At 616 feet tall, the 36-story Sherwin-Williams headquarters tower will become the fourth-tallest in downtown Cleveland and dramatically chage the city’s skyline. The tower will mean different things to different people, but there was one storyline of how we got to the start of construction. It involved three years and 56 NEOtrans articles that traced this project from its earliest origins to today’s groundbreaking ceremony (Pickard Chilton). CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE THEM
Start of HQ construction marks three-year-long journey
On this date of the groundbreaking ceremony for Sherwin-Williams’ (SHW) new global headquarters, it’s not just a time to look ahead but to look back to see how we got here.
It was three years and two months ago that NEOtrans wrote the first of 56 articles about the SHW HQ project by breaking the news that SHW had started planning work for a new HQ. Or, more accurately, SHW “re-started” planning work that began several years earlier but was put on hold. Of more pressing concern from 2016-18 was SHW acquiring its rival Valspar and paying down its debt from that acquisition.
It wasn’t just a three-year journey for SHW. It was also a three-year journey for NEOtrans. For many readers, they first heard of us as a result of our news coverage of the SHW HQ process. Although NEOtrans had already been blogging for seven years, it was cranking out only a handful of articles per year.
Our coverage of the SHW HQ story helped in our transition from a nonprofit blog of thought exercises and development summaries to a breaking news outlet that was outpacing established media on Cleveland’s biggest development story in recent decades. Our ability to break stories spread to other developments as well and allowed us to grow as a media outlet. Last month, NEOtrans surpassed 100,000 Web site views in a single month.
But it all started one fine October day in 2018 when a connected friend of impeccable character came to me with the news equivalent of a 911 call. He had just come from a meeting in which the subject in his words was “A large company wants to build a 40-story headquarters downtown.” He wouldn’t reveal the company’s name, but the number of companies in Cleveland who would need such a building was limited to a select few. So two weeks later, I took my shot. I asked him if SHW had mentioned the proposed location of the building. He replied “No, they hadn’t.”
Downtown Cleveland’s largest parking crater is comprised of the Weston Group-owned lots and, at extreme left, the Jacobs Group-owned lot on Public Square. Sherwin-Williams acquired the nearly 7 acres of parking lots for $49.4 million in March 2020 for its new headquarters and supportive developments (vrbo-dot-com).
Armed with that information, I went back to other real estate friends who were either aware of or worked on SHW’s HQ project of 2014-16 to see what they knew about a renewed HQ effort. None of them was aware of it — that’s how exclusive this news was. In fact, they questioned the accuracy of my source’s information.
But I knew this source wasn’t prone to lying or misunderstanding what he had learned. And while not all rumors make sense and should therefore be set aside, this one added up. SHW had outgrown its old HQ at 101 W. Prospect Ave. and began planning for a new one BEFORE it acquired Valspar and caused the combined firm to grow rapidly. If there was a reason for a new HQ before, there was a bigger reason now.
The most vexing question was: could SHW afford a new HQ? SHW’s debt grew four-fold after it acquired Valspar for $11 billion which caused some concern on Wall Street. But its revenues grew much larger too. NEOtrans calculated in early 2019 that, at the rate SHW was paying down its debt, it would be able to return to a 1:1 debt-to-equity ratio comparable to that of its industry peers sometime in 2022. And since it would take several years of planning, design, programming and city approvals before a groundbreaking would happen, the timing appeared just right. The rumor made sense.
Having worked for 20 years at an establishment newspaper, I knew that the proper way to report a story was to convey the official word from SHW. I knew SHW’s then-Director of Corporate Communications Mike Conway going back to his public relations days at the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority and Key Corp. But Conway did his best to discourage me from writing the story, saying there was “nothing to write about.”
I almost believed him until he said two things — 1) he didn’t even want his denial on the record, and 2) that SHW wasn’t pursuing a new HQ in 2014-16 either. I knew that was patently false. And so I wrote NEOtrans’ third article on the SHW HQ project in May 2019. It was NEOtrans’ first SHW HQ piece that other local media picked up and shared. I started hearing from mid-level managers at SHW that they were receiving company e-mails to not talk to the media about the SHW HQ project as well as its new research and development (R&D) facility. The company’s advisory had the opposite effect. NEOtrans gained sources.
In November 2019, three months before Sherwin-Williams announced the site of its new headquarters, many indications were emerging that someone was spending millions of dollars to conduct due diligence prior to the potential closing of a deal to acquire the parking lots west of downtown Cleveland Public Square. Those indications, such as geotechnical/soil sampling seen here as well as NEOtrans’ sources, pointed to Sherwin-Williams (KJP).
