Why Cleveland should become “Amazon City!”

Cleveland_Skyline

Cleveland skyline

Downtown Cleveland has an anomaly I am not aware of existing in any other major North American downtown. While there is a great deal of street life, especially at night, it has a remarkable amount of empty office space in architecturally interesting structures. It has restaurants, theaters and a downtown baseball stadium but not many downtown offices. At the same time, Amazon recently announced that it is searching for a site for a second “headquarters” outside of Seattle, and the race is apparently on among municipalities to woo them (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/07/technology/amazon-headquarters-north-america.html). I assume that cities and states are falling over each other to offer them developable sites and all kinds of tax and financing incentives. I have a better idea: Cleveland.

My suggestion is that Amazon create a campus in Downtown Cleveland; adaptively reusing the millions of square feet of empty office buildings and taking advantage of the existing dense social and transportation infrastructure already in place. Cleveland’s “Nine Twelve District” alone has as much as two million square feet of vacant office space (http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2010/11/downtown_advocates_aim_to_rebr.html). This count does not even include of the empty commercial space in the Center City district around Terminal Tower. And what a great executive headquarters Terminal Tower itself could be. Cleveland even has an entirely empty brand-new airport concourse that had to be abandoned when United Airlines dropped Cleveland as a hub.

 

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Case Western business school with a Frank Gehry facade

If we are talking tech training, Cleveland has a vibrant existing innovation district that is centered around Case Western Reserve University at University Circle. The district has what is arguably the country’s best medical center at the Cleveland Clinic. It certainly has one of the country’s top orchestras in its most beautiful concert hall. Nothing else comes close to Severance Hall for a great classical music experience. The Cleveland Museum has an extensive encyclopedic collection, and a substantial endowment. The city’s library system is great. It has an extensive in-place transit network.

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Cleveland Museum gallery

And think about how green it would be to use that transit system rather than thousands of cars for Amazon workers. Very few economic activities consume as much energy as demolition and new construction. Adaptively reusing the many already existing architecturally significant buildings in Downtown Cleveland would be both cool and efficient. Being in a dense transit-rich environment not only saves on gasoline not used by commuters, but heating and cooling high-rise structures is way more efficient than that for sprawling two-story suburban office buildings surrounded by parking lots.

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Euclid Avenue BRT station

For the future, the Euclid Avenue Corridor between Center City and University Circle (home of the University, Symphony, Clinic and Museum) has a newly installed BRT system surrounded by hundreds of thousands of square feel of what are mostly development sites (those sites were once some of the grandest home in the city – if not the country, tragically abandoned in the second half of the last century https://www.amazon.com/Showplace-America-Clevelands-Euclid-1850-1910/dp/0873384458). The reinvention of Euclid Avenue could be one of the great 21st Century urban revitalization stories.

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Euclid Avenue mansions of the past

One of the most sufficient reasons, according to the Times, that Amazon wants to move is to find less expensive housing for its workforce. Homes in Cleveland and its suburbs are a bargain by any measure. While a few of the neighboring school districts have national reputations (Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights), the city’s schools do struggle and will benefit from some Amazonian TLC.

I have long thought that a savvy tech company would eventually figure out that the downtown of a former rust belt city would make a superior campus over some sprawling west coast greenfield site – that is so far from a city that it is difficult to attract young employees to. By doing so it would be decreasing it’s energy consumption per employee. It would revitalize an area that needs it and strengthen the county’s social fabric. It could shorten its employees’ commutes – and in fact in Cleveland most would probably walk to work. Amazon would be providing its staff with all of the urban amenities that great cities already have. In the last decade Cleveland has even engendered a fantastic dining scene, in addition to the long-time foodie fabulous West Side Market. Because of the density of high quality local institutions of higher education (including my alma mater, Oberlin College), there is already a critical mass of well-educated and tech savvy young people.

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Downtown Cleveland from the air. Terminal Tower is to the left. Progressive Field is in the foreground.

So where’s the downside for Amazon? I don’t see one. The business and civic leaders of Cuyahoga County need to get to work communicating with and stimulating the imaginations of Jeff Bezos and the other leaders of Amazon as to what a great city anchored by their company might be like. It shouldn’t be about bribing Amazon with tax incentives, free land and low-cost financing. It should be about conjuring up a vision of the greatness of the place. This is a unique and transformative opportunity to demonstrate the powerful synergies between great urban places, in-place innovation districts containing eds and meds, economic vitality and high quality of life.

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Public Square historic photo

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Terminal Tower

2 thoughts on “Why Cleveland should become “Amazon City!”

  1. Paul Ernsberger

    My son got his Master’s in Artificial Intelligence from Case Western. His thesis work interested Amazon and they recruited him to Seattle. So Amazon is aware of AI work being done in University Circle.

    Reply

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