by Frank Lewis
The deal to bring a Medical Mart to Cleveland continues to get more troubling and confusing after the Chicago-based developer reneged on a plan to incorporate the city’s Public Auditorium into its project.
Officials from Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. say the company scrapped plans to incorporate Public Auditorium into its grand scheme for a complex at Mall C because the building's mechanical, electrical, heating and cooling systems are in shambles and too expensive to fix. Those officials reiterated that point during a marathon three-hour session in front of Cleveland City Council Tuesday.
What’s troubling is that MMPI didn’t come to this conclusion until after the city and county — the catalyst of the controversial project — made a tentative $20 million deal for Public Auditorium and the city’s underground Convention Center. As Mayor Frank Jackson told The Plain Dealer last week, MMPI should have known that building needed extensive work from preliminary inspections. Jackson’s chief of staff, Ken Silliman, told Scene Tuesday that the city never hid the fact that the auditorium is an aging building with aging systems.
MMPI says it had budgeted $32 million for renovations at Public Auditorium (the company is looking to spend roughly $425 million on the project). The renovation number jumped to roughly $90 million because of the building’s condition, officials said.
MMPI hammered the point home with a PowerPoint presentation showing Public Auditorium’s ancient ductwork and electrical panels. MMPI vice-president Mark Falanga said the company had assumed that public auditorium was "safe and code-compliant" because it had hosted large events, including the funeral of Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs-Jones and the Rock Hall induction ceremony. Thousands of people attended those events.
As MMPI officials presented a photo slide show of the auditorium's ancient innards, Council President Martin Sweeney ordered them to speed up their presentation and move on. "We know we have some issues over there," Sweeney said tersely.
Silliman denies that the building is unsafe and expressed dismay that that notion was implied. "What Mayor Jackson has said is, 'Look MMPI, if you need to go in another different direction, all you had to do was come and tell us that. We don't need to get into a discussion or debate about Public Auditorium.' … We are not aware of safety issues or code issues with Public Auditorium."
While MMPI is pointing at Public Auditorium as a deal breaker, the company also failed to acquire private property on St. Clair Avenue west of Mall C. Falanga told council that owners of the property — California based L&R Investments and Sportsman Restaurant — asked for more than the $17 million MMPI was willing to pay. However, representatives for those owners have said MMPI did not negotiate, according to blogger Roldo Bartimole.
“Two representatives of the owners at the meeting said after that MMPI had not negotiated with the owners,” writes Bartimole. “One said MMPI had made two telephone calls to his client. Another said MMPI offered $800,000 to one parcel owner and the owner countered with $6 million. But there was no dickering. No counter offer. They just walked away.”
Now MMPI has its sights on building its mart on Mall C land between City Hall and the old Cuyahoga County Courthouse on Lakeside Avenue. But, as Bartimole asks, how exactly does MMPI get its paws on that coveted lakeside land — public land? The PD has repeatedly reported that the tentative agreement meant Mall C and B would remain parkland. “[Falanga] said that the County was paying the city $20 million for the convention center, indicating that that covered the price where his business was going to go,” Bartimole writes.
So how much is MMPI willing to pay for land it wants to build on? That remains unclear, and MMPI officials couldn’t be reached Wednesday morning.
Company and public officials proclaim they’re committed to the project. County Administrator Jim McCafferty says the county wants to strike a new deal that doesn’t include Public Auditorium. Councilman Matt Zone asked the county to extend the 20-year sales tax increase it implemented — with no public vote — for another five years. Downtown Councilman Joe Cimperman wants more public meetings, something MMPI tentatively agreed to Tuesday.
Until then, there will continue to be a lot of head-scratching about the merits of a medical mart. — Damian Guevara