ODOT just released its Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Opportunity Corridor. It is the justification for building an urban expressway between E. 55th Street and E. 105th Street. Imagine if Cleveland were talking about building not just a road, but a sustainable neighborhood.
You can share your feelings about Opportunity Corridor on ODOT’s web site. Also, there will be a chance to speak out about Opportunity Corridor, and its environmental impacts, at a public meeting on October 1, from 4-8 p.m. at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, 7510 Woodland Avenue in Cleveland.
In the DEIS, the agency explains what alternatives, such as improving existing streets, it has studied. But, the DEIS falls short of explaining why those alternatives were ruled out in favor of a new road. ODOT says there will not be any major environmental impact from Opportunity Corridor. Opponents counter that the new road will ‘induce travel.’ Meaning, more cars will be siphoned away from other roads on the east side as this new one fills up. Eventually the road is clogged and the benefit of faster travel goes away.
ODOT acknowledges significant social impact in seizing 60 homes and 20 businesses. But, the underlying assumption is a new road will improve a historically underserved neighborhood. That it is a neighborhood where 50% of households do not own a car does not appear to factor in to the equation.
While proponents have argued that it will catalyze brownfield clean up, opponents are looking at the cost-benefit ratio: How much time will $331 million shave off the commute from the far west and southern suburbs to University Circle?
If Opportunity Corridor is intended to improve the conditions of a historically underserved community, the situation for pedestrians and transit users should, at least, be made no worse. Improvements can happen by adhering to principles of sustainable design. For example, the road should enhance connectivity and promote mixed uses. If the intent is to build the east side into a light industrial park, the city can take some measures toward sustainability by promoting walking and riding transit within the corridor.
Research has found that a grid-like street network is more efficient than a trunk-and-branch pattern. A well-connected square grid has been likened to a free market economy where more uniformity and predictability spreads economic impact as people vote with their feet on the best route.
ODOT’s current design for Opportunity Corridor does not improve on the walkability and transit access in the area. Instead, it offers a series of disruptions to the street grid. Barriers to mobility include sound and retaining walls, a sidewalk on only one side of the road, longer crossing distances at intersections, a wider “suburban style” bike path instead of bike lanes and cul-de-sacs or closings for nine neighborhood streets and Quincy, a main artery.
The merits of building new versus improving existing can still be debated within the context of the DEIS, which is required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In Wisconsin, the Zoo Interchange, a proposed urban highway in Milwaukee, became the basis for a lawsuit under NEPA. The plaintiffs won a ruling and the highway project has been delayed. Wisconsin DOT is required to study the wider impact of building a new road, including civil rights issues like, does it provide enough benefit to underserved populations in its target area?
What would be a better approach to Opportunity Corridor? is it possible to remove the bottlenecks around I-490 and E. 55th and fix the ‘five points’ intersection where E. 55th, Kinsman, Woodland collide and introduce a modern traffic lighting system that improves connectivity at far less cost? ODOT presumably didn’t find this alternative route feasible, but it also wasn’t forthcoming about why. When South Euclid Councilman and attorney Marty Gelfand requested the documents that offer a detailed explanation of why it ruled out improvements to existing roads, ODOT responded that it couldn’t release them. Gelfand is suing ODOT to receive the documents under Ohio’s “Sunshine Laws.”
The central question may be resource efficiency. Can a way be found to move cars and people with less pavement and bridges, and invest it into making the corridor a walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood? The city of Cleveland could set the stage. It can set as a goal repairing the urban fabric. The city might consider using its pedestrian zoning overlay, which is in effect in Midtown, to encourage buildings without set backs and massing appropriate to the scale of a walkable area (minimum of three stories). In addition, the city could choose to reserve no additional land for parking or future parking in the project area. It could suspend as part of a pedestrian overlay zone its parking minimum requirement.
Cleveland could identify a transit-oriented development on the vacant land around the E. 79th Street Red Line station, near Orlando Baking Company, for the 60 households who will be kicked out to make way for the road, and for the new industrial workers to walk or bike to work. Looked at through a community development lens, the Opportunity Corridor could spur the creation of a transit village, an east side version of the Cleveland EcoVillage.
The city, apparently, has very different intentions for Opportunity Corridor. The city’s land-use plans for the area can be found in a 2012 brownfields study paid for by a $200,000 EPA grant. In a return to the 1950s “urban renewal” policy of bulldozing its way out of problems, the city’s plan calls for creating even larger swaths of vacancy. Fifty additional residential structures, 24 non-residential structures, and 2 miles of roads will be removed to create large parcels of vacant land for light manufacturing, distribution, and warehousing. The city hopes by assembling superblocks it will attract developers of “suburban style” industrial parks.
Over the weekend, I spoke with a proponent of Opportunity Corridor who lives in Slavic Village. He is looking forward to a new connection from the south side to Shaker Heights. Opportunity Corridor fills a void, he said, that has festered because “there hasn’t been a unifying vision for the east side.”
The non-profit group Burten Bell Carr did pay for a study that considered new uses for vacant land as a local economic engine around E. 55th Street. And some early adopters like the Green City Growers 3.25-acre greenhouse over vacant land has pumped some new life in to the area.
Perhaps the issue is a lack of a vision. Instead of looking to roadbuilding as a silver bullet solution, what could the city and its economic development allies do to spread more benefits with $331 million?
One opponent who is familiar with the big players working on the east side thinks we are not properly leveraging the hundreds of millions of reinvestment dollars pouring into this area. “We have the brownfields redevelopment in its silo, the Regional Sewer District working on its green infrastructure over there and now Opportunity Corridor all acting separately,” she said. Sustainable transportation and land use would instead integrate them in a synergistic way to promote healthy outcomes for the east side.