Cleveland Landmarks Commission votes to tear down Columbia Building for casino welcome center

CLEVELAND - The landmark Columbia Building at East Second Street and Prospect Avenue can be demolished to make way for a new casino welcome center and valet parking area, according to a ruling Thursday from Cleveland's Landmarks Commission.

The vote comes with one provision, though the demolition permit cannot be signed until Rock Ohio Caesars comes to an agreement with the state over the issue of taxes and fees.

That battle prompted the developer to halt construction last month on the nearly $400 million Phase I Horseshoe Casino Cleveland that will be housed in the first four floors of the Higbee Building.

An amendment placed in the house version of the state budget and approved Wednesday by the state senate calls for the state's commercial activity or CAT tax to be applied to all bets wagered as opposed to gross casino profits.

It's an interpretation that would see the casinos paying millions more in taxes and force them, Rock Ohio argued, to rethink the overall size of their properties in Cleveland and Cincinnati.

The casino developers have been in negotiations with the state and its casino consultant Moelis & Company about the matter and a compromise is likely expected before the budget is signed into law June 30.

Nate Forbes, a Rock Gaming principal said they're OK with the provision of the Landmarks Commission.

"We would not demolish the Columbia Building without clear direction from Columbus that we have a suitable outcome to allow us to proceed," he told the board.

The board delayed a vote two weeks ago in an effort to see if there were any alternatives to moving the project forward without tearing down the Columbia Building, which was constructed in 1908 and was the city's first reinforced concrete building.

Commission member Thomas Coffey was one of two who voted against tearing Columbia down.

"The Columbia Building is too damn important for what goes on that street and if we lose that and we replace it with four lanes of traffic, we'll never be able to fix that," he said.

The meeting room on the fifth floor of city hall was packed with those for and against the demolition. The crowd, the largest commission members say they've seen in years, was so big an officer had to be placed on the door to limit the number of people for fear of violating the city's fire code.

Before voting, the commission heard from union leaders and tradesmen who spoke of the jobs that would be created by the project and the implication that if the demolition wasn't approved it could jeopardize the financing for Phase I and the number of jobs there.

Those speaking against the demolition argued the loss of the building would deal a devastating blow to the walkability of Prospect, as well remove from the downtown a building that provides an important link to downtown Cleveland's history.

After the meeting, Forbes said the move is a positive step towards the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown Cleveland.

"We understand change is hard and change is not a criticism of the past, it simply means the future will be different and we want to be part of that future," Forbes said.

"We intend on being great collaborators with all the organizations and jurisdictions that have any kind of approval rights on what this welcome center, parking garage, expansion of Phase I Higbee is going to be."

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