The continental divide of plains to the west and the infantile rise of the Appalachians to the east define Cleveland. A million years ago, giant, mile-high glaciers scoured the land and left behind alluvial silt where beech and maple trees grew hundreds of feet, towering over boggy wetlands. When Europeans arrived, they felled the giants of the forest, drained the wetlands and started plating cities and farming in the river valleys.
Flash forward to the 21st century.
The land of Northeast Ohio has been scoured again by industry and a bursting housing bubble. Cleveland was rocked so hard by the subprime lending fiasco that whole neighborhoods resemble a checkerboard pattern. Land-use for our 77-square-mile city is ready to be reshuffled. It may mean “cutting loose whole neighborhoods,” says Jim Rokakis, the former County Treasurer who starts landbanks for a living (including Cuyahoga’s). Rokakis is a champion of massive excision of the cancer of abandoned and “zombie” properties than have “pushed beyond the tipping point” certain Cleveland neighborhoods.
Cleveland city planner Freddie Collier has championed this idea of focusing on nodes of strength. He thinks we can drive massive rebuilding efforts around neighborhoods like Greater University Circle (to include E. 105th Street up to the lake). Where does that leave neighborhoods like Slavic Village? Is Cleveland ready for a Shrinking City strategy that lets Slavic Village return to a pre-industrial condition?
Large farms and a local agronomy are not what we hold in our mind’s eye when we think about Cleveland, but other busted industrial powerhouses like Pittsburgh got over the shame or embarrassment of losing industry long ago and turned to new “industries.” In Pittsburgh, the cleaning up of the river corridors and the stabilization of core urban neighborhoods, anchored by the colleges, helped create and attract new business and residents.
Cleveland is once again attracting firms who want the energy of downtown. But for Mayor Jackson to follow through on his statements this week that the neighborhoods are on the front burner, he’ll need to focus his priorities more on community building, and less on building highway extensions that speed suburban commuters through town.
His leadership is desperately needed to convince the business community, foremost, The Cleveland Clinic, that “opportunity corridor” is not the kind of wise investment needed to spur a real renaissance, the kind that follows residents aspirations for building local, self-reliant economies that ripple opportunity out from the spot on the map in southeast Cleveland to the region who, let’s face it, has its fortunes tied to the city’s ability to provide a decent living and housing to its residents.
Have you driven the urban highway numbered 490 to East 55th Street lately? It rightfully should be the centerpoint of conversation about the region’s future. It’s at the crux of two opposing world views, one the continuation of modernist thinking that reduces all human need to economic power. The modernist thought was the freeway will save the city, or as Henry Ford stated, “we will solve the city’s problem by leaving it.” Cities back in the 1950s and 60s accepted this thinking, and rolled over when the big highway builders tore down houses and buildings that had great bones for cars to pass through because they were desperate for money.
Not one city benefitted from having an urban highway built, says former West Palm Beach planning director and traffic engineer Ian Lockwood. Roads, in what he calls an opposing Traditional world view, are placed in context with the land and are meant to serve people.
“Instead of fighting on every project, you have to recognize these two opposing world views,” Lockwood says. “Traffic engineers think with Modernist values that have done damage to cities. The lanes are the weapons. Your viewpoint is Traditional. It’s about mode equity. It is about choosing the right measure of effectiveness, and solving the right problems. Cities must ask, why are we measuring throughput?”
A Traditionalist point of view on the question of Opportunity Corridor would evaluate the economic potential and environmental benefits of investing the same $300 million in a transit-oriented development. The TOD might be placed to bolster a stable node in the city. An equity planner would use opportunity corridor as a jumping off point to discuss an alternative vision -- a walkable area around the E. 79th Street Rapid Station, and a rightsizing of the streets to set the stage for development that could connected the growing urban agriculture zone here in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood with highway, transit and more local transportation access by foot and bike.
Instead, we are seeing a push for another urban highway which, by the way, is opposed by many of the local residents who’ve seen this promise of a highway improving their lives made in the past. What the Opportunity Corridor fails to recognize is a complete street makeover for the very inefficient E. 55th Street, coupled with updated, "smart" traffic signals on Carnegie Avenue would greatly improve the flow of car traffic to and from the Clinic. It would also operate as a local economic engine: it would connect to the complete street project on Kinsman Road where an amazing renaissance is under way.
Cities like Seoul and Milwaukee had the courage and leadership from their mayors, now Congress for New Urbanism Chair, John Norquist, to tear down the Park East Freeway that bisected the downtown and lakefront for tax producing development. The elevated highway was generating crime and suppressing land values for the entire northern section of the city. Why did Milwaukee choose to tear down the highway and restitch the urban fabric and Cleveland is still stuck in a 1950s re-run?
“The key is to look at the federal level,” says Norquist, “where you have a 90% subsidy for highways but 50/50 (federal/local match) for transit. Criticize the wrongheaded ways of state DOTs and MPOs listening to the road building club. Follow the money, that’s where the power is.”
Lockwood suggests an alternative might be to package all of the city’s complete streets projects in to a plan and seek a big singular funding stream. “You need to institute a lot of this in a formalized way.”