The new proposal by MMPI Inc. of Chicago to build a medical mart on Mall C in downtown Cleveland is a bold and audacious idea that could produce outcomes ranging from terrific to awful.

It could give the city an iconic piece of architecture on a spectacular site, along with a fresh global identity as a center of medical innovation.

Or it could leave Cleveland with a rushed, poorly conceived structure that gobbles $425 million in hard costs, not to mention another half-billion dollars in interest on county construction bonds.

What’s critical now is to ask the right questions and to get clear, convincing answers.

MMPI has given only the thinnest explanation for its sudden switch from its previous plan to put the mart on the west side of Mall B, between St. Clair and Lakeside avenues.

Today, however, officials from the company will appear before the Cleveland City Council to give details on why they want to abandon the earlier proposal, which sounded more logical, because the location was closer to hotels, restaurants and parking in the core of downtown.

Certainly, no one in Cleveland wants the deal to collapse. But it’s critical to understand how MMPI’s new proposal could affect the city’s finances and physical form for decades to come.

It’s also critical to know why the Mall C site is superior, because, ultimately, the county will end up owning whatever MMPI builds.

Under the deal signed with the county six months ago, MMPI will build, own and operate the medical mart and the renovated convention center for 20 years. After that, unless the deal is renewed, the property reverts to the county.

Last spring, MMPI chose the Mall location for the project over an 11-acre site overlooking the Cuyahoga River behind Tower City Center, owned by Forest City Enterprises.

The company’s original proposal called for building the medical mart west of the central section of the three-block-long park, conceived originally as the centerpiece of Chicago architect Daniel Burnham’s 1903 Group Plan for downtown Cleveland.

The idea would have required paying $17 million or more to buy three properties along St. Clair Avenue near Ontario Street, including an office building, the Sportsman restaurant and the Justice Center parking garage, or to acquire the county administration complex, an even more expensive proposition.

The medical mart then would have been connected to a renovated convention center below Malls B and C, which function both as public parks and as the aging facility’s roof.

MMPI also proposed renovating Public Auditorium, the antique but beautiful assembly hall east of the Mall. This was a hugely positive idea, because it would have breathed new life into an heirloom that costs the city millions of dollars a year to maintain.

As of Nov. 4, however, MMPI has had its eyes on Mall C and wants to abandon the rest of its earlier proposal.

The company says renovating Public Auditorium would cost tens of millions of dollars more than it expected, so it wants to cut the older structure from its proposal.

This would leave Cleveland with an expensive property that would be physically severed from a renovated convention center and hence even more difficult to manage than it is today.

Under its deal with the county, MMPI is getting paid $333,333 a month to develop the project but can walk away whenever it wants, leaving it in a strong bargaining position.

The company may sense weakness in the public sector here, especially after the Nov. 3 election in which county voters approved a reform proposal that will replace the three county commissioners with a single

county executive next year.

The vote turned the company’s partners — County Commissioners Tim Hagan, Peter Lawson Jones and Jimmy Dimora — into lame ducks.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, who recently won a second four-year term, suddenly represents long-term leadership on the other side of the table. He also could bear the blame if the medical mart deal collapses.

Still, Jackson and the City Council shouldn’t capitulate to MMPI, as Hagan suggested recently when he said, “You can’t force them to do anything. They can just pick up and go home.”

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Article courtesy of: Cleveland.com

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