Since NEOtrans was the only media outlet with original reporting on the SHW HQ for 11 months, people close to the decision-makers at SHW soon came to us to share what they knew. They included family members and friends who passed along information and, even more valuably, print-screens of text messages and e-mails to back up what they were saying. Other information came from those who simply rode on the same elevators as C-Suite executives who were discussing the HQ+R&D project.
NEOtrans also heard of SHW executives and contractors being threatened with firing. Indeed, we learned of a retired SHW executive who was brought back to work on the HQ+R&D project but was mistakenly let go because he was falsely suspected of being NEOtrans’ source — as if there was only one source. He apparently was brought back when NEOtrans’ articles kept coming. Many of our subscribers and followers are SHW employees who simply wanted to know what their employer was doing and where they might be working in the coming years.
There was invariably some intended misinformation targeted at NEOtrans. But most of the information was remarkably consistent and ultimately proved accurate. The articles came faster and more frequently with time but had to be written in ways to protect sources, including some intentionally false information from our end but that didn’t change the facts of the story.
The facts of the story in the summer of 2019 were this: SHW and its law firm Kohrman Jackson & Krantz were issuing requests for qualifications and proposals from all sorts of potential contractors — general contractors, civil engineers, architects and the like to design and build 1.6 million to 1.8 million square feet of HQ and R&D facilities. The HQ location spoken of most often was the parking lots west of downtown Cleveland’s Public Square — the same site SHW chose for its HQ five years earlier.
The hardest part to nail down was the R&D facility. Sources gave conflicting information as to where the R&D facility would land. Some said it would be next to the HQ. Others said it would be next to the old R&D facility, 601 Canal Rd., or across the Cuyahoga River on Scranton Peninsula. In fact, the 9-acre Scranton Peninsula site appeared to be the leading candidate if not for the site’s pollutants or the owner’s apparent unwillingness to return phone calls, sources said.
Throughout the latter part of 2019, Sherwin-Williams was reportedly very interested in putting its new research and development facility across the Cuyahoga River from its existing Breen Technology Center. But that site was too polluted and its owner too unresponsive for SHW’s desired timeline. Strong consideration was given to Bedrock’s Riverview properties but the complex site would take longer to get ready than the Brecksville location it ultimately selected for its new research center (KJP).
Throughout 2019, there were rumors that the former Veterans Administration Hospital site in suburban Brecksville was in the running. The site moved to the forefront when SHW couldn’t get a deal done for Scranton Peninsula.
On Sept. 12, 2019, nearly a year after NEOtrans first reported it, SHW finally acknowledged it was pursuing new HQ+R&D facilities. It would be another five months before SHW publicly said where it would build them. But the subterfuge continued. SHW gave the charade that it was considering other metro areas for its HQ+R&D in order to secure tens of millions of dollars in public incentives from city, county and state taxpayers.
But there was never any indication that SHW was going to leave Greater Cleveland. NEOtrans worked with real estate developers to contact the Weston Group and the Jacobs Group — owners of nearly 7 acres of parking lots west of Public Square — and prospect for leases or purchases of the land. Each overture was refuted by Weston and Jacobs, saying they had something big cooking that they couldn’t risk losing. Turns out SHW had signed purchase agreements for those properties months earlier.
It wasn’t just NEOtrans’ spy games that revealed where SHW would land. There was increasing amounts of documentation that SHW would acquire the parking lots west of Public Square. Certificates of disclosure were filed for the Weston lots, geotechnical survey crews descended on the Jacobs and Weston lots, city crews inspected nearby sewers, an unused street called Broome Court within the Weston lots was vacated, and leases were cleared from the Weston lots to facilitate their sale.
Two views of Sherwin-Williams’ headquarters campus dominated by the 36-story office tower connected by skyways over West 3rd Street to the Public Square pavilion hosting a Learning Center and over Frankfort Avenue to a 900+ space parking garage (Pickard Chilton).
And then there was NEOtrans’ discovery that SHW CEO John Morikis had just moved from Brecksville into a custom-built $10 million home in Bay Village. If SHW was suddenly going relocate its HQ and 3,100 employees to another metro area or even to Brecksville where its new R&D facility was destined, news of the CEO settling into his new 22,197-square-foot lakefront mansion pretty much undermined it.
On Feb. 6, 2020, SHW officially announced it would build its $300+ million, 1-million-square-foot HQ west of Public Square and its $250 million, 600,000-square-foot R&D facility in Brecksville. One month later, much of the world went into economic shutdown as the COVID-19 pandemic began to cover the Earth more quickly than SHW had in its 155-year history. It postponed the HQ+R&D project by about six months.
