Rockefeller garage demolition opens door for major development

A significant new development site was created today by the
Cleveland Landmarks Commission when it authorized the
demolition of an obsolete parking garage next to the new
Sherwin-Williams headquarters property (Google).

Shortly before Cleveland Landmarks Commission approved the renovation of the neglected 116-year-old Rockefeller Building, it unanimously allowed the demolition of the century-old garage behind it. The potentially dynamic combination of those two actions received only a brief mention during today’s commission hearing.

The result was that the Landmarks Commission just created a highly marketable and major development site.

NEOtrans broke the story last August about a partnership taking title to the Rockefeller Building property. The partnership of Realty Dynamics Equity Partners, LLC of Akron, OH and Wolfe Investments, LLC of Plano, TX. acquired the 17-story office building, the five-level parking garage and the 1.84 acres on which they both set for $13.35 million.

The 261,264-square-foot, half-leased office building at 614 W. Superior Ave. will be redeveloped with a mix of uses. Floors 5-16 of the Rockefeller Building will be repurposed with 436 apartments including 273 efficiencies. The apartments would measure anywhere from about 273 to 726 square feet each, preliminary plans show.

General contractor Geis Companies will renovate floors 2-4 with offices for existing or new tenants. The ground floor, with entrances off West Superior and West 6th, will have 12,000 to 15,000 square feet of retail, be it shops, barber/salons, restaurants and/or food hall. Geis will also manage the building.

Demolition plan approved today by the Cleveland Landmarks
Commission. Superior Avenue is along the bottom of the image
and West 6th Street is at the right side. The parking garage to be
demolished is near the top-center of the image along Frankfort
Avenue and will create an L-shaped development site (GLSD).

Geis revitalized two other major, historic structures downtown. The May Company department store on Public Square was renovated into apartments over retail and the former Cleveland Trust Rotunda was turned into the Heinen’s grocery store. Geis’ rehabilitation efforts in both projects received wide praise for their attention to detail in preserving historic features while adding modern technology and features.

The spark for this potential $100 million redevelopment is the new 1-million-square-foot global headquarters for Sherwin-Williams (SHW) that will start to rise by year’s end across West 6th. The new HQ will bring up to 3,500 employees to this area, the southern part of the Warehouse District.
“Sherwin-Williams is a prime driver for business here,” said Conrad Geis, director and managing partner of Geis Companies.

Having that spark to further investment next door was a key factor not only for the Rockefeller Building redevelopment but also for the now expanded development site surrounding it. That’s why the demolition of the decayed garage is so critical.

As recently as last year, demolition of the garage seemed unlikely. It was the first structure in downtown Cleveland built as a multi-level parking garage, it’s part of the historic Rockefeller Building with all of the history surrounding that, and it’s located in a designated historic district.

Some architectural features may be preserved from
the Rockefeller Building’s century-old parking garage
for possible re-use in public spaces along West 6th
Street and Frankfort Avenue, serving as a buffer to
parking lots or new high-rise buildings (GLSD).

But Osborn Engineering produced a report at the behest of Geis, showing that the garage doesn’t meet building and design standards as a parking garage or for repurposing with human uses such as residential, offices or retail. In fact the garage hasn’t been used for parking this century, said Brandon Kline, Geis’ director of design development.

The vehicle ramps are too steep and narrow, there’s no ventilation system, the stairways do not meet code and the building is in poor condition with major masonry failure and exposed rebar. The split level layout of the structure makes it difficult to convert for a human use, the report said.
Initially, demolition of the garage will create sufficient space for construction staging in the renovation of the Rockefeller Building, Kline said. Then it will provide an interim surface parking lot, landscaped along West 6th and Frankfort Avenue using architectural features that can be salvaged from the garage.

The last thing downtown Cleveland especially the Warehouse District, needs is more surface parking lots, said Thomas Starinsky, associate director of the Historic Warehouse District Development Corp.

“We’re thinking about more human activation of our sidewalks and not car activation,” he said.

Kline said the property owner considers the new parking lot to be part of a future development site. Sources familiar with the site say the property owner is already getting inquiries but nothing has been finalized.

View of the Rockefeller Building from Prospect
Avenue and Tower City Center (KJP).

Starinsky reluctantly concurred with the garage’s demolition, “knowing this is a development site and hopefully sooner than later that will occur,” he said.

“Personally, there’s nothing sadder than to be in front of a new building and there’s like, pieces of the capitol of the historic building that once stood there that we’re supposed to sit on and feel good about it,” Starinsky added at today’s meeting.
“We’re not really thinking about that,” he continued. “To the extent that this is practical and cost-effective was the position. It wasn’t really any kind of condition (of approval). Related to the historic elements, we do feel strongly about creating an active place for human use along the West 6th edge and the Frankfort edge.”

But there’s a chance that the new parking lot may never happen, what with the dynamic combination of SHW’s new HQ next door, the recent passage of the Transformation Mixed Use Development (TMUD) tax credit and a usable development site created by the garage’s demolition.

Developers are already positioning themselves for spin-off momentum from the SHW HQ, starting with the Rockefeller Building’s renovation. That could be followed by K&D Group’s proposed renovation of 55 Public Square into residential and offices, as well as a new-construction high-rise by Chicago-based Magellan Development Group, north of SHW’s new HQ.

Like the Rockefeller Building, renovation of 55 Public Square will reactivate an underused building but without the Rock’s Gilded Age architecture. And with its garage soon to be gone, the land surrounding the Rock will have a leg up on the proposed Magellan development site which, at least for now, has to work around two historic buildings that the Warehouse District Development Corp. has shown an interest in protecting.

The Rockefeller Building, its garage behind it and the site’s
surroundings including the future Sherwin-Williams HQ
location is shown in this aerial photo (Adam Greene).

The reason for hope in developing next to the Rock is that the demolition of the garage creates an uninterrupted 1.1 acres of open land for development. It is next to what will be the new SHW HQ. And it is in the hands of motivated real estate developers Agostino Pintus of Realty Dynamics Equity Partners and Kenny Wolfe of Wolfe Investments who have a knack of getting things done.

Not having to split up a development around an unmarketable garage removes a huge burden for them. It creates a blank canvas for them to design a mixed-use project that meets the needs of potential commercial tenants seeking to locate across the street from a Fortune 500 company’s global headquarters.

In Cleveland, where skepticism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, observers may look to another site to bolster their pessimism. In 2015, Geis acquired 0.3 acres of land at 2173 E. 9th St. on which the New York Spaghetti House stood.

Geis paid $1.5 million for the tiny property and added it to another 0.8 acres the well-heeled developer owned next door, giving it frontage for potential structures on both East 9th and Prospect Avenue. Given the amount of money Geis invested in the property, Kline told that “We are very motivated to get our own money out of this in the future development.”

Sources who spoke off the record said that, if the pandemic hadn’t happened, a development plan for the East 9th site would likely have been submitted already. Indeed, Geis reportedly has several irons in the fire here. But any vertical development here or next to the Rockefeller Building may require tapping a TMUD tax credit to make a project’s numbers work in this high-construction-cost, low-rent city.

The onus now is on the property owners and development teams associated with both sites to make sure these two properties don’t remain as surface parking lots much longer. With Downtown Cleveland running out of obsolete commercial buildings to convert and a robust state incentive for new-construction projects becoming available, the timing couldn’t be better for developing those windswept parking lots with vibrant urban uses.


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