Is the Opportunity Corridor a critical piece of infrastructure or is it an example of “old think”? Steve Litt asked a panel of speakers at the Cleveland Museum of Art during the annual Circle Neighbors symposium.
“We oversold the idea of expanding highways and prosperity will follow,” said Angie Schmitt of Clevelanders for Transportation Equity, a grassroots group that opposes the project on social equity and environmental grounds.
Building new roads in an area that is well served by transit is “outdated planning that could entrench auto dependency and doesn’t represent a new generation of Cleveland residents leading car light lifestyles,” she says, or the 40% of Central residents without cars.
Cleveland has a lot to learn from places like Salt Lake City and Vancouver in how to prosper while rejecting an old playbook. Even in a deeply conservative state, Salt Lake City tied a new investment strategy to a $300 million streetcar line seeing its downtown boom while air pollution fell. Vancouver has witnessed explosive growth downtown while not investing in a single new highway lane since the 1970s.
Deb Janik of the Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP), the business chamber that by all appearances is leading the Opportunity Corridor, said its not old think.
“Old think was what my generation thought of the Clark Freeway,” she said of the I-490 highway expansion plan from the 1960s that would have paved over parts of Shaker and Cleveland Heights including the Shaker Lakes but was killed by a groundswell of citizens.
Janik framed this as Cleveland’s Medical Mile. “It’s about transforming 470 acres. It can’t be just a suburban industrial park, though, it has to integrate into the neighborhood.”
Janik was responding to dissatisfaction with the “superblock” concept of consolidating 30-60 acres of land for low level office parks. She will address concerns about land-use patterns and a wide road with highway elements like sound walls and barriers for pedestrians and cyclists with ODOT and partners like the Sewer District.
Architect and Cleveland Landmarks Commission Chair Jennifer Coleman called for the city to adopt a form-based code—which looks at the design of buildings from the pedestrian point of view —to address the mismatch between pedestrian and industrial scale of the project.
“With three major transit lines coming right through this area, I don’t see how these intersections get you there,” Coleman said.
“We’re not really good at making north-south connections in this town,” she added. “I’d like to see what can be done to improve access to transit on E. 79th Street.”
Schmitt adds that building a road will weaken the case for transit. It has been reported that RTA is considering closing its E. 79th Street Red Line station, which is across the street from one of the area’s largest employers, Orlando Bakery. The road and sidewalks on E. 79th Street leading to the station are cratering which somehow doesn’t slow the race of cars (E. 79th is too wide at 30 feet to function properly as a two-lane street, and lots of vacant land adds to a speedway atmosphere).
There is an opportunity to build from the remnants of a once-bustling and dense walkable neighborhood, but it would require a plan that built on assets like Mt. Sinai Baptist Church on Woodland Avenue, which is lead by C. Jay Matthews (it seems like an important anchor for the community). Could an alternative to the Opportunity Corridor focused on Woodland Avenue finally realize the vision put forth by the city in 2000 to provide new housing, and new hope, for the men, woman and children subsisting in some very tired looking cement block public housing on E. 79th Street and in the Woodhill Estates?
The city of Cleveland did not have a representative on the panel to discuss how it would “leverage” $331 million to carry through with its plans from its 2000 Civic Vision. The citywide plan calls for assembling vacant land for new housing and building new local retail hubs at Woodland and E. 55th Street, and on Quincy Avenue.
What is the city’s expectation for Opportunity Corridor as a placemaking strategy or even as a resource for addressing substandard housing, crumbling roads and sidewalks around E. 79th Street? The project leaders might have started with this type of question, said Coleman.
“What is the story of this area?” she said. “It could have started out as a way to train people from the neighborhood on how to get the jobs that are going to come here. I wish it started from a vision of the needs of the neighborhood, and then invited ODOT in.”
The project started as the University Circle Access Road in 2004, said Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle, Inc. In the intervening decade, Ohio woke up to its fiscal constraints, examined its views on road building and introduced a fix-it-first strategy. Projects like Opportunity Corridor went dormant. The project resurfaced when the state sold bonds on the Ohio Turnpike, the proceeds of which are restricted to new road building (transit alternatives need not apply).
A study conducted for GCP by Allegro Realty predicts a 50-year timeframe to fill the property in the corridor. Ronayne’s vision for the northwest quadrant is to work with the Cleveland Clinic on building up a glass-and-steel vision called the New Economy Neighborhood.
Janik and Ronayne suggest that the key to making Opportunity Corridor a success is keeping a firm hand on the design.
“It’s about much more than 50-acre superblocks,” Janik said. “It’s about quality places and quality spaces. The work is just starting.”
The project has received $30 million for planning, but Ronayne suggested that additional funds may be needed to re-design the 13 intersections in order to promote walkability and good urban form. That was the approach to ensuring better pedestrian and bike features on Euclid Avenue, said Ronayne, who lead the design of the Euclid Corridor as Cleveland’s planning director under Jane Campbell.
Litt commented that “a lot will depend on if the institutions are prepared to step up. We are seeing that happen on Euclid Corridor.”
Litt asked Ronayne how adding road capacity and delivering thousands more cars to University Circle will impact its formation as a neighborhood? His answer was that UCI is leading the redevelopment of the area with Uptown, Euclid Corridor and two new Rapid stations. He’s trying to introduce a transportation demand management strategy—that would relieve the need for a suburban access road with neighborhood development—into conversations with heads of institutions in University Circle.
“We’re on the grow despite adequate infrastructure. We’re almost out of land.”
You have until the end of October to submit an official public comment on the Opportunity Corridor.