Once the project fully resumed in September 2020 and the design/development team was announced, it confirmed the hiring of several team members that NEOtrans had been reporting for a year — a joint venture of Welty Builders and Gilbane Building Co. plus architect Vocon and real estate brokerage CBRE Inc. Added was Pickard Chilton Architects, Inc., an international firm known for designing signature buildings. Meanwhile the base building architect for the global headquarters and the design, base and interior architect for the R&D facility was HGA Architects and Engineers, LLC of Minneapolis — home of Valspar.
The Building Our Future Committee was created to manage the project development process for the HQ plus the R&D facilities. Dozens of optional site plans were developed, especially for the HQ that started with 40 design options. But it soon became clear that the largest HQ structure wouldn’t front Public Square. Instead it would be built a block west at the northwest corner of West Superior Avenue and West 3rd Street.
Thanks to sources on the committee, NEOtrans was notified that the designs of Pickard Chilton’s BOK Park Plaza tower, the skybridge-connected Devon Energy Auditorium and parking garage in Oklahoma City would serve as a model for SHW’s HQ site planning work. And we released the site plan one month before SHW’s committee publicly released it. It showed a short pavilion on the Public Square lot, the office tower west of West 3rd and the parking garage at the northwest corner of West 3rd and Frankfort Avenue.
East-looking view of the Sherwin-Williams headquarters site on Nov. 29, 2021 — the first day of construction — from the roof of the Rockefeller Building. The Weston Lots are in the foreground, the darker-shaded Jacobs Lot and Public Square are in the background, with Superior Avenue is at right. The tallest building is Key Tower with 200 Public Square (slightly taller than what the SHW HQ will be) to the right of it. At far-right is Terminal Tower (KJP).
More details, including what the crown of the tower might look like came into focus throughout the spring. But our reporting was causing anger among some SHW and contractors’ executives who threatened to fire development team members that talked to NEOtrans. Fortunately for Greater Clevelanders and especially SHW’s employees, sources kept talking and sharing tidbits, including tower crown samples like the Atria III building in the Toronto suburb of North York.
By June, employees were finally engaged by the Building Our Future committee. Interior design options for the new office tower were shared with employees using mock-ups that they could tour in the old HQ building. And by the end of that month NEOtrans revealed the tower’s height — a structure rising to just over 600 feet (616 to be specific), making it the fourth-tallest tower in Cleveland and the sixth-tallest in Ohio. Sources didn’t want to reveal the exact number out of concern that different numbers were being told to different people to discover who was leaking info to us.
After that, SHW and its HQ development team had advanced the project’s designs to a level to where they could be shared publicly. It revealed an interesting wrinkle — the 616-foot, 36-story tower, two-story pavilion and five-level parking garage represent only the first phase of SHW’s HQ plan. A second phase featuring a potential 300-foot-tall, roughly 20-story tower could be added at the northeast corner of West Superior and West 6th Street at some point in the future. NEOtrans speculated it might be added shortly after the first phase is completed in two years.
Aside from some disdain expressed over the HQ’s two planned skywalks over nearby streets, the HQ+R&D plans were approved by Cleveland and Brecksville, respectively, with little or no pushback or drama. The R&D facility saw construction start on Oct. 22. And, of course, tonight was the groundbreaking ceremony for the HQ in downtown Cleveland, although actual construction work began Nov. 29.
A groundbreaking ceremony for Sherwin-Williams’ new global headquarters was held in this tent Dec. 15, 2021 on the Jacobs Lot on Public Square. The event apparently was only for company officials and other dignitaries; no news media seemed to be invited based on the lack of news coverage of the event (KJP).
Not only is it the start of construction of a shiny new 600-footer but also the death of surface parking lots that have blighted downtown Cleveland for decades. Vibrant downtowns don’t have surface parking lots. They have a mix of building types, styles and ages. And those buildings all have two things in common in vibrant downtowns — they are filled with life and they interact with each other, especially with pedestrian activity.
That will be next test of SHW’s HQ. How will it interact with its surroundings? Will it be a self-contained bunker or a generator of sidewalk foot traffic? Although its planned skywalks are a concern, the new HQ has already instigated three $80+ million projects. Those spin-offs are 55 Public Square’s conversion to apartments, modern offices and retail; Renaissance Hotel’s renovation into the high-end Cleveland Hotel; and the Rockefeller Building’s conversion to apartments, updated offices and ground-floor food services. More developments may be in the offing.
Three years and 56 articles have brought us to the tangible beginning. We’re at a place where the skyscraper’s construction progress can be seen and heard from a downtown sidewalk, or photographed from afar. Recent and older photographs of Cleveland’s skyline will soon be forever dated by the absence of Sherwin-Williams’ tower. And construction photos taken in the next two years will fall into the “remember when” category. Cleveland’s skyline will be changed and you were there to read how it came to be in real time.
This is the 57th article. Or the first.
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