DEAR PETER: Plain Dealer Steven Litt builds Case for NEO Collegetown

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Sun, 01/09/2005 - 18:16.

Cleveland Plain Dealer architecture critic Steven Litt writes of a "Golden Opportunity" for University Circle's future in proposing Case University, the Cleveland Institute of Art, and other local arts and learning institutions make optimal use of their master planning to leverage innovative networking and world-class brainpower to build a higher quality, well-connected powerhouse for this region - a "collegetown" gateway integrating University Circle institutions and stakeholders with surrounding community and regional interests. Steven prods UC-related leadership to follow models of excellence found at well planned universities in Cincinnati, Tempe, and Chicago and recounts "Philanthropist Peter Lewis, chairman of Mayfield-based Progressive Corp., has encouraged such collaborative thinking by hinting that he might open his purse for the right mix of projects. But in a speech at the UCI annual meeting in November, he said he was unimpressed with a confidential plan forwarded to him by Case. Nevertheless, Lewis said he's keeping an open mind." UC leaders must become more open and open-minded in their master planning, as that was clearly a critical success factor common for the three "best-collegetowns" highlighted above, and for securing the support of global leaders like Lewis. Read on for Litt's open vision for UC "to create a sense of urbanism and to heal the rift between town and gown":

ARCHITECTURE - Steven Litt - A golden opportunity to make Triangle shine
Sunday, January 09, 2005

Edward Hundert has vowed to create a world-class learning environment and help revitalize Cleveland ever since he became president of Case Western Reserve University two years ago.

Now, with the university's purchase of an important and highly visible piece of land in University Circle, Hundert has a shining opportunity to realize that vision. Case also has a rare chance to sweep away mediocrity and create architectural magic on one of the most visible corners in the city.

The question is whether the president and his trustees can rise to the occasion, both as developer and as architectural patron.

The answer is critical to the future of University Circle and all of Cleveland. As the poorest big city in the nation, Cleveland has to make the most of every opportunity to improve its image internationally and to make itself a better place to live. Case now has a magnificent opening to do just that.

The land in question is known as the Triangle, located at the intersection of Euclid Avenue and Mayfield Road, just south of the intersection of Euclid and Ford Drive.

The property is home to an utterly dismal collection of midrise brick-and-concrete apartment towers and drab, one-story retail buildings built in the 1980s. But it holds a pivotal position between the north and south halves of the Case campus, which is divided by Euclid Avenue.

The Triangle also sits between Cleveland's Little Italy neighborhood to the east and University Circle, home to the Cleveland Orchestra, the Cleveland Museum of Art and dozens of other cultural and educational institutions.

Last month, Case said it had purchased 4.8 acres at the Triangle from University Circle Inc., a nonprofit development corporation, for $1.7 million.

In about 90 days, the university expects to close on its purchase of the two Triangle apartment towers and two associated retail structures, which are owned by Associated Estates of Richmond Heights.

A Case spokesman declined to discuss that purchase price.

As an urban complex, the Triangle falls so far short of the potential of its location that it truly deserves to be demolished. It's a problem of both form and content.

As a collection of banal towers and a shopping strip surrounded by parking lots, the Triangle looks as if it belongs next to a highway exit ramp in the suburbs, not at a gateway to the city's cultural and educational district. Then too, the retail mix at the Triangle is sleep-inducing - fast-food restaurants, insurance offices, a branch bank. This isn't a destination. It's a nonplace.

But don't expect it to come tumbling down overnight. Hundert declined to comment about the future of the property, but a spokesman, Michael Ruffner, said a redevelopment could take 10 years or more and might include parts of the existing complex.

Even though the university is only beginning to think about plans for the Triangle, it is talking about a far richer mix of uses, including housing and retail, but also education, restaurants, culture and entertainment. The idea is to turn the Triangle into a true urban crossroads for students and the entire community.

The redevelopment concept is a local example of a red-hot real estate trend. Across the country, universities and colleges are building lively, mixed-use urban complexes at their edges, and sometimes within their campuses, to attract students and faculty, to create a sense of urbanism and to heal the rift between town and gown.

Examples include Sansom Common in Philadelphia, built by the University of Pennsylvania; the South Campus Gateway at Ohio State University in Columbus; and the Technology Square development built by the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Until recently, neither Case nor University Circle Inc., which acted as the real estate arm for big institutions in the district, seemed interested in anything of the kind. In fact, for decades, UCI had worked hard to erase traditional neighborhoods, to discourage bars and student hangouts and to assemble large blocks of land so circle institutions could grow.

