The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) promised to help get us there: to Lake Erie. They planned and funded a project that would puncture a highway with human scale assets that would allow Clevelanders to access their lakefront. Then came Kasich and asphalt lobbyist/ODOT director Jerry Wray. The good ol' boys said no. The two would cook over Lake Erie with black tar if they could-a drive to Canada in a lane as big as God.
Last Thursday was a public meeting meant to affirm Cleveland's desire in the face of their refusal. Pews were packed with bodies, the balcony two-deep. It was like an Easter Sunday on a Thursday night. And the pols spoke. They had harsh words for ODOT, which is novel, as the political environment around here has often been one of kowtowing to Columbus because they hold the purse.
Said Councilman Matt Zone to the constituents: "We are not the enemy. We are partners in this process [to access the lake]. ODOT wants division. They want infighting."
"ODOT, Ohio's Pentagon", said Councilman Joe Cimperman who was next up to plate. "Is there anyone here from ODOT tonight?" he then asked. The church sat still. He went on: "The silence is deafening".
Then came Councilman Jay Westbrook. He spoke of the highway-the West Shoreway-that blocks Cleveland's West Side neighborhoods from Lake Erie. The Shoreway usage-according to Planner Bob Brown-is down a ridiculous 71%. Westbrook says the Shoreway "was a 50's vision of how it was done. Sixty years later we need to do it right and our biggest barrier is the Ohio Department of Transportation."
Cleveland's Packed Public Meeting
For sure, in an age of leveraging natural and human assets for economic gain, ODOT is a mess. They are a throwback-locked into the mid-twentieth century like a bloated Elvis wannabe stuffed on Swanson and Nick at Night. Need evidence? Here is ODOT's spokesman to the Plain Dealer explaining their insistence on disallowing Cleveland lakefront access:
"Given the budget crunch states are facing, it's really hard to justify throwing more money into a project that is designed to reduce speed, won't alleviate congestion and in some ways downgrades a perfectly good roadway."
Back at the church, it was this quote that really galled Cleveland's Director of Regional Development, Chris Warren, who spoke after the council members:
"Remember these words. ODOT's mouthpiece has declared baldly and emphatically that there is no room for fulfillment of a decade-long dream to promote multi-modal access. No room to remove unsafe conditions. No room to honor the pledge to finish. No room to participate in tonight's meeting."
In all, the meeting was filled with tough talk, and with an urgency for multi-modal access that hasn't been spoken around here since Moses Cleaveland arrived on a canoe (i). There was also constant reference to a TRAC meeting at ODOT on Dec 15th that was being hailed by the pols as Cleveland's own Hundred Cyclist March to Columbus. They needed us there, they said, to influence Phase II of funding for the project. Needed us there to send vibes and show support. A sheet was passed around to gather names. A meeting place was set up. A bike event was in the works. Put simply, the City knows the fervor of the cycling community first hand and perhaps couldn't pass up the opportunity to serve up the prospect of red meat donned in asphalt-loving, bureaucratic cloth.
Which begs the question: why? Why are they so urgently saying now what many had been trying to hear for years?
To analyze this, some background. The whole West Shoreway project has been historically linked to a lakeside development called Battery Park. The site is-to the developer's own admission-25% complete, and in serious doubt if one particular part of the multi-modal plan does not get complete: a highway interchange off the Shoreway at W. 73rd St. This interchange is the centerpiece to the funded Phase I of the project. No this isn't multi-modal. That comes largely at Phase III.
On the City's Planning website, Phase I states there (was to) be a ribbon of bike and pedestrian lanes that will finally link the various Near West Side neighborhoods with each other as well as with the Lake. Alas, the last real multi-modal component of the gutted, original Lakefront plan has been kicked to Phase III, which for all intents and purposes is a no-go. First, Phase II needs to get funding by a State Government that has already raised its middle finger to the city up north. And: the state legislature needs to vote to downgrade the 55mph to 35mph which they have consistently failed to do. And: Phase III needs to get funded by a State....middle finger...well, you get the point...
Taken together, there is some serious reservation within Cleveland's sustainable transportation community to be the goons to the goons, with a glorified highway and a lakefront development to show for it. To that end, if the city's words are really not empty, and they have seen the light so to speak, then god bless them-which of course means they will find a way to do the paths now, not in ten years as the future of Cleveland has been unreachable long enough.
Of course the larger question is why Cleveland's fate has come to this: with Columbus holding the keys to unlocking the City's quality of life. Yet that is what happens when you build a highway along your waterfront, or more centrally: when you turn your back on what you are and where you came from.
Because instead of becoming a place of dreamers-or a place of folks magnetized to their waterfront if only to look out and re-know possibility-we became something else. We set our eyes away and on those things that continually led us out from the city. And we kept staring in this direction until Cleveland turned amnesic: an everywhere culture of lit parking lots, highways, gas pumps and sprawl. And so we left our visions behind us, unable to get back to it because of the walls we built that literally blocked us from the thing we drink when we get thirsty.
Now we are trying to walk it back--to get to our Lake. And while ODOT bears some of the blame in the immediate present as to whether or not we can do this, the responsibility ultimately lies with the leaders of Cleveland, Ohio. Let us hope their words in a church on a Thursday night go right from their mouths to god's ears. If not, consider it a sin the size of a six-lane highway blocking a huge beauty to the point of it being hard to find.
(i) Really, they laid it on pretty heavy almost to the point of being too good to be true. Which begs the question: is it too good to be true? Damn I hope not, but who the hell knows anymore.