Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Cleveland's urban core only starting to reawaken

By Ken Prendergast

CLEVELAND – To anyone who follows real estate development news closely, you are allowed to be surprised by the scale and intensity of development occurring in the cores of our largest cities. And one of the biggest turnarounds anywhere in the USA is occurring in Cleveland.

What's even more amazing is that we're just starting a potentially major shift in housing and lifestyle choices to one that is decidedly more urban. True, Cleveland is jumping into it in a big way as you probably have noticed and which I will soon describe. But Cleveland has only scratched the surface on tapping a market that is in transition.

That may be hard for some to grasp as a dozen downtown buildings taller than 10 stories are already getting renovated into apartments, hotels and/or commercial space. And half of those buildings are taller than 20 stories. A few are mostly vacant, obsolete office buildings but others are at least half-occupied with offices. Nearly 700,000 square feet of offices will be on the move in the coming years, hopefully staying downtown in other existing buildings or possibly in a new building or two.

This flurry doesn't include new construction such as the 31-story Hilton Hotel, or the next phases of Flats East Bank, or a mixed-use neighborhood on the lakefront, or Brickhaus' Ohio City Townhomes, or Cedar Extension's redevelopment, or major improvements to FirstEnergy Stadium and Progressive Field, or the remaking of Public Square, or a new walkway linking downtown to the lakefront.

All of that construction and more has pushed Cleveland into the tops of national rankings of new construction jobs added in the past year. The Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America reported this summer that, out of 339 metro areas nationwide, only eight added more construction jobs than the 5,300 added in Greater Cleveland between June 2013 and June 2014. Some general contractors in Greater Cleveland reported that they have increased wages and upgraded benefit plans to attract and retain skilled construction workers, ACG reported in its Sept. 8, 2014 Data Digest.

The question many are asking: how long can this last?

First, consider the snowball effect. It rolls down a slope, gathers momentum and gets larger in the process. The same thing appears to be happening in Cleveland's center city, into which I will include Downtown, Ohio City, Tremont, Central and Asiatown. I debated whether to include University Circle, but chose not to since it is Ohio's fourth-largest employment center and therefore is big enough to stand on its own as an economic driver.

So each new or renovated residential building adds more purchasing power to the center city. That brings more restaurants, shops and amenities that attract new residents. New primary education schools are also popping up in the urban core. Here's an example of how the center-city market is flexing its muscles and absorbing more and more residents:

Marcus & Millichap's fourth-quarter 2013 Apartment Research Report showed that, among all the submarkets within Greater Cleveland (Cuyahoga, Lake and Lorain counties), Central Cleveland had the lowest vacancy rate at 2.5 percent AND commanded the highest average rent of $1,058. Lake County had the next-lowest vacancy rate of 3 percent while Beachwood/Mayfield had the next-highest rent of $926.

As more and more residential buildings opened in 2014, a funny thing happened – vacancy rates went down to 1.7 percent according to the Downtown Cleveland Alliance (DCA) in its August 2014 market report. And, most recently, the most luxurious building with the highest rents opened – The 9 in the former Ameritrust Tower. On the day the 29-story tower opened to new residents, the building was already 90 percent leased.

Similar development trends have occurred in Ohio City along West 25th Street, plus Detroit and Lorain avenues, where new and rebuilt buildings are offering hundreds of new residential units. Tremont continues to add mostly single-family residential homes, but now they're squeezing into the few vacant parcels left.

In Central, housing occupancy is at 96 percent and hundreds more housing units, including some market-rate housing, are coming thanks to the Cedar Extension development. And as Chinese and other Asian ethnic groups flood into America for college educations, Cleveland's Asiatown population has also grown.

Downtown's population has grown 88 percent since 2000, hitting an all-time high this year of 12,500 with more than 1,000 residential units under construction and another 1,100 units planned, DCA reports. Downtown's population will soon exceed 15,000 – larger than 32 of 57 Cuyahoga County municipalities.

