Touring the Future Convention Center

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There's a river in downtown Cleveland. You might not have noticed because there aren't very many places where you can go to its edge to watch the water flow. But if all the stars align, that is to say, if Cleveland's elected officials and the site's developer come to a mutually beneficial agreement on how to build a new convention center, then going to the Crooked River could become yet another amenity in the city. At least, that's how Will Voegele sees it.

Will Voegele: Yeah, it would really happen on multiple levels. If you started on the Huron Road level where you could drop someone off and they could take escalators down to the river. We envision steps as well. One scenario would be a set of steps in a little plaza just on the other side of the Gund Arena. That would cascade pedestrians down to the river.

Voegele is regional director of development for Forest City, the Cleveland-based development company whose convention center plan is the top runner to win the bid. The proposed location is directly behind tower city, between Huron Road and the River - 1,200 feet long from West 3rd Street to where Huron and Ontario Road meet.

Will Voegele: You want to think of this building as a kind of magnificent sort of linear structure that is the exhibit hall floating above the street.

About 160 feet above Canal Road.

Will Voegele: With a sort of glass-enclosed meeting room level just below it. Then below that, a sort of open structure of parking that also is Tower City's expansion with decks for outdoor activities and such cascading toward the river. But all open to the river. This is not a building that you want to think of being clad with a skin as you want to think of it as open toward the river.

The plan allows for Canal Road to be widened so the trucks that service the convention center can drive there instead of clogging traffic along Huron. It also creates space for the Towpath Trail and even, Voegele says, for bringing the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad up to Cleveland. He says the proposal is all about creating opportunities.

Will Voegele: But to create the other links, you now have a reason to go to the kinds of sources of funding, the stakeholders and supporters of that trail, and say if we're going to get this piece done, now is the time to leverage what we're doing here to get the other piece done.

Not that the Towpath Trail or Scenic Railroad are officially part of the plan - but he says they could grow from it.

Will Voegele: Projects like that typically have public-private components. In other words, matching money leverages other money.

Other possibilities that are not included in the existing proposal: an expanded Renaissance Hotel or a whole new hotel attached to the facility; indoor connector walkways under Huron; and development of lower Euclid Avenue. But there is one component of the Forest City plan that will be paid for as part of the cost of a new convention center - expanding the Tower City Mall.

Will Voegele: Well, we're standing in the Tower City's Stean Concourse, Tower City's beautiful skylit space. As we stand here and look out at the river today, Tower City stops about 350 feet from the edge of the river. Well, that's going to change tomorrow.

Or whenever this project is actually completed.

Will Voegele: So as we stand and look out toward the river, we'll be able to literally go all the way, walk out to the river's edge.

In other words, the mall would be one of the layers of the new building, beneath the convention center meeting rooms and ballrooms.

Will Voegele: You'll see a brand new food court, you'll see some new retail filled in here on either side of us. And as you get out to the river, you will have a very large, dramatic atrium that will look up into the convention center and look down to the vertical circulation that will lead you right to the edge of the river.

In all, the projects cost to be about $400 million assuming that there are no cost overruns like there were when Browns Stadium was built. That price also doesn't include additional dollars for an economic stimulus package, which the city is demanding in order to get the whole project of the ground. That means the deal must include funding for neighborhood development, arts and culture, redeveloping the current convention center and, especially, a promise on the part of Forest City to develop housing on the Scranton Peninsula across the river from the future convention center. Of course that housing will ultimately benefit Forest City, Voegele says, but it'll also benefit the city of Cleveland.

Will Voegele: This is clearly a classic case of two parties working together to accomplish something that neither one could do totally independent of the other. That's the essence of public-private partnership. There couldn't be a better example. The other thing people don't realize is that his exactly what we do.

And this time, they're doing it - literally - in their own backyard.
In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.

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