CWRU wants new $300M research building to boost economy, add brainpower, erase racial boundary

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Case Western Reserve University has high ambitions for the new, $300 million research building it’s planning as the biggest single investment on its main campus in decades.

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A staircase provides rare outdoor access for pedestrians from parking lots at CWRU to the Case Quad inside the campus.

Emerging designs for the new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Building, made public today through and The Plain Dealer, depict a project that could send ripples across the CWRU campus, the surrounding University Circle area, and the rest of Northeast Ohio.

It will be located south of Euclid Avenue on the west side of its Case Quad, part of the former Case Institute of Technology, which merged with Western Reserve University in 1967. The site overlooks Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to the west.

In addition to helping it win more grants and boost its rankings, CWRU wants the new building to help grow the regional economy, attract and retain star researchers, and open up a walled-off portion of its campus that has long sent a “keep out” message to adjacent majority-Black neighborhoods.

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Eight buildings along the west side of the Case Quad at CWRU face MLK Drive with parking lots, garbage cans, loading docks, and asphalt.

“It’s absolutely critical to our future,’’ said CWRU President Eric Kaler. “It makes a statement about who we are and more importantly who we’re going to be.’’

He said the project was “by far” the biggest investment planned by CWRU since he moved to Cleveland in 2021 after having served as president of the University of Minnesota from 2011 to 2019. The university is also spending $110 million on building two new dorms in its South Residential Village.

A chemical engineer who holds 10 patents, Kaler said he came to CWRU specifically to shift what he calls its “stagnant’’ non-medical research operations into a higher gear.

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The new, $300 million research building at CWRU will replace Yost Hall, which overlooks parking lots facing Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in University Circle.

“We need to grow our research activities outside of medicine; they’ve been pretty stagnant for the past 15 years or so, and that’s not where we want to be,’’ he said. “We haven’t built a new laboratory building outside of medicine in decades.”

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Assessing impact

Baiju Shah, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the region’s chamber of commerce, hailed the project as an important addition to research facilities at institutions including the Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland State University, and NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

“I’m thrilled to see all of our research institutions growing right now,’’ Shah said.

The new building could enable CWRU to play a role in Cleveland like that of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where research in robotics is helping to power the local economy, Shah said.

Kaler and top administrators at CWRU said research in the building will focus on interdisciplinary explorations that could spur collaborations with established and growing industries in Northeast Ohio.

“We’re not big enough to take on all the world’s problems and then do all of them well, so, therefore, we have to pick and choose, and that’s very tricky,’’ said Ragu Balakrishnan, dean of the Case School of Engineering. He will oversee research projects in the new building along with Joy Ward, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who will serve as interim provost starting July 1.

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CWRU President Eric Kaler places a model of a planned $300 million research building into a tabletop model of the universitys Case Quad.

They said the building is designed to break down academic barriers by providing new space for research by faculty from different disciplines now siloed in buildings across the campus. It’s also intended to lure academic stars from other institutions by enabling them to participate in fitting out their own research spaces.

Projects could include, for example, developing industrial-scale batteries for the electrical grid, researching new green processes for sustainable manufacturing, studying pathogens that proliferate in air conditioning systems, developing new types of prosthetics, and catalyzing new connections between the humanities and STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering, and math.

When and where

CWRU plans to start construction in late 2024 and complete the new building by 2026. Financing will be split 50-50 between philanthropic donations and a portion of the $350 million in century bonds CWRU issued in 2022, Kaler said.

The building will replace Yost Hall, a former dorm that houses the Department of Mathematics, Applied Mathematics, and Statistics. Built in 1955, Yost encompasses less than 50,000 square feet — roughly a quarter of the space the new building will house.

Planning for the new building has not been without glitches. The Observer, CWRU’s independent student newspaper and website, reported in April that 81 professors, graduate students, and undergraduates connected to Yost signed an open letter saying the administration was doing a poor job of communicating about the project and that they hadn’t been told where they’d work after Yost comes down.

CWRU responded that it has “communicated regularly with those in Yost Hall affected by this project,’’ but that it also recognizes “that relocations are inherently uncomfortable —especially when people have been in one place for many years. Engagement is ongoing, and every effort is being made to minimize disruption for all involved.”

Bridging Town and Gown

A major goal of the new building is to open up a campus that has felt closed off from MLK Drive, a physical reality with racial connotations. Over the past century, CWRU and the Case Institute before it designed the buildings that face MLK Drive with blank walls, back doors, trash cans, loading docks and large surface parking lots.

In part, the university’s approach was a response to periodic flooding along the drainage of Doan Brook, which is now culverted. But the university and its neighbors have also recognized that CWRU has turned its back to surrounding neighborhoods.

Architect Peter Cook, a design principal and vice president in the Washington, D.C. office of HGA, said he’s designing the building to “create a welcoming face’’ when viewed from MLK. “We want it very light, bright, airy and welcoming.”

Early renderings show that instead of a single, large mass, the new building will resemble a cluster of rectangular blocks pushing forward and back, with different roof levels, and with window grids creating a sense of dynamism and movement.

On the MLK Drive side, the building will push close to the boulevard, filling an area now occupied by a parking lot. Kaler said he wants the glassy lobby on the MLK side to glow at night with blue light —CWRU’s color.

Today, a row of eight CWRU buildings facing MLK Drive resemble a virtually impenetrable barrier. The exception is a steep staircase on the south side of Yost, which climbs a weed-covered slope from the parking lot on the MLK side to reach the Case Quad.

Plans for the new building call for creating a broad, welcoming, wheelchair-accessible walkway on its north side, between it and Tomlinson Hall, to create an outdoor connection from the MLK frontage to the Case Quad

Kaler said one of the most important features of the new building will be a glassy, ground-level coffee shop or café. The café will embody CWRU’s goal of encouraging what Balakrishnan called “serendipitous collisions” among researchers and students to spark new discoveries.

Rising in the rankings

With annual research spending of $421 million in 2021, the latest year for which comparative data are available, CWRU ranked 66th on a list of American universities compiled by the National Science Foundation’s HERD Survey, short for Higher Education Research and Development. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore was No. 1, with research spending of nearly $3.2 billion.

CWRU says on its website that it wants to boost annual spending on research to $600 million within 10 years, but Michael Oakes, CWRU’s new senior VP of research, recruited by Kaler from the University of Minnesota, said he wants to hit the goal sooner.

Spending $600 million a year on research spending would bring CWRU into contention with the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, for 48th place on the HERD survey, according to the 2021 numbers.

“We need to do this,’’ Oakes said of the project. “This is not a luxury item for Case Western. It’s needed for us to grow and compete, and it’s needed I think for the region. We don’t have enough research space and what we have is falling apart.”

He added that CWRU is motivated by its desire to serve Cleveland — a city fighting poverty, segregation, and population loss by building on assets including the university.

“There is no great city in the world without a great research university,’’ Oakes said.

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