Ohio City's population has stabilized at 9,200 residents as has Tremont at 8,000. Central is rebuilding its way past 12,400. While Asiatown, which comprises much of the officially named Goodrich-Kirtland Park neighborhood, saw its total population dip 5 percent since 2000 to 4,100. But its Asian population grew 14 percent, according to Census data. That's a core-city population of 37,000.

An even stronger downtown will lift surrounding neighborhoods. More residents means more purchasing power which means more jobs. The size of the growth still to come is potentially immense.

“A tsunami of young people and retiring Boomers has created demand not for three- and four-bedroom houses, but for smaller spaces,” said Scott Bernstein, president of Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology, at the Sept. 12th annual meeting of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency.

If national demographics apply to the Cleveland metro area, even if generally, then half of the metro's population is a potential customer for a center-city housing unit. How did I come to that conclusion?

Half of the nation's population is either a Baby Boomer (retiring & possibly downsizing) or a Millennial (more interested in “place” & technology, less into driving). But more so, a 2013 survey by the National Association of Realtors showed the nation roughly evenly split between those favoring smart growth, new-urbanist land uses (47 percent) vs. a single-family, detached home with a large yard (52 percent).

Although center-city rents are rising, they are still less than what is necessary to develop new-construction housing on prime downtown land without subsidies. Most residential units being added downtown are the result of converting obsolete office buildings that qualify for historic preservation tax credits from the state. Virtually all of downtown's obsolete office buildings have been converted, are under redevelopment or have plans to be converted. Once that supply runs out, rents may be high enough to support new construction without subsidies.

For that reason, downtown Cleveland is actually lagging behind many busier apartment markets. Developers would need to add 3,800 more units next year than currently are planned, according to Axiometrics, a Dallas-based apartment consultancy.

“I think the downtown residential rental market is severely undersupplied for a metropolitan area of this size,” said Scott Wolstein, a principal in Wolstein Group, as quoted in a Sept. 29, 2013 Crain's Cleveland Business article.

In the same article, “Developers jump on rental demand,” developer Ari Maron said that for a metropolitan area of 2.1 million, the central business district should possess at least 1 percent of the region's population – or 21,000 residents.

Indeed, developer Bob Stark, who is pursuing his new-construction nuCLEus development on a big parking lot at East 4th Street and Prospect Avenue, once said “it's not difficult to convince 1 percent of any group of people to do anything.” That was in reference to achieving the city's goal of 25,000 living downtown. He added that convincing the next 2 percent of people is even easier than convincing the first 1 percent, and the next 3 percent and so on. “It's an exponentially growing momentum,” Stark said.

Along with that growth comes more shopping options, including the 30,000-square-foot Heinen's grocery store at East 9th and Euclid Avenue that will open in February. More 24-hour restaurants and convenience stores will arrive. Someday there could be a City Target, a Staples, an Apple store or other options.

Each core-city neighborhood has room to grow to tap into the immediately available market within the metro area which is mobile and in a transition period in their lives. It doesn't mean that one of those core city neighborhoods will win the lion's share. It means that if downtown and its immediately surrounding neighborhoods go from being home to 0.5-1 percent of the metro population to up to 1-2 percent the metro population, then we're looking at 25,000 people downtown and another 75,000 people surrounding it.

And these areas won't just draw population from the metro area, but from the nation and the world. But there will be a shift in emphasis from suburban to urban. Why? Because it's already underway and there's no sign of it stopping.


Monday, June 30, 2014

Downtown Cleveland apartment conversions may drive demand for constructing a big office tower -- or two

Many older office buildings in downtown Cleveland are getting converted to apartments and other uses. How many? So many that ALL of the vacant office space may soon be gone -- and then some. So many that the time for constructing one or more major new office towers in the central business district is fast approaching.

In fact, by 2017, assuming that existing tenants in the older office towers relocate within downtown, there could actually be a shortage of leasable office space downtown. Typically, market pressure for a constructing a new office tower reaches a critical point when Class A (the most modern buildings) office vacancies drop below 10 percent and rents are rising.

