The future of the Cleveland Play House site

Former Cleveland Play House site as it looked in June 2019.

Interior demolition of the former Cleveland Play House has begun, including the removal of materials such as decorative ornaments deemed to be architecturally significant and/or historic. The complex will be demolished in the coming months to temporarily serve as a construction staging site for the new Neurological Institute. After that, it could become a mixed-use neighborhood (Google). CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE THEM

After theaters, large site offers blank canvas

Planning and development activities by several large players are pointing toward the need for constructing thousands of housing units in and near the Cleveland Clinic and the nearby booming University Circle area. And while the large number of housing units already under construction in and near University Circle is evident, it’s likely that they will start rising west of the Clinic’s main campus soon.

The reason? One of the biggest development sites along Euclid Avenue — the former Cleveland Play House (CPH) property — is about to be cleared of buildings left over from prior uses and will be made ready for redevelopment in the coming years. Located at 8500 Euclid Ave., the 11.3-acre parcel has been owned by the Cleveland Clinic since the health care system acquired it in 2009 from CPH. Two years later, the nonprofit theater group moved to Playhouse Square downtown and the nation’s largest regional theater complex went dark.

In the 11 years since, the Clinic has struggled to find a new use for the nearly 300,000-square-foot complex of which its first two theaters were built in 1927 on gardens owned by industrialist Francis Drury. CPH held its first performance in 1916 across the street in an old farmhouse owned by Drury. His mansion still stands next door. CPH was expanded and extensively renovated in 1984, designed by world-renowned modernist architect Philip Johnson who was born in Cleveland. It is the only local work by Johnson who espoused fascist views until World War II. A third theater was added and a closed Sears department store on Carnegie Avenue was incorporated into the facility as a prop shop and rehearsal venue.

Cleveland Clinic masterplan vision from an aerial view.

A conceptual massing of buildings is shown only as a suggestion of what could be done with the Cleveland Play House site, seen at the bottom of this image between Euclid and Carnegie avenues. Any development of that site will come after it serves its next purpose as a construction staging area for the new Neurological Institute to be completed by early-2026. The three proposed buildings for the Center of Infectious Diseases (aka pathogens center) is seen at right along Cedar Avenue (CCF).

The Clinic rarely uses the former CPH buildings except for occasional seminars or Clinic police training. The most regular use of the property by the Clinic is for parking lots for employees. According to contractors working on the CPH site, the CPH buildings have been decaying over the years, suffering roof leaks and broken boilers plus other utilities. Cleveland City Council President and Ward 6 Councilman Blaine Griffin said at a May community meeting, neighborhood residents and other stakeholders don’t consider preservation of the theaters to be a priority either. Instead, housing, jobs and keeping Clinic employees from parking on nearby neighborhood streets is of greater important to residents, he said.

So the CPH buildings are coming down, as NEOtrans first reported back in November 2021. Work is already under way to remove and remediate the buildings of interior demolition debris, such as materials with asbestos that cannot be put into landfills, said Cleveland Clinic’s Senior Director of Corporate Communications Angela Smith. The work can seen through some of the windows of the former Sears store. Also, in the theaters, some decorative ornaments deemed to be architecturally significant and/or historic are being removed and put into storage, sources said.

But after the CPH buildings are razed in the coming months, the Clinic’s only confirmed plans for the site is to use it for construction staging for its massive new, 1-million-square-foot, 15-story Neurological Institute to rise starting next year on Carnegie between East 89th and 90th streets. Demolition won’t be limited to the CPH. Also being demolished is the Surgery Center, 2083 E. 89th St., called the “P” building in the Clinic’s alphabetical identification system, and its attached “PP” parking garage. The surgery center site was fenced off in late-August to prepare for demolition next month, Smith said.

Sears department store window showing interior demolition.

Through this bay window of the old Sears department store at the corner of Carnegie Avenue and East 86th Street, one can see interior demolition of materials that cannot be put into regular landfills and must be removed before mass demolition. The former Sears (1928-1980) was repurposed in 1984 as a prop shop and rehearsal facility for the Cleveland Play House that is about to be demolished (KJP).

“Once the old Cleveland Play House building is removed, this area will initially be used to support the building of the new neurological building where all equipment and vehicles will be contained on Cleveland Clinic property during construction,” the Clinic reported in a written statement released last May. “This will ensure that local residents have uninterrupted access to parking in their neighborhood during this time. Potential long-term plans for this portion of land include a new mixed-use neighborhood development project.”

The sheer size and location of the CPH site opens up a lot of development possibilities after the Neurological Institute is constructed. And that doesn’t include 8400 Euclid, a 0.465-acre plot of grass owned since 1985 by an affiliate of Si Elias Harb, a retired real estate investor from Seven Hills who retired to a tony section of Henderson, NV, a suburb of Las Vegas. There was an abandoned grocer on his land until it was demolished for a wider street to accommodate the HealthLine bus rapid transit project. Harb was the subject of an eminent domain proceeding and was paid $19,600 in 2007 by the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) for a tiny sliver of frontage land from that parcel. Harb could not be located by NEOtrans for comment.

Cuyahoga County, the city of Cleveland and GCRTA are trying to put housing and jobs closer together so they can be linked without having to to drive between them. Their combined efforts to promote transit-oriented development (TOD) is starting with research to learn more about issues surrounding the physical disconnect between jobs and job seekers that put the city’s poverty rate at 30 percent — one of the highest in the country. Among their findings was that there’s too much single- and two-family zoning in corridors where the region has invested in frequent and rapid transit. That prevents having transit-supportive density within a short walk of high-frequency service bus and rail transit stops.

