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Opportunity Corridor was sold before housing crisis began

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/01/13 @ 9:00am  |  Posted in Transportation choices

My critique of the Opportunity Corridor starts with the Purpose and Need Statement. If we examine the region a decade ago when ODOT started the planning for the Opportunity Corridor—as an exercise to see if it could remove a lane from the Innerbelt—the housing market was strong and Northeast Ohio was expanding. The current market paints a very different picture.

Hooked on a feeling<br />Opportunity Corridor was sold by the same firm that has been shopping a 60-acre shovel ready industrial site in the area.Shovel ready for two decades<br />The city spent $2.3 million to extend Bessemer Avenue and has been shopping this 60-acre shovel ready site.Supersize the city<br />Land use plans for Opportunity Corridor call for clearing 30 acre parcels for superblock industrial developmentNo exit<br />Opportunity Corridor would erect a barricade for pedestrians on the E. 55th bridge at I-490 and create a special on-ramp for cars.Carless in Cleveland<br />Case found that 50% of households in Opportunity Corridor are without cars.

New housing starts are well below the pre-market crash and are predicted to remain at historically low levels. Meanwhile, population inflows since 2010 to Cleveland’s center have risen 35 percent. Occupancy rates are around 98% in downtown Cleveland and thousands of new apartment and condo units are in the development pipeline. Outmigration is showing signs of slowing as demand rises for living in existing areas.

Another important metric is the reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT). In the last six quarters, VMT among Americans aged 18-25 has shrunk by 23 percent. Less demand for suburban living and less interest in driving are important to recognize in the context of whether to build another road to maintain or improve on what we have.

They make a case for revisiting the old purpose and need statement for the Opportunity Corridor. Market dynamics have changed and so has the purpose and need for an urban expressway.

If ODOT were being run as a business, spending $331 million on a road to shave a few minutes from a commute from the west suburbs to University Circle would simply fail the cost-benefit ratio of any CEO. A more prudent investment might be a more ‘market based’ strategy that involves lots of new housing in University Circle to reduce the demand for an urban highway. University Circle and ODOT could invest a small portion of the funds on improvements to the existing roadway network between I-490 and University Circle and deliver the same benefit. An alternative plan focused on an improved E. 55th and Woodland (with an extension at its east terminus to connect with E. 105) should include modernized traffic signals, repaved roads, and improved intersections at I-490 and E. 55th and at E. 55th/Kinsman/Woodland/Woodhill.

The alternative study deserves more than a cursory examination from ODOT. In coordination with reducing demand through new housing investment in University Circle, an alternative that modernizes E. 55th to Woodland could provide similar transportation benefits at much reduced cost on an existing four-lane road.

In addition, a ‘fix-it-first’ plan provides a much-needed infusion of investment in the existing built environment—in a higher density corridor. From an economic development standpoint, improving the daily condition of a large population battling chronic poverty is a higher and better use and should figure in to the economic return of Opportunity Corridor.

Opportunity Corridor is premised on an economic development study that Greater Cleveland Partnership paid Allegro Realty Advisors to produce. Allegro recommends that the city level 20 or so additional buildings in addition to the 60 homes and 20 commercial properties for Opportunity Corridor to create four, 30-acre parcels for light industrial uses. Allegro determined that there is demand for another industrial corridor even though less than a mile south of the future Opportunity Corridor, the firm convinced the city that building an extension of Bessemer Avenue would attract business to a light industrial park. Cleveland has been shopping a 60-acre “shovel ready” site on Bessemer Avenue.

Planners have told the city it has a dearth of 20+ acre parcel industrial properties that are "shovel ready." On the west side, the city prepared two former brownfields at that scale: The Midland Site and the Trinity Site, which is slightly less accessible to the highway. Reportedly, the Midland site is getting development interest and the Trinity site none at all.

Much of the economic case for Opportunity Corridor rests on an assumption that demand for industrial land will continue to rise. Colliers in its 2012 Cleveland real estate market report says the 41 million square feet of industrial space on the market represents a low 8.7% vacancy rate.

