Cleveland State University Unveils New Master Plan

Michelle Jarboe, Crain's

Cleveland State University's new master plan calls for demolishing the Wolstein Center, building a new arena on Payne Avenue at the northeastern edge of the campus and morphing aging Rhodes Tower into student housing.

Principals with Sasaki, a Boston-based architecture and planning firm, presented the 10-year vision to the university's board of trustees on Thursday, Nov. 17. The designers will spend the next two months putting the plan into writing before the board votes on formal adoption in late January.

"Cleveland State has a unique proposition here, within downtown Cleveland, to serve as a campus for all … truly a university in the city," said David Jewell, the school's senior vice president of business affairs and chief financial officer, during an interview this week.

Jewell described the plan, with a projected cost of more than $650 million, as a way for CSU to fully embrace its urbanity. Based on input from Sasaki and feedback from students and staff, officials are trying to make the campus feel more energetic, navigable and connected.

The master plan builds on CSU 2.0, the university's strategy for recovering from the pandemic.

That road map, released in March 2021, calls for increasing enrollment by 4,500 students and adding 200 faculty members by 2025. It also emphasizes investments in research, new academic programs, workforce development and heightened support for students.

Sasaki worked with CSU for more than a year to study the university's 85-acre footprint. The master plan pushes growth toward the fringes of the campus, but it does not contemplate additional land acquisitions. CSU has plenty of room to reconfigure in place, through a blend of demolition, new construction and renovation, Jewell said.

If the board signs off, the university could start the first construction project — a building on the north side of Euclid Avenue near East 22nd Street — in late 2023 or early 2024. Described as a "corporate connector," the five-story building could house counseling and academic advising services, offices and interview rooms where local employers can meet with students.

"I like to think of it as a talent and workforce-development front door," Jewell said.

State legislators appropriated $21 million for that building as part of the biennial capital budget approved in June. Funding for other projects would draw on a mix of sources, including additional state capital budget appropriations, borrowing and bonds, Jewell said. CSU also is interested in exploring broad public-private partnerships, particularly around investments like the arena, which he described as a mini Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

"This is a doable plan that we can get started on," Jewell said, adding that projects will be financed one-by-one between now and 2033.

Overall, the plan includes nearly 750,000 square feet of new academic buildings, most of them slung between Euclid and Chester avenues. Sasaki also proposed an expanded central quad, with a land bridge that will cross East 21st Street from an existing courtyard in front of Rhodes Tower and touch down on a podium over a single level of parking. That project will require razing CSU's oldest garage, a 600-space structure, and adding new parking elsewhere on campus.

The university hopes to add 2,245 new beds, spread across new residence halls north of Chester, a hybrid academic-and-residential building at the southeast corner of Chester and East 18th Street and Rhodes Tower. CSU controls just over 2,200 beds today, including the Edge and Langston apartments that the university purchased earlier this year.

Jewell said CSU's existing residence halls are at capacity. The university has no intention of abandoning its identity as a flexible commuter school, with evening and weekend classes and opportunities for nontraditional students. But more on-campus housing will allow CSU to serve more students from the broader region and neighboring states — students who can't necessarily afford a typical downtown apartment.

At the northern end of campus, the master plan creates an athletics and recreation hub, with a roughly 150,000-square-foot arena, an indoor field house and covered tennis courts. The new residence halls will rise on the site of the existing tennis courts, and nearby parking lots.

The new development will remake the frontage along Payne, where the campus runs up against the fast-changing Superior Arts District. To the north, CrossCountry Mortgage is moving into a new headquarters, the centerpiece of a multi-building preservation project that also will bring more apartments, dining and entertainment to the neighborhood.

Mark Lammon, executive director of the Campus District Inc. neighborhood group, said the master plan will strengthen or create north-south pedestrian corridors through the campus at a critical time, just as investment pours into the Superior Arts District; as planners explore the idea of razing Cuyahoga County's former juvenile court building and capping the Inner Belt to create new green space at East 22nd; and as St. Vincent Charity Medical Center reimagines its property in the wake of ending inpatient and emergency services.

"This creates multiple new gateway points in which to interact with the campus," said Lammon, who expects growing pains as CSU expands but also sees potential for partnerships around parking and other neighborhood needs.

As for the Wolstein Center, the master plan contemplates more than 780,000 square feet of new buildings on the 10-acre site, between Prospect and Carnegie avenues and East 18th and East 21st streets. Those won't be academic facilities, Jewell said, and they aren't part of the plan's estimated $650 million price tag.

Sasaki earmarked the site as a "partnership district," a place where the university might work with companies on research and development and other endeavors. The plans are vague now, but they could include a hotel, restaurants and retail, in addition to a central public space.

The fate of the Wolstein Center has been a topic of conversation for years. With Sasaki, CSU explored renovations but determined that the building is far too big — and too expensive to operate and maintain, long-term.

Tyler Patrick, a Sasaki principal and the firm's chair of planning and urban design, said the plan is meant to be flexible. It's about finding ways to improve the campus in concert with other downtown development efforts. And it's about finding a balance between renovations and ground-up construction projects.

"We just saw a campus, and still do, that is ripe with opportunity," Patrick said during an interview. "And the really interesting thing, when we think about implementation, is that the university doesn't have to do it all on its own. … Cleveland State will play a lead role in that, but there are many other actors at the table."

Michael Deemer, president and CEO of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, views CSU as a key anchor institution for the center city and an asset for downtown employers and residents alike. The master plan, which also emphasizes improved safety, enhanced streetscapes and new bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, will better knit the districts together, he said.

"I think it's important for the city, for downtown from the river to East 30th, to really be a seamless urban fabric that connects to the surrounding neighborhoods, as well," he said. "I think the direction that Cleveland State is going in, it's exactly the direction that the city and downtown need right now."