In 1990, buildings on the west side
of Public Square were leveled for a
60-story office tower that never was
built due to Ameritrust and Society
Corp. merging. The cleared land,
owned by the Jacobs Group, has
remained a parking lot to this day.
At the start of 2014, Class A office buildings in downtown Cleveland were only 12.5 percent vacant, according to a market report by real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle. This includes absorption of space by office users at the new 21-story, 550,000-square-foot EY Tower at Flats East Bank. A second, but smaller office building measuring 220,000 square feet will soon rise across Front Street from the first tower. But that won't be anywhere near large enough to relieve the coming pressure for more office space.

  • There is currently nearly 14 million square feet of Class B (older buildings) and Class C (obsolete) office space downtown. Of that, 9.3 million square feet is Class B and 4.64 million square feet is Class C. Between Classes B/C, there is about 3.36 million square feet of office space that's vacant, or 24 percent. That's about 10.64 million square feet of tenants occupying Class B/C offices downtown.
  • Between now and 2017, all the residential conversions on the books will reduce the downtown Class B/C office building supply to 9.34 million square feet (7 million in Class B, 2.34 million in Class C). 
  • That leaves about 1.3 million square feet of downtown office users looking for new digs. If they want to stay downtown, there's almost enough available space in the existing and planned Class A buildings (about 1.2 million square feet, which includes a second Flats East building) to accommodate them. Almost.
More residential conversions are possible that could tip the downtown office market over the edge. Weston Inc. may buy the Standard Building, a beautiful, 90-year-old, 21-story, 350,000-square-foot office structure at St. Clair Avenue and Ontario Street which is half full. Even larger is the old Huntington Building, a 1.3-million-square-foot edifice at East 9th Street and Euclid Avenue that was the second-largest office building in the world (only Chicago's Merchandise Mart was larger) when built in 1924. It is 90 percent vacant.

If those two buildings were renovated into residential (even partially), they would represent the fourth and fifth buildings downtown of 20 stories or taller to be converted since the Great Recession. The previous three were the Embassy Suites, old Ameritrust Tower, and the East Ohio Gas building. Embassy Suites was recently converted while the first apartments at Ameritrust Tower (will also include a Metropolitan Hotel) and East Ohio Gas Tower are almost ready for occupancy. Three vacant Class C office buildings of 10-19 stories (Schofield, 1010 Euclid and 1220 Huron) are also being renovated mostly for apartments.

Staff at the old Huntington Building say representatives of owner Optima 925 LLC have toured developers and investors through the building, including its world's largest bank lobby, with an eye toward adding apartments to a mix of office and retail uses. The amount of space that could be devoted to each use isn't yet known.

Furthermore, additional older Class C office buildings may be converted to apartments, soon. K&D Management LLC, Northeast Ohio's largest owner and manager of apartments, is finding the conversions of downtown office towers to housing so profitable that they are selling suburbans properties to buy more downtown buildings.

So if my math is correct, this could mean there will be more office users than office space left downtown -- assuming that all downtown office users relocate elsewhere within downtown. And it assumes there are no changes in absorption. Admittedly, those are both big "ifs."

But what isn't an "if" is that downtown's office market is about to become extremely tight, perhaps more than it's ever been. And the need for constructing one or more office towers downtown is about to reach a critical point.

Of course, the most visible location for an office tower is the west side of Public Square where a 60-story Ameritrust tower and hotel was to be built by the Jacobs Group. Buildings were leveled for the tower in 1990 but construction never started as Ameritrust merged with Society Corp. and moved into its new tower on the north side of Public Square. Society later merged with Key Corp. The west side of Public Square has remained a parking lot ever since. However there are rumblings that the Jacobs Group is rekindling plans for a new tower here.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

It's time to stop ducking Duck Island

CLEVELAND – If it looks like a big real estate development and sounds like a big real estate development, it probably will be a big real estate development.

That's what a spate of real estate transactions in recent months suggest for an urban enclave close to downtown that's neither an island or named after ducks. (Some claim it's named for criminals who used to duck and hide here from the law). It's an ear-shaped area east of Columbus Road and west of the Walworth Run valley.

