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What Price Image?

Tuesday, May 30, 2000 at 9:36 AM

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A great deal of money and public relations have been spent trying to change Cleveland's image from "the mistake on the Lake" to the "new American city." A high profile building campaign has helped make the city look attractive in Goodyear blimp shots to the rest of the country. But are we getting our money's-worth? 90.3's David C. Barnett investigates the cost, and the value, of an image.

David C. Barnett- Case Western Reserve University is building a symbol. Although this new home for its Weatherhead School of Management offers needed space for classrooms and faculty offices, it also brings a strikingly different look to the campus. Renown architect Frank Gehry has fashioned a fusion of traditional brick and cascading metal unlike anything else in Cleveland. Weatherhead professor Richard Shatten is enthused about its potential.

Richard Shatten- When you think of the architectural statement this building is making, it’s going to say that anything we do we should be looking at through a different lens. And this building will certainly be a different lens, there’s no question about that…

DBC- The Gehry building’s skeletal structure is slowly rising in the heart of campus. A walk through the construction site reveals a dense network of scaffolding and concrete molds. Design plans show looming interior corridors that spill into open meeting areas and balconies. All of this is encased in an equally dramatic exterior of stainless steel that will be eye-catching...and perhaps off-putting...to those used to more conventional buildings. Plain Dealer architecture critic Steven Litt thinks it’s about time.

Steven Litt- Cleveland, in terms of its architecture, has traditionally been a very conservative city, so now by virtue of this building, we’ll be finally getting something that’s up to the minute in terms of architectural innovation. And I think that’s an exciting thing to say about this city right now.

DCB- But all this doesn’t come cheap. A standard classroom building with straight lines and a less audacious exterior runs about 250-dollars per square foot. By contrast, this Gehry creation will be closer to 400-dollars a square foot. The construction firm Huber, Hunt & Nichols has given the University a guaranteed maximum price of 62 million dollars for the project. Although auto insurance magnate Peter Lewis will be picking up about half of the cost, that still leaves a considerable amount for the school to raise. Steven Litt argues that such costs come with the territory.

SL- Is there a premium for great architecture? Absolutely...but, you’ve got a treasure that will last for generations.

DBC- Some regional planners say that much of Cleveland’s heralded reputation as a “come-back city” sprang from the building of landmarks, such as Jacobs Field for the Cleveland Indians...and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum. The argument goes that those buildings helped create a new image of Cleveland for outsiders - replacing the stereotype of a smoking Cuyahoga River.

But, according to a recent study by the Cleveland-based Cypress Research Group, the city still hasn’t fixed its image problems.

Patricia Cirillo- I think we’ve moved the needle a little bit...it used to be worse...but we’ve still got a long way to go

DBC- Cypress Research President Patricia Cirillo says her firm asked a cross-section of national business leaders for their impressions of Cleveland today. To her surprise, the older, negative image is still strong.

PC- People remember bad news a lot longer than they remember good news. Survey research tells us that. The burning river...People still remember that. They still remember Cleveland being in bankruptcy. That’s incredible that they remember that that long, but it sticks in their minds and they form an impression of Cleveland.

RS- Cleveland was severely disadvantaged in the world environment. And that says...you almost can’t say no to anything...when you’re a loser.

DBC- Case Western Reserve’s Richard Shatten says it’s even hard to say no when building projects like the Rock Hall or the new Browns Stadium start compiling cost overruns.

RS- I’ll pay more as a taxpayer for image when my image is low. If I was San Francisco, I wouldn’t subsidize much of this at all, because I can afford to lose some of these things...So, I sit in San Francisco and I look at things very differently than I do in Cleveland whose future is more fragile...and less certain.

DBC- Sometimes, focusing on present-day image can blind you to the practical realities of the future. Five years ago, the dramatic architecture of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame attracted nationwide attention at the building’s grand opening. But the flashy exterior, designed by famed architect I.M. Pei, was short on interior space, which has now prompted a new construction campaign. And ironically, this building, hailed as a symbol of the new Cleveland recently lost a key executive to a new Rock museum going up in Seattle. A museum designed by Frank Gehry.

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Weatherhead School of Management

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