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Arts and Entertainment

Higbee alteration issue goes to Washington
Bridge to casino could cost developer historic tax credits for 82-year-old building

Kabir Bhatia
Higbee's Department store operated here until 2002. Earlier this year, Cleveland's Horseshoe Casino opened in the building, which is part of the Tower City/Terminal Tower complex overlooking Public Square.
Courtesy of Kevin Niedermier
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In The Region:
The Horseshoe Casino in downtown Cleveland will soon see its first blast of winter. And a downtown developer wants to shield gamblers from the cold with a skywalk to the converted Higbee Building. A hearing over the value of the project is scheduled for this Thursday – in Washington D.C. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports on controversy over the proposal. 
Higbee alteration issue goes to Washington

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Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Councilman Joe Cimperman are among those supporting the over-the-street walkway from the 
parking garage to the casino inside the 82-year-old Higbee Building.

Forest City Enterprises wants to build the walkway AND keeps its historic tax credits for the building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

But the National Park Service, which administers the historic registry, has said no, and an appeal hearing is scheduled for this Thursday in Washington D.C.

Last week, a grassroots group calling itself OurCLE launched a petition drive aimed at convincing Cimperman and Jackson to withdraw support for the walkway, which would run diagonally over the intersection of Ontario Street and Prospect Ave.

The Mona Lisa
Plain Dealer Art & Architecture critic Steve Litt famously likened the project to “poking the Mona Lisa in the nose with a straw.” Renderings currently show the skywalk as a glass-and-steel tube.

“There’s a very, very, very slight chance that a walkway could be a stunning thing and almost and attraction in and of itself. You have to hire a brilliant designer and you have to put money into it.”

And Litt says that requires the designer to make some tough decisions to produce a work-of-art.

“Whether it's going to be held up by an array of cables or distinguished some other way.  If the glazing on it- the way glass is used -- is absolutely exquisite.   You know, there's very few visible opaque structural members that cross the street.  And the whole thing looks wafer thin like it’s levitating in space with a very elegant suspension system holding it up.”

Design done right
That kind of describes the bridge over Lee Rd., between the Cleveland Heights Library and the old YMCA. Litt cites it as an example of design done right. But in the case of the casino-

“I suspect, based on the earlier version that I saw. that we’re not going to get anything exciting.  And that it's going to be primarily a visual negative to the city.  It'll be a plus for the casino operator.  I don't know what argument they could bring other than an economic one.  That the casino will have more success if people are able to walk easily over the street from the visitor's center on the opposite side of the intersection and get into the casino without having to confront snow and slush and ice on the sidewalk.”

Avoiding the weather, not the city

“In general, you don't want an over-street walkway system in an American downtown situation.  Because it does all the things that the critics are saying: it removes pedestrian traffic from the sidewalk.  It hurts street-level retail.  Here, I think that argument is probably weakened by the fact that you just have a large number of people who want to go from one side of the intersection to another.  And [they] may not be interested in perusing the city.”

More to come?
Because the skywalk has that singular purpose, Litt does not believe this will touch off a wave of skywalk construction. But it may be the only option here, since an underground walkway would interfere with the mass of utilities running under Public Square.
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