Duck Island is actually part of Tremont although many people think it's in Ohio City. The official dividing line for the service areas of the two community development corporations (Ohio City Inc. and Tremont West Development Corp.) is Columbus Road.

Duck Island reappeared on my radar Nov. 1 when the city's Design Review Committee was asked to approve a request by Ward 3 Councilman Joe Cimperman to vacate part of West 20th Street north of Lorain Avenue.

Council members don't just submit requests to vacate city streets when they feel like it. They do so at the request of others. And vacating a city street means the city is relinquishing its right of way, probably forever. It can be a pretty big deal, and it often takes a big project to justify it.

At the north end of West 20th is a vacant, single-level industrial building that was for sale for years. One year ago, it was acquired by Andrew Brickman. He is a partner with Justin Campbell in Abode LLC which builds eco-friendly, luxury town homes in Cleveland's University Circle and Little Italy, plus the inner-ring suburbs Cleveland Heights, Fairview Park and Lakewood.

All around Brickman's industrial parcel are numerous other residential and vacant properties having different corporate owners. Yet all the names trace back to Brickman or Abode in public records. Taken together, the properties west of West 19th/Grove Court Condos and atop the hill east of Columbus Road form a site about as large as the St. Ignatius High School campus (or at least the main campus north of Lorain Avenue).

The purpose of this agglomeration is not a secret. It is revealed in the name of one of the companies formed to acquire land at the north end of Duck Island – “Abode Ohio City Townhomes,” according to records from the Cuyahoga County Auditor's office.

The timing of this project is less well known; Brickman isn't talking publicly about this project yet. However, considering that the city is already vacating a street for it, this strongly suggests that demolitions and site preparation could be sought soon. How many demolitions? Four commercial structures are probable; but there are also 14 historic houses sprinkled in this area and most appear to be in fair to good condition. Their fates are unknown.

What is known are the intentions of the developer eyeballing the area of Duck Island south of Lorain Avenue. About 20 properties, most of them vacant land, were acquired by Matt Berges or his company Berges Home Performance. Ten of them are for development of green-friendly infill housing.

Plans for various housing styles and property locations are shown on his firm's Web site. Berges' motivations don't seem to be limited to the financial returns that normally drive developers. Why? First, he is the green housing manager at Environmental Health Watch. And second, he's invested in the neighborhood in the ultimate way – he and his family moved there.

County records show he recently acquired the large brick home and surrounding 10 parcels of the late Rosemary Vinci. If that name doesn't ring a bell, her name came up during early investigations of the county's corruption scandal. Vinci died in 2008 under suspicious circumstances. Her father, James Vinci, a reputed organized crime figure who famously owned Diamond Jim's in the Flats, was reportedly killed in a mob hit in 1985 to prevent him from testifying in a trial of accused mobsters.

But Rosemary Vinci was better known in the neighborhood for owning strip clubs and ruling the Duck Island Block Club with an iron high heel. One of her missions was to urge Duck Island residents to acquire a neighboring property and demolish the house on it (if it wasn't already torn down) to reduce the urban density of the urban neighborhood located just one mile from Public Square. She surrounded her own West 18th Street house by a moat of vacated lands and walls that exuded the kind of exclusive estate one expects in a gated suburban community.

A decade ago, Vinci also led opposition to a mixed-income, high-density residential development next to the Red Line Rapid station along Columbus Road south of Lorain. She claimed the transit- and pedestrian-oriented development would increase traffic but others accused her of fear-mongering against its low-income component.

Today, Berges is president of the Duck Island Block Club. He's a forward-thinking man who's highly regarded around the country and in Cleveland as a sustainable housing contractor.

With the booming demand by young professionals and empty-nesters for more housing in the urban core, it's important to have sustainability-minded developers like Brickman and Berges who are in a position to respond. It's a welcome change from the city's past when fear and corruption shaped our development policies.

Duck Island's location between Ohio City and the heart of Tremont makes it an ideal urban development area. Its proximity to the Rapid station and the Lorain-Carnegie Hope Memorial Bridge with its new bikeway/walkway into downtown enhances its drawing power. Hopefully Duck Island's new-urbanist promise shall be hindered no more.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Enhance Clifton starts Sept 13, merchants fear traffic detours

CLEVELAND – Now that contractors were chosen for $25 million worth of transit and pedestrian enhancements to Clifton Boulevard, a formal groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for Sept. 13.

