Will Sherwin-Williams’ HQ be a pretty bunker?

Winter garden in front of Sherwin-Williams HQ pavilion facing Public Square.

This rendering of the proposed gardens in front of Sherwin-Williams’ new downtown headquarters shows people standing around. They’re not sitting because the global coatings giant did not want any benches to be included in its gardens which face Public Square. Security concerns about attracting homeless people led to a compromise with the city by providing leaning and sitting railings at locations around the new headquarters complex. The railings aren’t wide enough to allow someone to lie down on them (The Sherwin-Williams Company). CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE THEM.

City supports HQ landscaping, amenity plans

ARTICLE UPDATED OCTOBER 7, 2022

To sit or not to sit, that was the question that caused the biggest debate today among members of a design-review panel of Cleveland’s City Planning Commission prior to supporting landscaping and site amenity plans for Sherwin-Williams’ (SHW) new global headquarters. The question became a point of debate over concerns of whether adding benches to the outdoor areas of the downtown HQ would attract homeless people to sleep there as is already the case at locations throughout the adjacent Public Square.

While some committee members had some reservations about the seating features in the site amenities plan for the new HQ, they had none for the landscaping plan which won unanimous praise. Both plans ultimately were supported by the joint committee which recommended their approval to the full citywide design-review committee and the Landmarks Commission.

They jointly voted 9-1 with one abstention to approve the landscaping plan and 8-2 with one abstention to approve the amenities plan. The former requires consultation with the city’s urban forestry section and latter authorizes the city’s planning department staff to sign off on a building permit application if there is city-SHW agreement especially regarding the type of seating outside the new HQ.

The joint committee, comprised of neighborhood-level design review panels for Downtown/Flats and the Warehouse District, can only recommend to the full citywide design-review committee and the Landmarks Commission whether it should approve or reject plans and if any conditions should be attached to its recommendation. Typically, the full committee follows the recommendation but not always. But it was followed in this case because of the city’s strong support for SHW and its new HQ which represents an investment of at least $300 million or, according to some construction industry insiders, up to $500 million. The organizing of joint meetings to expedite passage of development plans for the new HQ is an indication of the city’s eagerness to move the project forward.

SHW HQ site plan show street furniture.

Locations of leaning rails and seating rails at the new Sherwin-Williams headquarters. The HQ tower is shown on this diagram above “Superior Ave.” with the pavilion to the right of it and the parking garage above, or north of the tower (The Sherwin-Williams Company).

But not everyone agreed that the city should be bending over backwards to accommodate everything that SHW wants from its new HQ. Some have argued the design of SHW’s new HQ an expression of a bunker mentality in which wealthy corporate executives are protected inside a steel and glass tower from the unwashed masses lingering on the city’s streets with their isolation intensifying each other’s socioeconomic condition.

That disparity is conveyed by the HQ’s design that includes enclosed walkways over streets linking HQ buildings, a lack of ground-floor retail/restaurants except for a tiny space that is required by the city’s zoning code, and a lack of seating outside the HQ buildings, some committee members noted. A few considered it an indictment of SHW’s corporate culture that they apparently want only their employees to enjoy their public spaces.

“I am very concerned about businesses and institutions who are quite frankly afraid of homeless folks and who might sit around their building,” said August Fluker, a retired architect and vice-chair of the citywide design review committee. “That’s what they’re talking about. And you know what? We’re never going to grow up as a city and operate and maintain public spaces with that kind of attitude. Not going to happen here because we are backwards. I’m not blaming (planning department) staff or anyone on this (meeting) call, but we let these institutions bully us. If they don’t want to deal with this, go move out in the ‘burbs. That’s the urban experience. We could be celebrating great public spaces if we figured that out.”

“We’ve been hearing a lot about Sherwin-Williams comfortability on certain things and that’s not really our concern. Our main focus should be the comfortability of the public and not the multi-billion-dollar company,” said local design review committee member Alan O’Connell, an urban designer and former president of the Downtown Cleveland Residents Association. He continues to serve as an advisory board member of the association.

Seating, leaning loitering at SHW's HQ isn't exactly encouraged.

Samples of what the leaning rails, at left, and the sitting rails could look like at Sherwin-Williams’ new corporate headquarters (The Sherwin-Williams Company).

“I think our concern is balancing the needs and concerns of the company that’s important to the city and making a huge investment in it with the comfort of our public as well and encouraging them to be in this place and it’s not a easy question,” responded Jack Bialosky, chair of the Downtown Design Review Committee and an architect whose father founded the design firm Bialosky Cleveland. Yet he expressed his concern that SHW would consider today’s vote as a settled matter on the question of providing outdoor seating.

“I want to express again how glad I am that they’re going to be here,” Bialosky said. “They obviously had a lot of other choices. We thank you for that. But this sometimes feels like the last chance for us to advocate for the public who’s going to be walking through here and experiencing this.”

City Planning Director Joyce Huang thanked SHW’s design consultants for their responsiveness to the committee’s requests from the prior design review meeting, held last June. Since then, she said Planning Commission staff met with SHW’s HQ consulting team in June, August and September plus had “multiple” discussions by e-mail and phone in between. Huang also noted that, while SHW’s HQ gardens facing Public Square will be open to the public, the site is private property and the city’s ordinances limit the city’s role in guiding their design.

“We focused primarily on site amenities for the public such as benches and seating, the treatment of Frankfort and the experience of West 6th Street,” she said. “We want to express that we’ve come to a consensus through our discussions, understanding the various concerns and realistic needs of Sherwin-Williams. We’ve come to this consensus through our discussions about the broader priorities and we’re supportive of the project advancing through final approval.”

