Downtown resident (and Fresh Water contributor) Joe Baur doesn't have a lot of experience as a community organizer, but he jumped into the political fray after learning that Rock Gaming, owner of the Horseshoe Casino, intends to build a skywalk to the historic Higbee building.
"Skywalks are vibrancy-killers," Baur says of the proposed glass-and-steel bridge, which would traverse diagonally the intersection of Ontario and Prospect, providing a direct link between garage and casino. "Rock Gaming said they'd mesh their enterprise into the existing fabric of downtown Cleveland. This mars a historic building. We're not in a position to risk what street life we have."
Councilman Joe Cimperman, who represents downtown Cleveland, supports the skywalk, arguing that it will ensure pedestrian safety while continuing to foster economic development.
"Am I part of the pro-skywalk lobby? Do I wear a button supporting it? No. But I support this one," says Cimperman. "The historic aspect is worthy of debate, but these are debates that growing cities are going to have. The question is, how do you preserve the best of what you have while also creating opportunities?"
The simmering debate over the proposed skywalk raises the question of how urban casinos can best be woven into the fabric of cities while maximizing spinoff to other local businesses. Casino owners have long sought to keep their patrons inside their venues -- many casinos don't even have windows -- yet Cleveland's casino is notably different. Situated in the historic Higbee building, the developers went to pains to carefully restore the long-vacant structure.
Cimperman says that nearby restaurant owners have reported spikes in traffic as a result of the casino, while Baur maintains that the skywalk will kill off hopes of revitalizing the vacant storefronts in lower Prospect Avenue. The debate -- which is far from finished -- is garnering buzz on Facebook and social media.
To fight the proposed skywalk, Baur has formed a social media group called Our CLE and launched a petition drive aimed at Cimperman and Mayor Frank Jackson, who has also expressed support for the project. So far, the group has garnered over 100 signatures and attracted attention from local TV media.
Rock Gaming has said that the skywalk is necessary to provide casino-goers the comfort, security and convenience they've come to expect. Yet Baur cites urban planning studies showing that skywalks discourage pedestrian traffic and deaden street life. They also feed into the perception that downtown is unsafe and discourage visitors from patronizing other businesses, he maintains.
"How are we going to fight the perception that downtown isn't safe if we're going to placate to that perception by building a skywalk?" he asks. "If Rock Gaming really believes that their visitors will feel unsafe and cold with that grueling 270-foot walk, then the shuttle that runs 24 hours per day should be sufficient."
Jennifer Kulczycki, a spokesperson for Rock Gaming, says that ensuring comfort for casino-goers is the primary motivation behind the skywalk -- not perceived criminal activity downtown. "Many of our customers are elderly, and people have been asking us for assistance getting back and forth," she says. "The whole effect of putting the casino in the Higbee building has been rejuvenating that area. We wouldn't build the skywalk if we didn't believe the street would remain active."
The skywalk would shave 100 feet off the trek from garage to casino, Baur says, reducing it to 170 feet. The venue began offering a 24-hour shuttle earlier this year, yet Rock Gaming has continued to pursue plans for the skywalk.
For the skywalk to be built, the city must review technical construction documents and issue a building permit. It could not deny the skywalk for design reasons, since it was approved by the Planning Commission last year. Currently, the developers are fighting a ruling by the National Park Service that would threaten millions of dollars in historic tax credits claimed by building owner Forest City Enterprises.
This week, an appeal filed by Rock Gaming will be heard by the Chief Appeals Officer of the National Register of Historic Places in Washington D.C. In essence, the park service has said that the skywalk is not in keeping with the historic character of the building, and Rock Gaming is contesting that decision.
Yet even if Rock Gaming loses its appeal, the project could go ahead, says Thomas Starinsky, Associate Director of Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corporation. Forest City has only a few years until its tax credit period expires -- meaning it could go ahead and add the skywalk now, forgoing a prorated amount of the credits, or wait until the period is over and do so without incurring a loss.
The developers also believe that the skywalk is necessary for Phase II, a $600-million project slated to be built behind Tower City Center overlooking the Cuyahoga River. The two phases will be connected via Tower City.
According to projections that were deemed conservative when it opened, the city is expected to earn about $20 million per year in tax revenue from the casino. Yet Baur says that the decision by Cimperman and Jackson to support the project is short-sighted. It does not take into account the long-term negative effects of the skywalk on the historic integrity of downtown and viability of area businesses.
"The City of Minneapolis won't allow skywalks in historic districts -- they realize that because of the ones built in the '60s, they're struggling to get their retail back," he says. "Some cities, like Baltimore, are demolishing skywalks."
Cimperman vehemently disagrees. "The casino is employing 1,800 people," he says. "The key is balancing economic development with good design. We had the same debate about the Medical Mart because it's located on the Malls designed by Daniel Burnham. We ended up creating something that people are really proud of."
Kulczycki says Rock Gaming and its architects have carefully designed a skywalk that fits into the streetscape. Yet Baur maintains that there's no way to dress up the skywalk -- it is what it is. "You can't make it work [at the Higbee Building]."
The skywalk, which was first proposed last year, may seem like an about-face from the pro-urban approach that Rock Gaming promised when its leaders launched efforts to legalize gambling in Ohio in 2009. Yet Cimperman cites multiple public meetings that were held to allow input. "This is not something that was done behind closed doors," he says. "It was part of the original proposal."
If the skywalk project moves forward, it won't be the first time that Rock Gaming has developed a controversial project in the face of organized community opposition. Last year, the corporation successfully purchased and demolished the historic Columbia building on Prospect Avenue to build a parking garage.
The casino skywalk is also not the only one that's being considered right now in downtown Cleveland. The developers of the Westin Hotel on St. Clair Avenue across from the Medical Mart and Convention Center have also proposed a new skywalk. Many preservationists deem that skywalk, which would link the hotel to Public Auditorium, as being even more injurious to the city's historic fabric.
Source: Joe Baur
Writer: Lee Chilcote