But after the West Shoreway was closed for two weeks this past summer for the filming of Captain America, Clifton's merchants want to know how construction of Enhance Clifton will be carried out.

Those answers will start to come into focus now that the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's board on Tuesday hired Perk Company Inc. for $8.65 million to construct infrastructure along 4 miles of Clifton from the west end of Lakewood east to Edgewater Park.

That includes a landscaped median in Cleveland, improved transit waiting environments and a streetscape for the business district between West 115th and West 117th streets.

RTA's board also approved a contract with New Flyer of America Inc. to buy 23 articulated, low-floor buses for up to $16.33 million. An articulated bus is extra long and bends in the middle so it can go around corners and curves. Most of these new buses will be used on the No. 55 Clifton route into downtown, according to RTA documents.

The contract with Perk also stipulates that the City of Cleveland may provide an additional $343,026 for sidewalk repairs, said Ward 16 Councilman Jay Westbrook.

“The sidewalks will be replaced as needed under the city's assessment program that's been used in the rest of Ward 16 to maintain safe sidewalks,” Westbrook said.

The difference with the Clifton project is that property owners will have to pay only 50 percent of the cost instead of the full amount. He said property owners having sidewalks in need of repair or replacement should have already received assessment notices in the mail.

Until the filming of Captain America shut down the Shoreway for two weeks in June and detoured traffic away from Clifton, merchants seemed excited about Enhance Clifton. But that shut down caused some merchants to experience a 90 percent reduction in business, said Anita Brindza, executive director of Cudell Improvement Inc.

“Some elements of Enhance Clifton will be very much welcomed, but merchants justifiably have some trepidation,” she said. “It depends on how the construction goes. If they do it in segments, then it may not be as bad.”

“The sequencing and scheduling still have not been determined,” Westbrook said. “Clifton will remain open during construction. Some of the work will start in the fall, but most will be done starting in the spring.”

He also noted that this project is the forerunner of what is planned for the West Shoreway, which is due to be converted into a landscaped boulevard. A funding request for this conversion is pending before the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

America's first Interstate to be abandoned--when and where?

   Sometime in the next 5-15 years, a remarkable event could occur. The first section of Interstate or interstate-quality highway will be abandoned somewhere in this country due to a lack of funds.

   It will probably be a short, lightly used section of road with a decaying, expensive bridge in the middle of it. The highway department responsible for closing that section of road will try to minimize the significance of the event by calling it a temporary closure. They themselves may not even realize at that moment the closure is permanent. But it won’t be the last abandonment. My home state of Ohio’s stagnant population growth makes it a likely place for this momentous event to happen here first.

   What’s even more remarkable is that it may be inevitable. There are many reasons why this will occur: rising construction costs, stagnant gas tax revenue from more fuel-efficient vehicles, high gas prices, a declining middle class, retiring Baby Boomers (75 million Americans) and car-apathetic young people (80 million Americans) that drove 23 percent fewer miles 2001-09 than did the prior generation.

   Why could it be inevitable? Legislators and voters refuse to increase road taxes, institute vehicle-mile fees or convert “freeways” into toll roads. Even if they did, the higher user costs might cause people to drive even less. The effects of this unprecedented situation are profound.

   Foremost, highway departments are trying to hoard all the taxpayer dollars they can, including $51.5 billion in federal subsidies since 2008 to bail out the Highway Trust Fund and $29 billion in federal stimulus dollars to expand roads they can’t afford to maintain. But it kept road builders busy during the recession.

   Hoarding taxpayers’ dollars is one reason why rail and transit projects are being killed by governors like those in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin – so the politically active highwaymen can continue feeding at the public trough. A spokesman for Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray (a former asphalt industry association executive) confirmed this remains an issue for ODOT when he was asked recently if his department would support plans for Columbus-Chicago passenger rail service.

