In one of the conference rooms in Playhouse Squareâ€™s corporate offices is a large poster for the musical revue â€œJacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,â€ signed by the cast and crew. Not a unique decoration for an organization that entertains 1.1 million guests a year in its downtown theaters.
But this very play, which opened in the State Theatre in 1973, debuted just a year after the theater, and Ohio Theater next door, were saved by Cuyahoga County Commissioners at the last minute from the wrecking ball.
This quirky musical, scheduled for just a three-week run, played for two years to packed audiences. Over the next three decades, a massive community effort resulted in a $55 million rebirth of downtown Clevelandâ€™s Theater District.
Flash forward to 2002. In an adjacent room, Playhouse Square Foundation President and CEO Art Falco and Jerry Wareham, president and CEO of ideastream, the entity combining 90.3 WCPN and WVIZ/PBS, discussed a partnership that would be yet another milestone in Playhouse Squareâ€™s fabled history, representing a new beginning for the unique public broadcasting enterprise.
The first of its kind across the country, two nonprofits would join forces to not only create a facility for broadcasting radio, television and Internet productions, but for theater, classrooms and rehearsal studios. Two organizations, which had educational and artistic activities in different parts of the city, could use the same space, saving both organizations time and precious funding while expanding and improving programming quality.
The Idea Center building, on the northern corner of Euclid Avenue and East 14th Street, would be a $42 million, 240,000-square-foot experiment in cooperation unlike any other in Cleveland, and unlike any other in America. Itâ€™s an experiment the region will be able to witness on their televisions, hear on radio, or watch from the sidewalks of Euclid Avenue.
â€œThis is the most unusual project in Cleveland,â€ says Paul E. Westlake, the Idea Centerâ€™s lead architect. â€œThereâ€™s no precedent.â€
Opened in 1912, the former home of The Kinney & Levan Co. furniture shop and Stoufferâ€™s Foods, 1375 Euclid Ave. was 70 percent vacant for 20 years until it was donated by a group headed by developer Alan Krause to the Playhouse Square Foundation in 1999. At the time, Falco wasnâ€™t sure what to do with the neglected seven-story building.
â€œIt was an out-of-date office building that really didnâ€™t have much of a future,â€ says Falco. â€œWe thought that we would take a floor and half or so, but we still had four or five floors above.â€
Several tenants approached Falco about occupying the building. One prospective tenant even wanted to purchase and convert the building during the â€œtelecom hotel crazeâ€ in 2000 and early 2001.
â€œOur objective was finding a space for an arts education center,â€ says Falco. â€œWe didnâ€™t have a dedicated space, so we needed a small theater, we needed classrooms, we needed a dance studio, we needed gallery space.â€
WVIZ/PBS, even before its merger with 90.3 WCPN in July 2001, was looking for a way to consolidate and share space with its radio colleagues located on the near east side. WVIZ/PBS had been located in a converted tractor factory on Brookpark Road since 1967, and wanted to convert its studios to an all-digital format.
â€œWe discovered that the building was going to cost a lot of money to re-fit,â€ Wareham says. â€œWe decided if itâ€™s going to cost that much than maybe we maybe we should look for a new opportunity with somebody else; it didnâ€™t just have be our place.â€
The two organizations searched for properties in University Circle and downtown, including 1375 Euclid Ave., the future Idea Center. The building, while in an ideal location, was 240,000 square feet. The media companies only needed 80,000.
â€œWeâ€™re in the media content and public service business, not the real estate business,â€ Wareham says. â€œIâ€™m not so sure what I would do with the rest of the space. Maybe these people ought to look to Playhouse Square to see what theyâ€™re doing ... We found it interesting that a year later that happened.â€
Fortunately for ideastream, Playhouse Square Foundation is in the real estate business. To help support its theater operations, it manages more than 1 million square feet of commercial real estate around the theaters, including the Hanna Building, Buckley Building and the 205-room Wyndham Cleveland Hotel. It owns a 750-space parking garage, five restaurants, and banquet facilities.
Thanks to the Theater Districtâ€™s rebirth, the office, commercial, retail and garage space have appreciated faster than comparable properties in the downtown Cleveland real estate market. And in an era of high downtown vacancy rates, Playhouse Square Foundationâ€™s properties annually post more than 80 percent occupancy.
When Krauseâ€™s group approached Falco about the building, he was apprehensive to accept the building due to its size, despite his organizationâ€™s real estate expertise. Around this time, Wareham approached him about moving ideastream to the building.
