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2-1 commissioners vote to tear down Breuer tower

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/23/07 @ 2:31pm

Cuyahoga County Commissioners Jimmy Dimora, Tim Hagan and Peter Lawson-Jones voted 2-1 in favor of tearing down the Marcel Breuer-designed Ameritrust Tower this afternoon, with Lawson-Jones speaking eloquently and at length on how he built his case for preservation and adaptive reuse of downtown Cleveland’s 28-story skyscraper as a home for consolidated county administrative offices.

Dimora and Hagan spoke five minutes collectively, the former answering critics who said the county’s original purchase was flawed and wasteful because it sealed the fate for the only high-rise built in America by Breuer, a modernist pioneer of a style commonly referred to as Brutalism.

“These buildings have sat vacant for 20 years, and if not for the county stepping in, they could have deteriorated to the point where the Rotunda, which is on the National Register, might not be saved,” Dimora said. “Experts we spoke to all said demolish the tower because of operational efficiencies and for the green building we want to build. A group of people who aren’t here today don’t like the aesthetics (of the tower).”

Hagan added that he hopes architect-of-record, Cleveland-based Robert P. Madison International, Inc. would create a lasting legacy in Cleveland. Madison, the first African-American male to receive an architecture license in the state of Ohio, was present at the commissioner’s board meeting, and also spoke eloquently about his education at Harvard and in France under modernist founders Walter Gropius, Breuer, and Le Corbusier. “I knew Breuer. I discussed their ideas with them -- I didn’t just read about them in books -- and the tower is not Brutalism.”

His firm studied adaptive reuse of the tower, Madison said, and found it short some 120,000 square feet of usable space based on the county’s requirements. Plus, only 10 county departments could fit themselves on one floor.

“Adaptive reuse would decrease workspace efficiency and operation costs,” he said, explaining why his firm recommends building new. “The loss of money going from floor to floor would use up the supposed savings of $20 million from reusing the tower.”

Lawson-Jones rated the existing complex of the 1908 Rotunda, the Ameritrust Tower, and the 1010 Euclid Building versus building new in five categories: architectural significance, aesthetics, preservation & sustainability, functionality & workflow, and cost (in that order). The following are select quotes from Jones -- his supporting arguments for voting against demolition (even when he gave the nod to new in certain cases).

Architectural significance

“I think we can find a way to take what seems like three disparate buildings – neoclassical, modernist, and a new building – to achieve an interesting ‘trialogue’ between them. I could see international architecture students visiting Cleveland to figure out how we did it.”

Aesthetics

“Tastes do change, whether it’s architecture or fashion. It may be easier to meld two buildings than three, so I put a check in favor of new in this category.”

Preservation and sustainability

The goal is LEED certification, so we have an advantage -- we can earn (LEED) points by reusing the tower. Demolition won’t be easy. We cannot implode it, so we’ll practically have to take it down floor by floor and cart the materials away to a landfill somewhere.

Functionality

The (small) floor plates, to me, that’s an exciting challenge to an architect and engineer. We can look at who needs to interact with whom (at the county) especially since so much interaction happens today with email and on the phone. Sometimes it’s not the most effective to have a whole department on the same floor. Let’s organize and group departments.

Cost

The state does consider the tower eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (this assertion was disputed by both Dimora and Hagan), so not only will we save $20 million in adaptive reuse, but add another $15 million in historic tax credits, and that’s not counting the state’s historic tax credit or New Market Tax Credits. Let’s assume reuse means higher operation costs. We had one estimate that put those costs at $17 million over 30 years. We are stewards of public funds. If we can save $35 million and put it toward strengthening our social services or on predatory lending, the public is best served by reusing the Breuer Tower.

Public testimony included supporting arguments for adaptive reuse, mostly from professional architects. Anthony Hiti, chair of American Institute of Architects Cleveland Chapter’s Historic Resources Committee, said AIA supports preservation because “the tower’s prominent location will someday make it part of a downtown Cleveland historic skyscraper district.” The district could start at the tower and extend north to I.M. Pei’s Galleria District, also initiated in the 1970s. Adaptive reuse generates a 20 percent increase in local economic activity, Hiti added, citing U.S. Department of Development figures.

The commissioners unanimously approved $9.1 million for asbestos removal for the tower interior (abatement has to happen, tear down or not); $4.5 million for asbestos and demolition of the Prospect and Huron buildings (attached to the Breuer tower); and $8.9 million for exterior asbestos, tower demolition, and 1010 Euclid Building demolition. The total including the buildings' purchase, asbestos abatement, demolition, and a new building is estimated to cost the county $220 million.

Questions for future consideration

The county wants a LEED certified, green building, can it earn points toward that certification by recycling the Breuer Tower? (Green building advocates have suggested that recycling the tower's tons of granite and stone is possible with the proper plan in place).

What will be the eventual cost of the new building with costs for raw materials such as steel rising?

Did the county consider preserving the Breuer tower and building a new building, at street level, next to it (where it plans to knock down the 1010 Euclid building or the Huron & Prospect building)?

What will be the height of the new tower to accommodate the county's square footage requirements? (Ed. note: Architect Robert Madison answered this question on WCPN. The county wants to replace the 29-story Breuer with a building that stands 15 stories higher).

UpdatesPreservation Ohio places the Breuer tower in its 2007 List of Ohio's Most Endangered Historic Sites.

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