   “As I am sure you are aware, Ohio, like many other states, has limited transportation funds that do not cover the existing commitments for infrastructure investment,” Wray’s spokesman said. “This financial reality makes the needed capital investment as well as the on-going operating subsidy that would be required for a passenger rail route very difficult.”

   This is all the more ironic as ridership has risen nationwide on trains and buses by 30 percent in the 21st century while miles driven have fallen to their lowest levels since before 2004. So funding is being denied to trains and transit which people are using more often in an attempt to keep people driving, which they are doing less.

    The primary goal of government agencies like ODOT is survival. Under current laws, the only way ODOT can survive is to keep people driving and the gas taxes flowing. Meanwhile, ODOT has no way to capture the value from people riding trains and transit to support those new activities and transition into a multi-modal transportation agency.

   Alas, ODOT spends only 1 percent of its budget on public transportation, even though 9 percent of Ohio households have no cars – that’s 1 million people. Even more households have multiple wage earners sharing one car per home. These numbers are growing as Ohio gets poorer – median family income has fallen to its lowest levels in 27 years. Yet Ohio spends less on basic public transportation than it does to cut the grass along its interstates. Ohio legislators need to find a way to capture value from Ohioans traveling by trains and transit.

   Furthermore, well-funded and organized civil rights activists, environmentalists and fair housing advocates see transportation agencies taking money from public transit to save an aging, overbuilt highway system from insolvency. They recently won a federal action against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for failing to include transit improvements as part of a $1.7 billion highway interchange in Milwaukee.

   One could argue that ODOT’s policies do that every day by spending so little on transit compared to the number of Ohioans who have no access to cars. Physical access to basic services is a human right in a civilized society. Whether Ohio chooses to remain one will depend on its actions in the coming years as we continue to get older and poorer.

   So that first section of abandoned interstate will be symptomatic of the sweeping changes occurring in America’s transportation system. It’s why the highwaymen are trying to postpone it for as long as they can. It’s a tough pill for them to swallow. But it’s inevitable. The only question is where and when.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

The 2011 Cleveland Browns, a 1985 redux?

To me, NFL training camp is one of the most enjoyable occasions in pro sports. It is a time when otherwise inaccessible football players are accessible. It is when you can sit (or stand) with die-hard football fans in the scorching summer sun in Berea, dissect the repetitions of players and pretend to be a coach for a day.

It is also a time when all optimism is justified. And, yes, that even applies in Berea.

One only needs to look at last year to know that anything can and does happen in the NFL. Philadelphia fans were ready to book hotel rooms in August for the Super Bowl, only to see their star-studded Eagles finish 8-8. Meanwhile, some Cincinnati fans were discussing last August, before another expected losing season, whether they should select Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III in the 2012 draft. Instead, their young team made the playoffs.

So each summer I remember what it was like to be a naive young guy in high school and college in the 1980s, with a reverence for pro football players for their athletic abilities. I also revered the NFL in bringing us their refined performances. After 30 years of labor disputes, franchise free agency and just growing more cynical with age, I've lost much of that unbridled optimism.

Except during training camp.

And this year, I feel something I haven't felt in nearly 30 years. The summer of 1985 was a remarkable time for the Browns -- and me. I was leaving home for the first time to live off-campus at Kent State University so I could start my own life. That excitement was heightened by off-field moves made by the Browns that summer and by the anticipation of coming seasons.

The Browns aggressively traded college draft picks the year before to acquire more high-round choices in a special supplemental draft of players in the United States Football League. They also aggressively picked up the contracts of several other USFL players. In all, the Browns acquired defensive lineman Sam Clancy (10-year NFL career), offensive lineman Dan Fike (11-year NFL career), punter Jeff Gossett (1 pro bowl), cornerback Mark Harper (7-year NFL career), linebacker Mike Johnson (2-time pro bowler), running back Kevin Mack (2-time pro bowler), wide receiver and returner Gerald "The Ice Cube" McNeil (1 pro bowl), and cornerback Frank Minnifield (4-time pro bowler). Their only USFL pickup who didn't work out was linebacker Doug West. He never played in the NFL.

