tremont climbers propose renovating historic church into indoor climbing gym

A pair of Tremont-based rock climbers, Niki Zmij and Chick Holtkamp, has developed a proposal to transform the historic Fifth Church of Christ Scientist into a state-of-the-art rock climbing facility. They argue such a project would save and restore a dilapidated landmark, contribute to the Edgewater neighborhood, and add a sought-after urban amenity to Cleveland's growing portfolio of attractions.

Yet there are questions over the feasibility of the project, which Councilman Matt Zone calls "sexy and provocative" but difficult to pull off given the cost of renovations. He praises Zmij's and Holtkamp's ambition, yet says, "Two months ago it was a pipe dream; today it is more of a 99 yard Hail Mary."

Fifth Church is abutted by a now-vacant retail site owned by Carnegie Companies of Solon. The firm has proposed building a two-story Giant Eagle Market Express at the corner of Clifton Boulevard and W. 117th Street as part of a multi-tenant development. The development also calls for the church, which is owned by the City of Cleveland, to be demolished to make way for additional parking.

The church requires millions in repairs and has been waiting on a savior since Giant Eagle donated it to the city in 2002. During recent community meetings, the city has proposed a land swap that would allow Carnegie to take over a portion of the cleared site, while also allowing new townhomes to be built along Lake Ave. (Carnegie would not develop the townhomes; the city would issue an RFP.)

Yet Holtkamp and Zmij, who are meeting this month with Councilman Matt Zone, the developer and other stakeholders to discuss their proposal, say the demolition would be a tragic waste of a landmark. The church dates back to the 1920s and has an octagonal stone exterior, ceramic tile domed roof, and soaring interior hall unlike any other in Northeast Ohio. Holtkamp, a developer who helped kickstart Tremont's revitalization 30 years ago, says it could be renovated to historic standards and a new interior climbing facility could be built for $2.3 million. His estimates come from Sandvick Architects, an expert in historic rehabilitation, and Jera Construction, which renovated the once-dilapidated Gospel Press building.

"We can do this," says Holtkamp, who stresses that a climbing facility is the right use because it would preserve the church while creating a destination amenity.

"There's a growing market for climbing, and new facilities are popping up all over the U.S.," says Zmij, a visual artist and adjunct professor in the College of Business at Cleveland State University. "Climbing is a way to bring health and wellness into your life, and there's a great community that surrounds the sport."

Zone would like to see the church preserved, yet also doesn't want this proposal to hold up the retail development, which he says has signed major tenants and is ready to go. He questions whether Holtkamp's and Zmij's numbers are accurate, citing an engineering study that showed the cost of stabilizing the building alone at $3 million. "I'm a practical person," he says. "It's a long shot at this point."

Holtkamp and Zmij remain convinced that their proposal is feasible, and say they are committed to finding another location if the church doesn't work out. Indoor climbing is becoming a sought-after amenity for all ages, from kids to empty nesters, yet Cleveland's existing facilities are dated. "Everyone in the climbing community here is always talking about the need, but we took the next step and started doing market research and planning," says Holtkamp, who often climbs with friends on a building he owns at Professor and Fairfield in Tremont.

Holtkamp quickly dispatches concerns about the viability of a new climbing gym. Although it's expensive to build, he says the demand is there -- and could be grown -- to support it. Newer climbing facilities have kid-friendly options, smaller elements for "bouldering" (low-to-the-ground climbing without harnesses), and higher walls for more challenging climbs. Safety features are built into the facility, he adds. The pair also would add other fitness activities, including aerial silks, yoga and fitness workouts, and they are exploring a cafe and co-working space.

Zmij and Holtkamp say they will seek a mix of bank loans and private investment for their project, which they are calling The Sanctuary. If all goes well, it will open by the end of 2015, turn a profit within the first year, and employ about 30 people.

Carnegie Companies and Cudell Improvement Inc. were asked to comment for this story, but declined to respond. Holtkamp and Zmij would like to present their plan to the community after getting feedback from Councilman Matt Zone, the city and the developer. Ultimately, the city will decide the fate of Fifth Church as its owner, and the Landmark Commission must approve a request for demolition.

Zone says there are two options moving forward -- either the retail project will be redesigned to incorporate the church if a viable developer can be found, or the church will be deconstructed. He is meeting with stakeholders to find a solution.

Although the idea may seem outlandish, one must look no farther than Urban Krag Climbing Center, an indoor climbing facility retrofitted into an abandoned church in the historic Oregon District of downtown Dayton. Imagine climbing beneath the historic dome 55 feet in the air -- and if you're good enough, potentially ascending up into the dome itself. Now that would be a rush, maintains Holtkamp, who has climbed for nearly 40 years and has traveled throughout the U.S. and to China and Mexico to feed his climbing fix.

Zmij says a climbing gym in a historic church would be a tourist destination. "We hope that people would visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and then go climb."

Source: Niki Zmij, Chick Holtkamp
Writer: Lee Chilcote

Lee Chilcote
Lee Chilcote

About the Author: Lee Chilcote

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.