales job to get the votes they need.

Komoroski essentially admitted as much when, after calling the proposed bridge a "catalyst" for future development multiple times, he referred to it as the "final piece" in Bedrock's plan.

And a statement (which could double as a version of two truths and a lie) issued by Mark Dunkeson, CEO of JACK Entertainment, lists the benefits much as Scene understood them in order of priority.

"The walkway, which is a critical piece to our larger downtown plan, will allow us to better serve our guests, providing a convenient crosswalk from the May Company Garage directly into JACK Cleveland Casino. It will also serve as an access point into the Higbee Building which will significantly enhance the attractiveness of the office space by adding connected, adjacent parking," Dunkeson said. "In addition, the walkway will support downtown retail by giving visitors and those located within the Higbee Building an easier way to access the street level retail."

Nevermind that studies in other cities have found that skyways reduce foot traffic for the natural reason that everyone will just waltz back and forth to their car without ever setting foot on the sidewalk, thus removing human beings from the landscape and creating scenarios exactly like the one the planning commission is trying to change.

Nevermind that Dan Gilbert's companies can and will address the streetscape designs of their buildings and get different tenants whenever they damn well choose. (Whether that happens before or after Phase II of the casino is the only question, because they were very, very clear they did not like the current lineup of tenants.)

Nevermind that, again, a pedestrian skyway has nothing to do with that business decision.

Nevermind that Craig Wasserman described the upside of the skyway bridge as something that would be "more safe" and create a "more customer friendly experience," which is literally just another way saying getting people into the casino.

And nevermind that maybe a renovated garage in and of itself will draw more tenants to their building, regardless of how they get across the street. (Literally, again, across the street.)

If Jack is paying for this, why should we care?

First of all, it reeks of capitulation to Gilbert for the fact that he is Gilbert. (Collier referred to the skyway as "part of a package," meaning all that Gilbert has going on.) Second, despite the fact the design review committee gave a green light, it seems to run contrary to good design. (Collier said in this instance, the "benefits outweigh the aesthetic concerns.") Third, it will probably not achieve, and will likely hinder, all the things it claims it will do. (Collier seemed to have his doubts. "Is it enough to stimulate the ground floor? Maybe," he said.)

Only two members, Charles Slife and Kerry McCormack, both of whom voted against passage, raised substantive questions, the basis of which echoed all the concerns stated above.

"We don't need a bridge to tackle the streetscape," Slife said in opposition, while also noting the further degradation of the view down Ontario to Public Square and Lakeside.

"Why a bridge instead of some other connector?" McCormack asked, mentioning bump-outs and traffic calming measures that could not only invite foot traffic to the street, but make it easier to cross from the garage to the Higbee building.

Komoroski was pretty direct and honest in his answer, which did not include all the promises of foot traffic and activation. Instead, it was, "Look, we can't lease this space we have, and this is a key part of the investment."

Which is why he probably wasn't pleased with the no votes from Slife and McCormack.

Outside on the sidewalk following the meeting, Komoroski was on the phone debriefing someone on the vote while waiting at a crosswalk. Loud enough for anyone to hear, including this reporter, he was expressing to whomever was on the other end of the line his vigorous and sincere displeasure with the councilman's vote.

"And one guy switched his vote at the last minute to a no. Kerry McCormack," Komoroski said. "Kerry FREAKING McCormack."

It's almost as if they expect to get what they want, and unanimously with total acquiescence at that, with no inspection of what seem to be hollow promises. Where have we heard that story before?

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