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The City Club of Cleveland plans to move to Playhouse Square, ending the free-speech forum's 40-year run in its eponymous home near East Ninth Street and Euclid Avenue.

The institution has signed a long-term lease on the first floor at 1317 Euclid Ave., a two-story building owned by an affiliate of the Playhouse Square Foundation. At 14,600 square feet, the space will boost the City Club's seating capacity by roughly 50% in a more accessible, visible location.

"We're creating a new venue for Playhouse Square, purpose-built for civic engagement. … To layer that onto the already exciting and vibrant vitality of Playhouse Square, the arts and culture that exists here, creates this exceptional opportunity," Dan Moulthrop, the City Club's CEO, said during a recent interview.

And, he added, "we get to do it at street level."

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Dan Moulthrop, the City Club of Cleveland's CEO, describes the vision for the free-speech forum's new street-level home at Playhouse Square. The City Club is working with DLR Group to transform office space into an airy, accessible venue.
Michelle Jarboe/Crain's Cleveland Business

‘A forever home'

Since its creation in 1912, the City Club has occupied a handful of downtown addresses.

The nonprofit moved to its current digs, the second floor of the historic Citizens Building at 850 Euclid Ave., in the early 1980s. That property was renamed as the City Club Building in 1999, as part of a major renovation project and lease renewal.

The current space has served the City Club extremely well, Moulthrop said.

"But the conditions of the building are preventing us from reaching our aspirations right now," he said, acknowledging that the City Club will leave the space early, before the end of its lease with Columbus-based landlord E.V. Bishoff Co.

The Playhouse Square lease will begin Sept. 1, 2023. Gina Vernaci, the performing arts center's president and CEO, said the agreement runs for 10 years, with many renewal options.

"It's a forever home," she said, describing the City Club as the newest resident company at Playhouse Square, on par with the Cleveland Ballet, Great Lakes Theater, Cleveland Play House and other headliners.

Moulthrop, who took the City Club's helm in 2013, has been quietly exploring a move for years.

He and Vernaci started talking about a potential Playhouse Square address before the pandemic. Their conversations heated up, though, as fallout from the coronavirus and remote work reverberated through the commercial real estate industry.

The City Club's future home, a former F.W. Woolworth department store that housed a well-known rug shop for decades, is full of empty cubicles and darkened offices today.

It's the headquarters of Dwellworks, a relocation-services company that decided to migrate to the city from the suburbs in 2011. The company is not leaving downtown. But Dwellworks is cutting its physical footprint in half, keeping only the second floor of the building.

"There's no question that it's an example of the changing dynamics in the office market that employers, owners and downtown management organizations are having to address," said Michael Deemer, president and CEO of the nonprofit Downtown Cleveland Alliance.

"I think this is a positive example of how an owner can work to keep an office tenant in place, work with them to meet their needs — and then also identify a use for the neighborhood that is going to contribute positively to the experience of residents, workers and visitors in the area."

Welcoming broader audiences

Remaking the space for the City Club is a $3.5 million to $4 million endeavor. The renovations are part of a fundraising campaign that also will support broader programming and an expanded endowment. Moulthrop wouldn't publicly disclose how much money the organization hopes to raise.

"Our planned move is reflective of ongoing discussions regarding not only how the City Club is doing, current course and speed, but what we need to do to keep the City Club vibrant into the future," said Kristen Baird Adams, president of the club's board and chief of staff for PNC Bank's office of regional presidents.

Design work by DLR Group calls for opening up the space, which has a 15-foot-high ceiling, and removing four columns toward the center of the floor to create an auditorium. That hall will seat between 300 and 330 people, Moulthrop said.

The entryway behind the storefront windows will become a large pre-function space as part of the City Club's effort to roll out the welcome mat to broader audiences. "The connection to Playhouse Square and Euclid Avenue, and that glass, the transparency is needed in times like now," said Charlie Olivo, an associate and interior designer in DLR Group's Cleveland office.

Both Olivo and Moulthrop referenced the City Club's creed, penned in 1916.

It says, in part, "I am accessible to people of all sides — literally and figuratively — for I am located in the heart of the city — spiritually and geographically."

At one time, East Ninth and Euclid felt like that heart, said longtime City Club member Bob Lustig.

"When the big law firms and accounting firms were concentrated in that Ninth and Euclid area, it was an ideal location," said Lustig, an attorney who joined the City Club in 1964 and religiously attends the club's weekly Friday forums. "Today, it isn't."

The City Club Building, with temperamental elevators and other maintenance needs, can be particularly challenging for elderly audience members, Lustig said.

Landlord David Bishoff, president of E.V. Bishoff, did not respond to questions about the City Club's looming departure and the potential for backfilling the space or repositioning the building.

A fit for the district

Moulthrop said the City Club aims to offer continuous programming while it prepares to move, though it's possible that the frequency of events will briefly slow. The organization hosts about 100 programs annually between paid forums and free discussions at other venues.

The programs are livestreamed and archived online. The Friday forums and other key events also air on the radio and television through a broadcast partnership with Ideastream Public Media. Ideastream will be one of the City Club's new neighbors in the Playhouse Square district, where Moulthrop hopes to deepen the club's relationships with other nonprofit and civic groups.

"We just don't even know what's possible with all of this," Vernaci said.

Imagine, she suggested, bringing playwright Aaron Sorkin to the City Club the next time his stage adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" comes to Cleveland. Or lighting up a temporarily dark theater with a speaker when the City Club lands a big name that's guaranteed to draw an overflow crowd.

"Their business was a glove fit for the district," said Connor Redman, a senior associate with Cushman & Wakefield-Cresco Real Estate, which represented Playhouse Square. With its focus on midday events, the City Club will bring more daytime foot traffic to an area that bustles in the evenings, where there's ample access to restaurants, nearby parking and public transportation.

Vernaci, who will retire in February, is preparing to cede the stage to incoming CEO Craig Hassall. On his watch, she expects the City Club to serve as an anchor for eventual first-floor master planning in the district, where new theater marquees will be unveiled in June and patrons are flocking back to KeyBank Broadway Series shows.

"The most exciting thing is the thing we can't even see or imagine right now," Vernaci said. "But you know it's there."

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