The legacy of the U.S. highway system—how it tore through urban neighborhoods like the once-thriving Woodland area south of Interstate 90 in downtown Cleveland—is still being felt 60 years later.
A plan is coming together that would repair one of the most prominent examples of “urban renewal” in Cleveland’s history.
When I-90 was built in the late 1950s, it plowed under hundreds of homes in its path. Blocks were supersized. The imposing design of Cuyahoga Community College Metro campus only heightened the sense of isolation south of the highway.
The changing character of the area called more attention to the big institutions—St. Vincent Charity Hospital, the Juvenile Court, and the country’s second oldest public housing estate.
Today, as if suspended in amber, it all lives at the end of a highway ramp. Few prefer to walk here, despite 40 percent of households being car free. The majority of the population lives below the national poverty level. Streets are wide and cars move quickly. Every aspect of the design of space reinforces the message—if you can afford a car, you should leave as fast as possible.
“Some thought where the Innerbelt was placed was intentional,” observes Bobbi Reichtell, Executive Director of the Campus District, “to create the divide between downtown and this neighborhood south were the estates were already built.”
When Reichtell arrived two years ago, the community organization was locked in a fierce battle. The Cleveland Innerbelt Project was aiming to permanently close an exit ramp at E. 22nd. It threatened to turn the Innerbelt into a $1 billion bypass of the city. The Campus District joined Midtown, Inc. in suing the state over the decision. They won the case, and the highway exit will stay. Good in the larger sense for the east side, but, questions remain. Can state highway and county engineers design the new ramp area to work with a plan for a complete street merging at E. 22nd?
There are a few, immediate issues at stake. First, the Innerbelt, where it meets E. 22nd Street, will have an even larger footprint because of a planned, new ramp where it merges with I-77. The plan called for a massive concrete bridge over the Innerbelt trench. The city and Campus District argued, here’s an opportunity to repair a little bit of the historic rift caused by the highway. Instead of concrete, ODOT has agreed to plant a green space 16 feet wide on both sides between the sidewalk and road. Not quite the “cap” that Columbus got over Short North, but, Reichtell hopes, at least as nice as the park-like cap over Long Street in the King-Lincoln neighborhood east of the capital.
Reichtell is pleased with the progress ODOT’s local office has made, although, she and others are pressing the case with elected officials to expedite the E. 22nd/Innerbelt “cap” for a round of funding sooner than five years from now when it’s scheduled.
Just as important is the design of the new highway ramp where it meets E. 22nd and Central. How will it dovetail with the city’s $5.7 million “complete street” project on E. 22nd?
Scheduled for construction in 2015, the plan is to calm E. 22nd by “dieting” it down from six lanes to four while adding bike lanes. E. 22nd Street here feels grassy and suburban with huge blocks to try to traverse on foot - a bike lane should help encourage a more efficient use of transportation space.
There are equity reasons for ODOT to invest $1 million to redesign the bridge with bike lanes, trees and hardy, native perennials. It should do wonders for the current pedestrian bridge over the Innerbelt with its chain-link fence and heavy concrete fortifications.
“We did walking and biking audits of the campus and people didn’t feel safe,” Reichtell said, “that bridge scored off the charts.”
E. 22nd and Central Avenue where the new highway ramp will spill visitors is also the site of a plan to bridge the past to the future. The former County Juvenile Justice Center sits empty on the northeast corner where Reichtell hints that an important adaptive reuse is in the works. The block just east of the ramp is the Choice Neighborhood development site where the old public housing estate is being decanted and new 50% market rate-50% subsidized housing will get built starting in May. Reichtell compares the style of the $178 million, 149-unit development to the Clinton-era Hope VI project in Tremont.
“It used to look like army barracks,” she says. “The best part is, we’re doing something about that superblock. The city will be putting in new roads. There will be a mixed-use building along with the townhomes. This is taking a risk on (Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority’s) behalf.”
Another “multi-modal” project in the works is Greater Cleveland Rapid Transit Authority’s recent announcement that it would indeed rebuild its Blue-Green-Red line(s) Rapid Station at E. 34th Street. Campus District tried to persuade RTA to move the station to E. 30th near Orange Avenue and the U.S. Post Office. But a curve and a switch in the track would double the cost, RTA says, so it will stay in the same, isolated spot. Campus District has floated the idea of linking the Rapid Station and Cedar-Central with better public transit. A transportation study by Parsons-Brinkerhoff recommended adding a trolley line, but Reichtell said the $100,000 annual cost is too high (maybe the new trolleys being purchased for the 2016 Republican National Convention could be put to use with the proposed campus line?).
While most of her time is spent focusing on Cedar-Central, the CSU campus’ transformation from surface parking to mixed use, market rate housing gets high marks. Creating a bridge between the two campuses by investing in pedestrian, cycling and maybe even transit infrastructure could lead a noteworthy sea change. It shows there’s a deeper market than Clevelanders are historically accustomed to having for living here.