â€œThe concept originally was a landlord-tenant relationship,â€ Falco says. â€œBut when the fit plans were completed, the initial costs came back were significantly higher than we both thought.â€
Initially, the merged ideastream needed 80,000 square feet and Playhouse Square needed 40,000 square feet for its education center. But as the two organizations looked at each otherâ€™s programs, they realized that they could eliminate about 30,000 square feet from their requirements.
â€œWe looked at each other and said â€˜You have classrooms, we have classrooms, what if we shared the classrooms?â€™â€ says Wareham. â€œStudios arenâ€™t busy all the time, theaters arenâ€™t busy all the time, what if we could collaborate in these two areas?â€
The common space areas shaved more than $7 million off the projectâ€™s costs.
â€œThatâ€™s where the concept of partnership started to gel,â€ Falco says. â€œSince the building was donated to us, we had very little cost-basis, so if ideastream was interested in taking the risk on development of the whole building, we would give them a 50 percent ownership.â€
ideastreamâ€™s board agreed to the co-ownership and the two organizations started to plan separate campaigns to raise $27.4 million to complete the $42 million project. About $15 million for the building comes from historic preservation tax credits and state funding.
But rather than duplicate each otherâ€™s efforts, the two groups decided to join on one fundraising campaign with board representation from each organization pitching potential philanthropists.
â€œSince we were going to many of the same donors, it made a lot of sense,â€ Falco says. â€œWe would throw all the proceeds into a pot and not be concerned whether one board raised $10 more than the other.â€
â€œThis is really about the community,â€ Wareham says. â€œItâ€™s not about Playhouse Square and not about ideastream, itâ€™s about community benefit and lots of economic development.â€
As of October, the organizations have raised $22.3 million of their goal.
Inside the lobby of the Idea Center building is a forest of glass and chrome.
To the left is Studio 2, where WVIZ will broadcast, taking a cue from the â€œToday Show,â€ where pedestrians on Euclid Avenue can watch the filming from the outside. To the right is a streetfront dance studio, which the organizations will use for professional dancers as well as educational events.
The building is a modest six stories, but itâ€™s 450 feet deep. The centerpiece is a 312-seat studio, called a â€œBlack Boxâ€ theater, equipped for live performance or television production. Specially designed cushioned flooring allows for smooth TV camera movement and is also an ideal performance surface.
Throughout the bottom three floors, occupied by ideastream and Playhouse Squareâ€™s education center, are smaller studios, conference rooms, classrooms, lobbies, which are broadcast-ready for radio and television. Every room can be recorded and sent out over the public airways or streamed on the Internet, expanding the capabilities of both ideastream and Playhouse Squareâ€™s education programs. Together, the organizations reach more than 600,000 children and adults and 30,000 teachers a year.
Connecting the building, including the four leased floors, is 22 miles of fiber optic cable, with connection speeds up to 1,000 times faster than a T1 line.
â€œTechnologically, this is the most complex thing weâ€™ve ever designed,â€ says Westlake, whose firm Westlake Reed Leskosky was the lead designer on the Idea Center project. â€œWeâ€™ve done major surgery centers and research buildings and complicated theaters, but we have never dealt with a building that had this density of technology.â€
The exterior restoration and interior infrastructure, including the wiring, plumbing and electrical, was designed and engineered by San Francisco-based firm URS, which moved its Cleveland office and 200 employees from the Warehouse District to the top floor of the Idea Center building.
â€œIf it hadnâ€™t been that Westlake and URS could make it work for us, we wouldnâ€™t have done it,â€ says ideastream Chief Operating Officer Kathryn Jensen. â€œIt really took people of imagination to show us that it was possible.â€
ideastream began moving to its new headquarters in October, and is expected to be completed in late December. The buildingâ€™s public unveiling was in September, but Playhouse Square begun classes in the building in the summer.
What started as a way for two nonprofits to save funds by sharing space has morphed into a technological and organizational marvel, drawing the interest of other public broadcasting companies across the country, which visited the building under construction, Wareham says.
But perhaps more importantly, Falco and Wareham hope the Idea Center shows other organizations in the region how collaboration can help nonprofits achieve internal goals without sacrificing their public service mission. While healthy business competition is good for the economy, sometimes it pays to work together.
â€œIt really has developed into something that has incredible promise,â€ Falco says. â€œWe canâ€™t even comprehend the great impact this project is going to have on the larger community.â€