It’s been two months since the last episode of “As the Medical Mart Deal Turns.” The last chapter — played out at Cleveland City Hall — included a shifty developer, a disgusted mayor and a whole lot of questions about where exactly to build the much-touted medical showcase complex.
In November, MMPI, the Chicago-based developer of the project, infuriated city officials when it dissed Cleveland’s Public Hall by saying the building was too shabby to include in its designs (and thus reneged on a plan to include the hall in the complex). MMPI also said that negotiations to acquire private property just west of Mall C had stalled. So they proposed building the mart on mall land overlooking Lake Erie, an idea that miffed people who wanted that property — a park — to remain untouched. The whole thing smelled bad, considering that MMPI had done a preliminary inspection of Public Hall and had not voiced concerns then.
The drama drew a heated response from Mayor Frank Jackson, who publicly called MMPI’s behavior “irrational.”
How things have changed. On Thursday, during a presentation before the Cuyahoga County Commissioners, a negotiator for the county announced that groundbreaking on the Medical Mart could take place in October. Mall C will remain untouched; the complex will instead go up at the corner of St. Clair Avenue and Ontario Street. And apparently the negotiating parties — the county/MMPI, the city and the private property owners — are all close to striking deals that would set the project in motion. The commissioners promptly approved an agreement that spells out how construction of the project will be managed.
Lawyer and project management consultant Jeff Appelbaum — hired as a negotiator by the county — spelled out key elements of the agreement, which gives the county control of which architects and construction firms MMPI can hire. “We have redefined and set forth the ground rules on how this is going to be done,” Appelbaum told the commissioners and an audience packed with reporters.
As part of the construction agreement, the county holds the right to approve building designs, Appelbaum said. Builders will be hired after a competitive building process. Subcontractors will have to place bids. MMPI cannot walk away from the project once it agrees with the county on a maximum guaranteed price. Forty percent of the construction workforce should hail from Cuyahoga County, and 20 percent from Cleveland, according to a “good faith” clause in the agreement.
Appelbaum spoke of “substantial progress” made in the negotiations with the private property owners at St. Clair and Ontario, and Joseph Tegreene, a lawyer for the L&R Investment Company — one of the owners — confirmed this.
And Public Hall? While the facility is no longer part of MMPI’s plans, Appelbaum said negotiations to buy the old underground convention center from the city have been “positive.” The county and MMPI want the city to invest some of the money in that deal into Public Hall.
When the commissioners approved the construction management agreement, Peter Lawson Jones blurted: “Take that, Nashville” — a reference to one of Cleveland’s rivals in the race to build a medical mart.
Reporters asked if the $425 million price tag for the project would stay the same; the answer was yes. Then Commissioner Tim Hagan seized an opportunity to blast coverage of the project (again). Hagan seemed irked that the media had taken officials to task for not commenting on what he called a complicated negotiation process. Fellow Commission Jimmy Dimora chimed in, saying the news media should be behind a project of this magnitude.
Hagan also expressed frustration with criticism over MMPI’s proposal to build on Mall C (despite this now being a moot point). Hagan questioned the argument that Mall C should be preserved as part of a grand architectural plan, a stance advanced by Plain Dealer architecture writer Steve Litt.
In a quavering voice, Hagan dismissed his critics. “You can write whatever the hell you want,” Hagan told Litt and other reporters. — Damian Guevara