By: John Campanelli, March 8, 2015
You’d think the proposal would have made Greg Geis — or any developer — run away.
Design a temporary conversion of the Gateway East parking garage into a 300,000-square-foot office building to serve as the media center for the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Do it without the benefit of specifications or blueprints.
Do it in 10 days.
And, oh yeah, do it all for free.
It took less than two minutes for Geis to agree.
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We don’t know whether the Republican National Committee will end up using the garage, which sits next to Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena, as the media center or if they’ll choose the Convention Center option. That decision will be made by the party in the next few months. But both are included in the bid. And if a complete conversion of the garage is the choice, a detailed plan exists on how to do it.
How that plan was created is one of the best behind-the-scenes stories of Cleveland’s victorious bid to land the convention. It’s also an inspiring example of the kind of collaboration that is fueling Cleveland’s rebirth.
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After Cleveland’s unsuccessful bid to host the 2008 GOP convention, Jon Pinney, the Kohrman Jackson & Krantz attorney who wrote the city’s bid, was chatting with party leader Bill Harris on an outdoor terrace at the home of Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett.
Pinney remembers Harris telling him, “If you ever bid again, you may want to consider converting that parking garage into the media center.”
A media center is crucial to any major political convention. And the closer it can be to the main convention arena, the better — fewer buses, better security and happier journalists. The Gateway East garage is as close as you can get.
Pinney filed away the conversation. When he was called on again to prepare a bid for the 2016 convention, he made sure to include a retrofit of Gateway East as a media center option.
“We didn’t have, at the time, any feasibility analyses done,” Pinney says. “It was an idea, a proposal.”
Then came April 2014. With Cleveland one of five remaining cities in the running, Pinney learned that the party’s site selection technical team would be making a visit in less than two weeks and that they wanted to see specifics: details, renderings and drawings.
Problem was, there weren’t any.
Pinney remembers about a dozen people on the convention team discussing the situation.
“A couple of names were thrown out as people we could consult,” Pinney says. “But there’s really only one company in town that can put something like this together so quickly. The question was whether they were crazy enough to take it on.”
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Pinney sent an email to Geis asking for help.
“Within two minutes, he replied, “Call me,’” remembers Pinney. “I walked him through the details, and it was literally that simple. He was like, “OK, we got it.’”
Geis — already in a cauldron of construction work with The 9 and the new county headquarters — may have said that, but when asked what he was truly thinking, he gives a different answer.
“”How in the f—- are we going to put this together?’ That’s the honest answer,” Geis says, laughing. “Then we just started to figure out how to get there. One bite at a time. If you try to eat an entire apple in one bite, you’re going to choke on it, so we started to take bites of the apple. Where is the security zone? What do we know about past conventions? One bite at a time.”
The first bites didn’t taste so good.
As Geis scrambled his team, he asked for detailed computer-aided design (CAD) drawings of the garage. Pinney didn’t have any, only “barely legible” blueprints from when the structure was built two decades before.
“There were no original drawings,” says Geis. “I sent a team of people over to survey the property. We went and had to redraw the entire structure.”
Then there were the specs for the project. Described in a single paragraph, there were only two, according to Pinney: The party needs 300,000 square feet and that the space “needs to serve the media.”
“The paragraph set us back a bit,” admits Geis. “There was a complete lack of detail associated with it.”
The challenge for Geis and his team of engineers and designers became to not only create a plan to temporary retrofit a parking garage and to do it in 10 days but to do it by assuming what the party wanted.
“We’re uniquely qualified because we’re design builders. We have to sit in a customer’s shoes all the time,” Geis says.
“Google is a wonderful thing. About six of us hit Google and tried to figure out what media centers looked like in the past. It’s kind of shocking how little information there is about past media centers on the web.”
There was also the tiny detail that the convention would be taking place in the summer, with the parking lot being used often for Indians games.
“We had to essentially build a couple-hundred-thousand-square-foot office building inside of a parking garage, build it, have the convention and then tear it down in less than a 30-day period,” says Geis.
The four-level building would need to be completely enclosed and temperature controlled. It would need carpet, drapery and new lighting. It would need triple redundant power with generators on the roof. It would need a lounge. It would need world-class technology and connectivity. It would need restrooms.
Geis credits Zenith Systems for doing much of the technology work. The rest fell on a core group of seven people at Geis who worked “24 hours a day” to design a comprehensive center that could serve all the needs of the media, from a rooftop lounge to work stations to briefing areas.
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On the day of the RNC tech team’s visit, a section of the parking garage was staged with red carpet, lights, drapes and a huge television for the presentation.
Geis distributed bound copies of the plan and thumb drives to the small audience. Many members of the Cleveland host committee saw the finished product for the first time during that presentation.
Geis senior designer Brandon Kline spoke during much of the session, and he remembers clearly what happened when things wrapped up.
“We ended the presentation and the first question was, “How are you going to handle the light levels in this space?’ It was at that moment, I looked at our electrical engineer who helped put this together, and I said to myself, “If that’s the questions we’re getting, we must have sold them on everything else.’”
Pinney remembers the moment the same way.
“The reaction was universal across the board: They believed that we could do it. It was probably the most competent and advanced presentation they’d seen at this stage. … Nobody’s ever converted a garage into a media center.
“This was one of those boxes I had not been able to check in 2008. As soon as their presentation was done, I knew that box was checked.”
How important was it in Cleveland’s eventual victory?
“Without the presentation, I don’t know if we win,” says Pinney, who’s now managing partner at Kohrman Jackson & Krantz.
He says he’s not comfortable putting a price tag on the cost of a garage conversion, only that it would be “several million dollars.”
And Geis refuses to put an estimate on how many hours were put into the project or how much the pro bono work was worth.
“I don’t want to frame it in that regard. I never paid attention to what it would cost.”
Geis does say why he did the project for free.
“We’ve always waited for someone to come in out of Chicago or New York to show us how to do something. Clevelanders need to do for Cleveland what Cleveland needs. No one is going to come and do it for us. There is a team of people within the city that get that. It’s not about how much money I can make or if I am guaranteed a contract. If we don’t pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps — and we are — nobody is going to do it for us.”
Geis says he’s noticed a change in culture in the city since the county corruption scandal. He says it’s the reason Geis Companies moved offices into the city.
“You’ve got a Democratic county and a Democratic city that worked harmoniously to get the Republican National Convention here. Nobody looked at it whether it was Democrats or Republicans. They looked at what was right for the city. They throw politics out the window.
“That would have never happened 15 years ago.”