Then another supplemental draft was held, this time in the summer of 1985. The reasons for that draft are too complicated to describe here, but the Browns traded future draft choices (including two first-rounders) to select quarterback Bernie Kosar. Also a former baseball pitching prospect, the Boardman, OH native wanted to play for his hometown Browns, making him an immediate fan favorite. Indeed, like other Cleveland fans, I couldn't wait for the 1985 season to start. The national publications weren't so optimistic, however.

"They were No. 2 in the NFL in defense last year and still finished at 5-11," wrote Paul Zimmerman in his 1985 NFL season preview in Sports Illustrated. "The offense was nowhere. Once you got by Ozzie Newsome, the AFC's top pass catcher, the next-highest Brown receiver ranked 78th in the league. ...The Browns' schedule is too vicious, the offense too unsettled for there to be much improvement, but at least the team is showing some smarts."

That team went 8-8 in a then-weak AFC Central Division, which the Browns won. It started a five-year streak of playoff seasons. The city went Browns crazy, with Browns songs on the radio, downtown statues decorated in Browns clothing, the "Dawgs" became a household name here and otherwise sane people ate dog biscuits to cheers of family and friends. My family often held Browns game-day parties and every Sunday morning in the fall felt like Christmas morning to me.

And then it all ended.

Bad drafts and trades, the franchise leaving for Baltimore only to win a Super Bowl there, and only three winning seasons since 1989 have eroded enthusiasm for the Browns' by me, my family and apparently the entire city.

Except during training camp.

Each summer takes my memories back to 1985. But this year's training camp has some meaningful similarities with that watershed year. The Sports Illustrated article quoted above contains several examples... The 2011 Browns finished 4-12 despite having the NFL's 10th-ranked defense, similar to the 1984 team. The Browns' offense, especially its receiving corps, was anemic in 2011 as it was in 1984. Also the Browns' 1985 schedule was predicted to be difficult, as is 2012's.

Also similar is the fact that nearly everyone around the league is overlooking the Browns this year, including in our own division. A search of media websites in any of our three rival cities -- Baltimore, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh -- shows little if any reporting on the Browns' off-season aggressiveness in procuring talented players. Only former Browns hall-of-fame tight end Newsome, now Baltimore Ravens general manager, seemed to pay much attention.

“You start with Cleveland, anytime you can get a running back, it shortens the game," said Newsome in a post-draft news conference. "And them getting a guy like Trent [Richardson] and then getting a quarterback -- but not only a quarterback -- a quarterback that has some maturity, I think that learning curve may be a lot shorter with him. So, they did a good job."

The quarterback, former baseball pitching prospect Brandon Weeden, joins the incredibly talented Richardson, fast/big wideout Josh Gordon, speedy receiver/returner Travis Benjamin, "plug-and-play" offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, rangy linebacker James-Michael Johnson (no relation to 1980s Mike Johnson!) and more. All were aggressively sought by the Browns to fill voids on offense by making trades, drafting players ahead of projections, and even taking part in a supplemental draft -- the first time for the Browns in a long time since when? You guessed it, 1985.

I don't make predictions because I don't pretend to see into the future. But I can tell you what's in the past. And if the example of 1985 is any indication, then this year will be a season of hope for long-suffering Browns fans like me. If the parallels hold true, that also means that the following year of 2013, like 1986, could be a breakout year (as long as it doesn't end the same way, with a broken heart on the doorsteps of the Super Bowl).

Our promising rookies this year will get NFL experience to apply in 2013, hopefully enough to realize that size and speed aren't enough to excel in the pros. Next year, I hope we will add more firepower in the draft and hopefully through free agency, what with all the salary cap space the Browns offer.

Admittedly, that's a lot of hoping. But that's what training camp does for me. My fellow Browns fans, it's OK to join me in hoping. This year, maybe for the first time since 1985, we are seeing the start of something that can be special for years to come.

I hope.


