Even if you didn’t grow up in Cleveland, you probably know Higbee's through its role in the holiday movie “A Christmas Story.” It’s been nine years since the department store – then called Dillard’s – closed.
The lights will soon be back on as the first four floors of Higbees becomes phase one of the Horseshoe Casino. So what’s not to like?
David Jurca, an urban designer at Kent State’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, says a better question is: How can the casino be as good as possible? He’s excited by how the two phases – phase one in Higbees and phase two along Huron Road over the Cuyahoga River – could transform downtown and help link developments from the river to Lake Erie.
“It doesn’t mean game over . . . we’ve done the best we can," he says. "It’s the connection of that to the rest of the city that matters. So the public space, the quality of the street, the scale of the street, the traffic calming, all those are the fabric and the network around it where people really experience the day-to-day life. That’s where they get their impression of Cleveland not from, ‘Boy, that casino is nice.’”
How the casino fits into the city can be examined from a physical perspective and from a business perspective. First the physical.
City Development Director Chris Warren likes the synergy of how the casino ties the Gateway stadiums into the Avenue of Shops at Tower City, which has been struggling for much of the last decade. He also says the second phase of the casino will allow enough space for access to the river and will open just as the towpath trail is completed along the other side of the river.
The Pedestrian Bridge
Still, Rock Ohio Caesars angered many preservationists when it tore down the historic Columbia building to build a parking deck. The casino operators also want to connect their planned welcome center at the edge of the deck directly to the Higbee building with a secon-story skywalk. David Jurca calls that 170-foot-long bridge a “stick in the eye” of the 1931 building.
“It’s an awkward connection that compromises a historic building," he says. "Functionally, too, it drives foot traffic away from the street and onto an enclosed internal connection directly from the parking garage into the building.”
The National Park Service has ruled that if such a walkway is built, it would deactivate $7 million or more in federal historic preservation tax credits. Building owner Forest City Enterprises got the credits to renovate the structure. Brian Goeken of the park service says it rarely allows skywalks, and a pedestrian bridge over the intersection of Prospect and Ontario raises a couple issues.
“One is the impact of the historic fabric itself, and when a pedestrian bridge gets connected, you have to make a hole into the side of the building. The second issue is relative to historic character: having that structure connecting to a primary or significant façade of the building and crossing the street, which is also affecting the immediate surroundings. In the case of this building, it’s actually within two historic districts.”
Rock Ohio Caesars is appealing the tax decision. Even if it loses, the cost could be tolerable because federal tax credits are issued with a five-year recovery period. If unacceptable changes are made after the first year, an owner would have to pay back 80 percent of the credits. But after four years, the payback would drop to just 20 percent. Forest City has sold its Higbee credits to other entities, so a reimbursement deal with Rock Ohio Caesar’s is unlikely. The casino could simply wait until the five years are up, in 2016, and then build its skywalk with no repercussion.
The business fit
Construction crews are now working two shifts a day rebuilding the first four floors of Higbee's. One bow to historic preservation they’re making is to keep the original windows. That lends to the character of the Horseshoe Casino, says its general manager, Marcus Glover.
“This very different than most casino developments that are windowless.”
The old-school tradition is to prevent bettors from even thinking that something exists outside the casino. But Rock Ohio promises the Horseshoe will be an “urban casino” – one that is integrated rather than separated from its surroundings. David Jurca of the Urban Design Collaborative says that’s part of a trend among casinos: to move away from a big closed box.
“It has that more urban vitality that I think the next generation finds more interesting. At the same time, they want a sense of authenticity in a place. ... If they can make this feel like a unique venue -- this isn’t any old gambling center – then I think that’s to their advantage and their bottom line.”
Open all day, all night
Whether the Horseshoe casino taps into the vitality of the city or saps it is a big concern for Jurca and many others. It will be open 24/7.
Glover says they should be reassured by the one Caesar’s runs in New Orleans
GLOVER: “It connects similar to what we’ll do here with a lot of surrounding businesses.”
URYCKI: “You used to work there.”
GLOVER: “I started my career in New Orleans.”
URYCKI: “That casino went bankrupt after a few years?”
GLOVER: "Yes, we were not full owners then. We acquired full ownership in 2002 or 2003. The casino since then has been performing very well." URYCKI: “One of the things that New Orleans did for its rebirth was develop out the street around it and it’s now a much more --a lot of vibrant nightlife. Is that what your hoping for around this area?”
GLOVER: “The mayor is contemplating a plan for Public Square, and we feel that whatever comes of that will lend to the success of the connectivity of what Horseshoe Cleveland will be to the surrounding central business district and restaurants and hotels. ... So we feel that we’ll be able to leverage all these assets and make them complementary and not cannibalize one another.”
Glover says the Horseshoe will market not just the casino, but the city of Cleveland and all of its attractions to help draw new people to the city.
Other attractions are still a question
The first phase of the casino will have only a 400-seat buffet, not a fine-dining restaurant. Glover says that’s one way the casino will partner with area restaurants. Still, the question remains whether there’s enough money to go around. The City of Cleveland’s Chris Warren believes it doesn’t have to be zero-sum game.
“Some of that will happen. The dollars are finite. ... (But) I think what’s more likely is those people who go to the ballgames will go to the casino and vice versa. People who come to the casino will get out of the casino and go shop, eat, entertain themselves in the district.”
The wildcard is phase two of the casino. The owners won’t say what restaurants or theaters it may contain, or even what it will look like.
David Jurca just hopes the casino will express the creativity that owner Dan Gilbert has shown in his other ventures. And like the urban designer he is, Jurca wants Clevelanders to demand more.
“Instead of being OK with mediocre, OK with ‘At least something is happening; shouldn’t we be thankful for that?’ No, it needs to be fantastic; it needs to be great.”
The Horseshoe Casino operators are hoping to open in late March.