But about five years ago, Case and UCI had an epiphany: University Circle had become a dead zone - a collection of amazing institutions surrounded by streets and sidewalks that felt eerily devoid of life.

Case wants to build a 'collegetown'

Now Case wants to build what it calls a "collegetown," with the Triangle as the linchpin. This would be exciting enough on its own. But the purchase also could make it possible for the Cleveland Institute of Art to close its classroom building on East Boulevard, and to expand on the Triangle block next to the large studio and classroom building it owns east of the land purchased by Case.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, in turn, has been talking about moving to the Triangle as a neighbor or partner with Case or the art institute, giving it a far more visible location than the second-floor galleries it occupies at the Cleveland Play House, a mile to the west.

MOCA's director, Jill Snyder, declined to comment on the latest negotiations but said she's excited by the university's purchase of the Triangle. So is David Deming, president of the Cleveland Institute of Art.

"The university's success in getting that property is huge," Deming said. "Before this, all the great ideas had nowhere to go. Everything is going to become possible now."

Philanthropist Peter Lewis, chairman of Mayfield-based Progressive Corp., has encouraged such collaborative thinking by hinting that he might open his purse for the right mix of projects. But in a speech at the UCI annual meeting in November, he said he was unimpressed with a confidential plan forwarded to him by Case. Nevertheless, Lewis said he's keeping an open mind.

It's clear that any redevelopment of the Triangle will require innovative financing. It's equally clear that the site could attract the best architectural talent in the world.

But there's no guarantee this will happen. Under former Presidents Agnar Pytte and David Auston and interim President Jim Wagner in the past 15 years, the university spent more than half a billion dollars on new buildings, only one of which attracted significant attention outside the city. That, of course, was the Peter B. Lewis Building of the Weatherhead School of Management, designed by Frank Gehry of Los Angeles.

But the Lewis building, which fully embodies the innovative spirit of its namesake and principal donor, is an anomaly on a campus that has otherwise opted in recent years for anemic evocations of the past, such as the neoclassical Kelvin Smith Library, or pallid contemporary buildings, such as James Stewart Polshek's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.

Cautious climate in Cleveland

Case has been part of the cautious, conservative climate in Cleveland, which has made it acceptable, for example, for UCI and Heritage Development Co. to propose a mincingly nostalgic apartment and retail complex at the corner of Ford Drive and Euclid Avenue, just north of the Triangle site.

Designed by Richard L. Bowen Associates of Cleveland, the complex features a hyperactive mix of retro styles with snippets of Miami Beach Moderne and Fifth Avenue Beaux-Arts classicism. It's a pastiche better suited to a theme park than a city with a real sense of itself.

If the Euclid-Ford project is a sign of what's to come at the Triangle, it's profoundly depressing. It suggests that important clients, such as UCI and Case, are indifferent to progressive, contemporary design and prefer fake-looking evocations of the past.

On the positive side, however, the university has hired the nationally respected landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh to brainstorm ideas for the overall campus. It also hired Russell Berusch, a senior vice president at the nonprofit Neighborhood Progress Inc., to lead the Triangle project and other real estate ventures.

Berusch has a distinguished record in community development and has worked on some of the nonprofit group's most impressive projects in the past decade, including the expansion of the Fries & Scheule apartment building on West 25th Street.

If Berusch and Case want examples of how other universities are investing heavily in contemporary architecture to create outstanding developments and student amenities, there are plenty to consider.

Last year, the Illinois Institute of Technology opened a spectacular new student center, designed by Rem Koolhaas of the Netherlands, and a beautiful row of glassy dormitories nearby, designed by Helmut Jahn of Chicago. The result: glowing publicity worldwide - and a better environment for students.

This year, the University of Cincinnati is completing its new Main Street complex, a $200 million campus center involving some of the most innovative architecture and urban planning in the country. The design team, which includes landscape architect George Hargreaves and architects Charles Gwathmey, Thom Mayne and Buzz Yudell, shows enormous sophistication on the part of the university as a client.

Last week, a Phoenix developer confirmed that Lord Norman Foster, one of the most famous architects in the world, will lead a team designing the new Arts and Business Gateway at the University of Arizona at Tempe. Initial plans call for buildings that evoke the red-rock canyons of the Southwest, surmounted by shade canopies that resemble clouds.

All three projects are packed with creativity, originality and a powerful sense of place. A university - and a city - that hopes to compete on the world stage should aim for no less. Here's hoping that Case, in the years to come, will use the Triangle to look forward architecturally, not backward.

Litt is architecture critic of The Plain Dealer.

To reach this Plain Dealer columnist:

slitt [at] plaind [dot] com, 216-999-4136