Transit access to jobs in the city of Cleveland.

This map shows a significant number of jobs are accessible within a 30-minute one-way transit trip from Cleveland’s east side. Yet the Census says only one-third of available jobs are within a 90-minute one-way transit trip of Greater Clevelanders and 30 percent of Cleveland households are in poverty. That suggests more quality, affordable housing and better job training is needed in the yellow and orange areas (CPC).

Another finding, disclosed by the City Planning Commission last week, is that there are actually a lot of jobs within a 30-minute one-way transit trip from downtown Cleveland east to University Circle which are directly linked by the bus rapid transit HealthLine on Euclid Avenue and, a couple miles farther south, by the rail rapid transit Red Line. In fact, it’s the highest concentration of transit-accessible jobs in the Greater Cleveland area.

The problem, according to planners, is a lack of quality, affordable housing along those transit corridors and the need more job training to so more people can compete for those jobs. And what housing does exist is mostly in bad condition or unaffordable to Clevelanders trying to escape poverty. The large CPH site, if it is developed with dense, mid- or high-rise affordable housing, could help address this problem.

The Clinic has a lot on its plate, however. It is also looking for a new location to relocate and expand its boiler plant, police department and other support services. Sources say the CPH site is among the locations being considered for them but may not be complementary with housing. The existing boiler plant, which is just 20 years old, is on East 90th Street, just south of Euclid and The Callahan Center for Radiation and Robotics. It provides steam generation for heating, humidification, domestic-water heating and instrument sterilization. And the police department, 8811 Euclid, is in a tiny brick building that dates to 1935, building records show.

Map of the Play House and Neurological Institute sites

The scale of the 11.3-acre former Cleveland Play House site is shown here, including its location on the HealthLine bus rapid transit on Euclid Avenue and its proximity to the site where the new Neurological Institute will rise. Between them is a 4,000-space parking garage. That deck and the HealthLine could be used to support residential development here (Google).

As an example, if only half of the CPH site is used for housing and six-story buildings were built with ground-floor retail, parking and building lobbies/amenities, more than 1,200 residential units could be offered. It may be a logical example because the same type of mixed-use structure is what the Clinic is hosting on nearly 3 acres of land it owns at the southwest corner of East 105th Street and Cedar Avenue. Developing the site with a six-story mixed-use building called Fairfax Market is Fairmount Properties of Orange Village. The $52.8 million development will include a 40,000-square-foot Meijer grocery store and 196 apartments in a six-story building plus a three-level, 314-space parking garage.

And it’s not just new housing the Clinic is hosting on its campus. They’re helping employees rent, buy and repair housing in University Circle and nearby in Buckeye-Shaker, Central-Midtown, Fairfax, Glenville, Hough, Little Italy, St. Clair-Superior and southwestern East Cleveland by partnering with Greater Circle Living. Launched in 2005 by the Cleveland Foundation, the employer-assisted housing program is administered by the Fairfax Renaissance Development Corp. and marketed by University Circle Inc. Up to $30,000 in down payment assistance, up to $8,000 in matching funds for exterior home repairs and up to $1,400 for one-time rental assistance is available.

But it is clear that Cleveland Clinic is increasingly seeking to develop more housing around its 173-acre Main Campus that has nearly 50,000 employees while constructing fewer parking garages. Indeed, despite three major new-construction institutional projects on its to-do list that could add nearly 1.6 million square feet and up to 10,000 new direct and indirect jobs to the campus, no new parking garages are planned. Those three projects are the expanded and renovated Cole Eye Institute, the new Neurological Institute and the three-phase development of the Global Center for Pathogen & Human Health Research. More expansions are planned as part of the Innovation District partnership with the State of Ohio that could double the number of new jobs to 20,000.

Fairfax Market development at East 105th and Cedar

Cleveland Clinic is already hosting mixed-use developments on its properties next to its Main Campus. Last winter, Fairmount Properties began construction of its Fairfax Market, a 196-unit apartment building over a Meijer grocery store plus 314 parking spaces at East 105th Street and Cedar Avenue. It may offer insight as to how the Cleveland Play House site may be redeveloped in the coming years (Bialosky).

So it’s unlikely that the Clinic is done building parking garages. But it should be noted that some of the Clinic’s huge parking decks for employees are mostly empty at night when they could be used for residential parking. Those include the 4,000-space East 89th Street Employee Garage between CPH and the site of the new Neurological Institute, or the 3,000-space East 105th Street Employee Parking Garage on the northeast corner of Cedar and East 105th. The same approach was done downtown with existing parking garages supporting the high-rise Beacon Apartments, built in 2019, and the City Club Apartments that are under construction now.

Each of the Clinic’s decks could support the nearby development of multiple mid- and high-rise residential buildings beyond the scale of those under construction now at Circle Square at East 107th Street and Stokes Boulevard, namely the 24-story Artisan tower and the 11-story Library Lofts that are adding a combined 505 apartments to University Circle. But the absence of nearby parking means that developers Midwest Development Partners of Cleveland and White Oak Realty Partners of Chicago must spend millions of dollars to construct multi-level parking garages that will offer up to 1,300 parking spaces at full build-out. That will also include another high-rise residential tower, hotel and office building.

Except, in the case of the CPH site, it is nearly double the size of the roughly 6-acre Circle North development site. That offers an indication of how significant the economic contribution of the CPH site could be when it starts to be developed in the coming years — after construction work on the Neurological Institute is done in late-2025 or early-2026. Cleveland Clinic officials say a vision for how the CPH site will be used will likely come into focus before the new Neuro building opens.

END