From the air looking west into the sun setting next to distant Downtown Cleveland, Nela Park looks much smaller than it does from the ground. Three commercial buildings on the former campus of General Electric’s Lighting Division could be converted to residential by its new owner Phoenix Investors (LoopNet). CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE THEM.
Vision evolves for ex-General Electric Lighting HQ
Many Greater Clevelanders have at least some familiarity with a place that could soon become home to many Greater Clevelanders. The owner of the former General Electric Lighting headquarters, 1975 Noble Rd. in East Cleveland, is preparing plans to convert several office buildings within the 94-acre Nela Park Campus into apartments and make those intentions known at a meeting of local stakeholders, possibly as early as this month, according to a source familiar with the project.
Milwaukee-based Phoenix Investors, which owns more than 80 industrial and commercial properties totaling 73 million square feet across 29 states, acquired the Nela Park Campus last year for a mere $5 million, Cuyahoga County records show. The campus, with more than 26 buildings and over 1 million square feet of space, was built over a span of nearly 50 years, from 1911-1960 and once had more than 1,000 General Electric employees. Tunnels connect the buildings primarily as utility conduits but GE employees sometimes used them to escape bad weather.
Although Phoenix Investors focuses on rejuvenating large commercial properties for industrial and new commercial uses, it has noted in its marketing materials that some of the 26 buildings totaling 1 million square feet of space at the Nela Park Campus could be repurposed for new uses. Only three buildings on the campus that total about 182,000 square feet have existing tenants, according to Phoenix Investors. The current market for offices is depressed by the rise in remote working.
“The Historic Nela Park Campus offers a variety of options for new occupants and users including: abundant modern office areas with high-end finishes, state-of-the-art lab/R&D space, a large recently renovated conference & events center, a former school building with classrooms, and industrial/manufacturing buildings,” Phoenix Investors noted on LoopNet. “Other buildings could be redeveloped for other uses including housing or hospitality.”
A map showing the campus, buildings and sizes of buildings in Nela Park in East Cleveland. Included are the three buildings being considered for a residential conversion, namely buildings 307, 321 and 331 (Phoenix Investors).
Phoenix Investors Executive Vice President & Managing Director Anthony Crivello opened but otherwise did not respond to two e-mails from NEOtrans seeking more information prior to publication of this article. His father Frank Crivello founded the company in 1994.
A source familiar with the project and who spoke to NEOtrans on the condition of anonymity said Phoenix Investors would like to redevelop at least three buildings with apartments as part of a vision for a mixed-use campus at the northeast corner of East Cleveland, next to Cleveland Heights and the city of Cleveland. The source said the campus’ relative isolation from the rest of troubled East Cleveland could provide a secure place to live and work would help provide the city with much needed tax dollars.
“I think this project has great potential both from historic preservation and inner city revitalization,” the source said. He also said a few buildings may also be demolished for new companies to build training facilities, a school or a warehouse/distribution center at the east end of the campus.
Although still early on in the process, the buildings being considered for possible conversion to residential include Building 321 which is the largest structure proposed for repurposing at 61,120 square feet. It is actually part of three connected buildings that comprised General Electric Lighting’s corporate office building that totaled 163,258 square feet. Next largest to be converted is Building 307 at 47,255 square feet. Building 307 was the first building to open at Nela Park in 1913. And, lastly, Building 331, a 23-room former lab building, is also proposed to become housing, the source said. But at just 14,226 square feet, it would be a small residential structure.
Building 307 was the first structure to open at Nela Park in 2013 and was built with a Georgian Revival style. It is proposed to be redeveloped into apartments. Based on its square footage, it could accommodate nearly 50 apartments (Rpabst).
Typically, in Greater Cleveland, the average size of an individual apartment unit including common areas is about 1,000 square feet. So if these three buildings are converted to residential, they could provide about 122 apartments. Although, commercial buildings often don’t convert so easily to residential and tend to have more non-revenue-producing spaces than structures built for residential. And the small Building 331 might be better suited as a residential amenity space, offering a community room, fitness center and/or storage.
Multiple Nela Park structures have been renovated in the past 25 years, some using federal historic preservation tax credits, according to the National Park Service (NPS). They include two of the three buildings considered for conversion to residential. Building 307 was renovated in 2000 for $707,161 and Building 331 was renovated in 1999 for $1,544,000. Other Nela Park buildings renovated from 2000-2010 were Building 308, the cafeteria, for $707,161, Building 309 for $339,715, Building 330 for $2.5 million, and garage Building 325 for $81,110, NPS records show.
The history of GE’s Nela Park goes back to before GE itself. It traces back to 1879 when Cleveland inventor and industrialist Charles Brush placed 12 electric-arc lamps on downtown’s Public Square and made Cleveland the first city in the USA to have electric street lights. It was also the same year Thomas Edison invented the incandescent electric light bulb for use indoors.
Brush’s feat was a sensation around the world and it won for him business from many cities. It led to the sudden growth of the Brush Electric Co. and the construction in 1880 of a 200,000-square-foot lighting plant at the corner of Mason Street (now Commerce Avenue) and Belden Street (today’s East 45th) with McHenry Street (now East 43rd Street) forming the new factory’s western boundary. Called the Euclid Lamp Plant, it closed in 2008 and was torn down by GE earlier this year. GE said it wasn’t feasible to clean up environmental contamination to repurpose the buildings. Critics claimed GE was afraid of being sued by future users.
This is the former corporate offices of GE Lighting at Nela Park and is comprised of three buildings. One of them, at left, is Building 321 is among those being considered for conversion into apartments. Plans for the other structures are unknown (LoopNet).
Even though Thomson Houston Electric Co. bought the East 45th plant in 1889, some Clevelanders still called the plant “Brush Electric” more than a century later. Thomson Houston Electric merged two years later with the Edison General Electric Co. to become GE. The Euclid Lamp Plant was the first home of a research consortium called the National Electric Lamp Association (NELA) in 1901. NELA was created to share among member companies research and development into better lighting technologies, according to the Encylopedia of Cleveland History.
GE, which owned 75 percent of NELA, relocated it to the headquarters for its lighting division in East Cleveland a dozen years later. Nela Park was born and is considered by many to be the nation’s first industrial park. Starting in 1924, GE opened Nela Park’s gates to the public to see its annual Christmas lighting display, a tradition which continues. Many thousands of Greater Clevelanders worked at Nela Park over the past 111 years.
GE Lighting was acquired by Savant Systems, Inc., in July 2020 and has maintained partial tenancy at Nela Park after Phoenix’s acquisition with only about 200 employees. In 2019, GE Current left its parent company GE. Now a Daintree company, GE Current last year relocated its offices and about 90 employees totaling about $6 million in annual payroll from Nela Park to Beachwood, according to Inside Lighting News.