Friday, March 2, 2012

County offices may move to East 9th & Euclid after all

Although Cuyahoga County leaders officially remain mum on the subject, it looks like county administration offices may be moving to the corner of East 9th Street and Euclid Avenue after all. But it's not the same destination desired by the previous county commission government.

A real estate study conducted in late-2011 for the county by Allegro Realty Advisors Ltd. recommended selling off 22 of its 66 properties to save $91 million. Most of the savings for the county would come from selling properties or terminating leases at these five sites:  current administration building on Ontario Street, the ex-Ameritrust Center (aka Breuer Tower) at East 9th and Euclid, the Sterling Building on Euclid in Playhouse Square, the old Juvenile Court building on East 22nd Street and Reserve Square on East 12th Street.

Two top county officials -- a councilperson and a department head -- spoke off the record in pointing to the Huntington Building, 925 Euclid Ave., as the site where as much as 300,000 square feet of county office space and about 1,000 county employees could be consolidated. The address is across Euclid from the Breuer Tower and Cleveland Trust rotunda -- where the county previously sought to relocate. That property's 2005 purchase was approved by the former county commissioners four years before they were swept out of office by voters installing a reformist charter government.

The 1.3-million-square-foot, 1924-built Huntington Building can meet county site-selection goals that might otherwise seem contradictory -- an affordable space that provides a magnificent architectural experience for visitors having to do business with the county. The Huntington Building was purchased in 2010 by Optima Ventures LLC for a bargain $18.5 million, or just $14 per square foot. The building has a majestic but now vacant lobby, which when it opened 88 years ago was the largest bank lobby in the world. It features marble Corinthian columns, barrel-vaulted ceilings and colorful murals by Jules Guerin (see photo below).

Also the new location for consolidated county offices will need to offer large floor plates and the possibility for natural lighting to reduce energy costs. The 22-story Huntington Building offers floor plates measuring 65,000 square feet (compared to less than 9,000 square feet of usable space per floor in the Breuer Tower) in addition to numerous light wells. After financial services firm Ernst & Young and law firm Tucker Ellis & West move out of the Huntington in spring 2013 to Flats East Bank, about half of the building will be vacant. Huntington Bank already moved out in 2011, relocating its regional headquarters with 100,000 square feet of offices to 200 Public Square. The Huntington has the most vacant office space available downtown.

"We have to keep costs down so (that means) we're not going to build new," said the department head who did not wish to be named. "We're going to move into an existing building. The Huntington Building has the vacant space and it has very striking public areas which is what (county Executive) Ed FitzGerald wants."

A county councilperson agreed that the county offices will move into an existing building downtown to save money, but declined to identify the Huntington. The councilperson said the owner of a large downtown building has already made "a very good offer to the county."

Other than the Breuer Tower, which the county intends to sell, the only downtown building with enough contiguous vacant space, large floor plates and a lobby offering numerous customer-service counters for conducting county business is the former East Ohio Gas building, 1717 East 9th at Superior. But media reports indicate that K&D Group may acquire that office building and convert it into apartments.

The Huntington offers direct transit access, a major site-selection goal for the county, as the building's Euclid entrance is a few feet from a station on the HealthLine bus rapid transit. Parking is another key site selection goal. The building has a parking garage on the north side of Chester Avenue that is connected via an underground tunnel into the Huntington's basement retail arcade.

Among the county departments and services that may move to the consolidated administrative offices are the Advisory Committee on Persons with Disabilities, Automated Data Processing Board, Board of Revision, Council/Clerk of Council, Cuyahoga Tapestry System of Care, Executive, Fiscal Officer, HR/Payroll, Personnel, Employment Relations, Information Services Center, Planning Commission, Procurement & Diversity, Public Works, Treasurer and Veterans Service Commission. FitzGerald said he wants the county office consolidations to happen in two years.

In the future, when county leases expire at Courthouse Square, 310 W. Lakeside Ave., and at the Marion Building, 1276 W. 3rd St., additional relocations could occur. Among them could be offices for the Fatherhood Initiative, Homeless Services, Invest in Children, Public Safety, Justice Services, Mediation, Emergency Management, Office of Reentry and the Witness/Victim Service Center.