The public realm at SHW HQ has Frankfort, a pretty street sewer.

Another area that Sherwin-Williams’ design consultants worked out with the city was in making the company’s portion of Frankfort Avenue an attractive setting for pedestrians and bicycles to travel through, including the addition of neighborhood picture panels along the new parking garage, brick pavers in the street plus decorative trees and lighting (The Sherwin-Williams Company).

That consensus regarding seating was to adopt a mix of railings for leaning or sitting. Four locations for the sitting railings — metal-supported thin bars made of wood so they aren’t too hot in summer or too cold in winter and are slightly angled so they don’t stay wet — are set outside the two-story pavilion/welcome center facing the west side of Public Square.

The four leaning railings would be placed near Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) bus stops along Superior Avenue, west of West 3rd Street. GCRTA asked the committee to not take action on any improvements within the Superior right-of-way, so the committee urged that any amenities added there would be subject to a future administrative approval by the Planning Commission.

“I know that, if I worked in this building, I’d want to sit out front and eat a lunch now and then or just enjoy the space,” said committee member and architect Jeffrey Bogart. “And I’m a little older so leaning on that leaning bar to me would be good for about two minutes and then I’d not want to be there. So I really think you should consider a few benches there that people could sit on. I think you’ve done a marvelous job on the streetscape and landscape design here. Just, the seating to me seems to not be a public relations winner. You’re saying, we’ve got a great complex, come look at it but don’t dwell here.”

“This is a level that we felt comfortable with at this time,” said Tim Muckley, SHW’s director of corporate real estate. “If we don’t sense a problem and we can add additional seating we would be all for it. We’re spending a lot of money to put some really beautiful landscaping in there and we want people to come in and enjoy it. At the same time, we’ve got to make sure we keep it a place that’s safe and secure for our employees and visitors. So this is a level we felt comfortable with. Down the road, if there’s not a problem, why wouldn’t we want to add more?”

Lots of trees in SHW's landscaping plan.

A wide variety of tree species are proposed to be included throughout the headquarters campus plus dozens of additional plantings and grasses in gardens, especially on the Public Square side of the pavilion seen at lower right (The Sherwin Williams Company).

Construction on the 1.2-million-square-foot headquarters, accommodating 3,000 employees, started nearly a year ago. It began with foundations for the 618-foot-tall, 39-story tower (that includes several floors of rooftop mechanicals) at the northwest corner of West 3rd and Superior. That was followed by construction starting on the 920-space parking garage north of Frankfort Avenue and west of West 3rd. Next came site preparation for the pavilion/welcome center east of West 3rd and facing Public Square.

The landscaping and amenity plan also identifies the locations and types of other street furniture such as litter receptacles, bike racks for commuters and messengers, flag poles and parking lot fences. As a security feature, there will also be cast-in-place concrete landscaping walls a couple of feet high along the West 3rd frontage of the HQ tower and along all but the northwest portion of the pavilion.

Each section will be angled at the top so no one can lie down on them and they’ll have skate stops inserted at intervals so skateboarders can’t ride on them. Another security feature will be stainless steel bollards at all pedestrian entrances to the tower and pavilion, as well as along the Superior side of the tower and the Frankfort side of the pavilion, plans show. Muckley said SHW doesn’t yet have a plan on how employee smokers or their discarded cigarette butts will be accommodated.

Dozens of types of trees, perennials and grasses will be provided at multiple locations in the tower block, pavilion block and parking garage block. The plantings will have a wide variety of colors year-round for a company known for offering paints with numerous colors. Jennifer Kipp, the city’s manager of urban forestry, said there are no shade trees in the landscaping plan due to a lack of soil volume, the presence of de-icing salt and dry conditions. Only ornamental trees will be provided. However, she said there is an opportunity for more than ornamental trees in front of the pavilion where more soil volume may be available. That opportunity will be revisited at a later date.

West 3rd Street gardens in front of Sherwin-Williams HQ but with a skywalk and a dead-at-street-level wall for the pavilion.

In front of the main entrance to the headquarters tower will be a strip of gardens along West 3rd Street, as shown in this view looking north. The skywalk will link the tower to the pavilion at right, whose ground floor is mostly a blank wall along West 3rd and Frankfort Avenue (The Sherwin Williams Company).

Bialosky also asked SHW staff when the development sites at the northeast corner of West 6th Street and Superior (south parking lot) and the southeast corner of West 6th and St. Clair Avenue (north parking lot) are developed, how might that affect existing and future parking needs. SHW owns those lots and is reserving the south parking lot for contractors and other visitors to the SHW HQ. The northern lots are to be available for public parking until a developer seeks to build there, causing parking to relocate south.

“It will go in a new garage on the southern site, assuming we need it,” Muckley said. “It’s kind of hard to tell because people are pushing toward public transportation so we may not need to add a whole lot. But right now feel that we have 900-some spots in our current garage (now under construction). We think that that’s going to be adequate for a majority of our employees who drive to work. So if we build on the south parking lot, we would create additional parking underneath whatever we would build there.”

In conceptual, long-range plans for the HQ site, SHW has proposed a significant phase two structure of at least 20 stories tall at the northeast corner of West 6th and Superior. Some real estate insiders have said that, when SHW begins moving into the new HQ from its old HQ on Prospect plus other buildings scattered around Greater Cleveland, it may pursue the second tower. That building may allow SHW to relocate to downtown hundreds of workers from its flex-office site on Hinckley Industrial Parkway and possibly from other cities, as well as for contractors and suppliers seeking to have a sales office here.

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