Allegro has made its case that highway and rail and clearing lots of vacant land is sufficient to attract industry to Opportunity Corridor. An alternative vision is highway access and the presence of light rail and bus lines provide the infrastructure for targeted neighborhood re-investment strategy. An examination of the vacant properties and abandoned parcels in the alternative route of E. 55th and Woodland add up to a significant reinvestment opportunity with the added value of proximity to a high density residential area, including a large population living in subsidized, sub-standard housing.

The second ‘equity’ decision for a fix-it-first investment is the 60 households that will be displaced. Opportunity Corridor will use eminent domain to seize the homes of impoverished families, and offer them ‘fair market value’ in return. Current appraised values for the homes that will be demolished are around $6,000. How will ‘fair market’ translate to ‘making whole’ the little old lady who has lived here for decades so that she bears the loss, the pain of displacement and the expense of moving and finding a decent home?

A strong argument can be made for a ‘demand management’ investment in University Circle. Instead of one road, multiple existing roads in University Circle such as Stokes, MLK, Cedar and Chester Avenue could get long-needed improvements. An alternative to Opportunity Corridor would be to infuse University Circle with a massive infrastructure investment with the purpose of attracting mixed-use development that builds on the vacant areas around campus and the Euclid Corridor.

Investing directly in University Circle leverages billions being spent to make it the premier walkable neighborhood in the state. A major investment in infrastructure to make University Circle more walkable and bike friendly in the spaces between current development would continue it’s impressive growth as a neighborhood.

For example, instead of Opportunity Corridor, ODOT could invest in a proposed park at the base of Cedar Hill. Or, redesign Stokes Boulevard to conform to a more conventional design that maximizes land use for development. It could improve the surface road network, and connect pockets of development between The Cleveland Clinic and Uptown. It would require a shift in thinking—instead of simply moving traffic, roads are investments in making University Circle a more complete, vibrant place to live, work and play.

Secondarily, the Opportunity Corridor as designed leaves much room for improvement. ODOT has set the design speed of the road at 40 mph, and admits the real speed will be 45 miles per hour. A 2012 brownfields study paid for by USEPA sets the land use as “superblocks” for industrial parks. The road seems to be designed primarily to serve trucks moving into and out of industrial facilities at the scale of a 30-acre parcel. Design elements that will discourage multi-modal use include:

  • Wide intersections with large turning ‘radii’
  • No mid-block crosswalks
  • No pedestrian refuges in the center median
  • A sidewalk confined to the north side of the road
  • Instead of on-road bike lanes, a suburban-style bike path
  • Ten neighborhood streets will become dead ends at Opportunity Corridor, including Quincy Avenue, which is a bus route that serves public housing
  • Sound walls are being considered to separate the road from the neighborhood
  • A barrier at E. 55th Street blocks entry and egress to the Red Line Rapid Station (but a very expensive on-ramp will be built to help motorists coming north on E. 55th from Slavic Village)

Project managers at ODOT District 12 say that a bridge built over Kingsbury Run is evidence that pedestrians were considered. But, that single gesture does not adequately compensate for the many barriers for pedestrians throughout the corridor. The cul-de-sacs, wide intersections, sound walls, retaining walls and only 12 intersections for a three-mile corridor (which averages 1 intersection per 1,320 feet) will most certainly impede pedestrian mobility. The road needs to be redesigned to be more context sensitive. Fifty percent of households in the area do not have access to a car, according to Case’s NEOCANDO, so many pedestrians and transit riders will be inconvenienced. Some may be seriously injured or killed when trying to cross a road designed to move cars at high speeds.

The justification stated by ODOT project managers (at a meeting at District 12 offices on September 18) for wide intersections and large turning radii is to accommodate buses. But on further consideration, this reason doesn’t scan because RTA has stated no plans to expand service on Opportunity Corridor (the transit agency has stated that it may route commuter bus service here).

A recommendation, then, would be in the design to make it a multi-purpose road that won’t degrade the Level of Service by following a example found in The Netherlands. The Dutch have designed what they call an intersection junction for a road very similar to the proposed Opportunity Corridor that can handle bike lanes and cars moving at a higher speed. See this link for a video explanation.

Further, the design of the road should improve circulation to the existing street grid, and access to the transit service in the corridor. How will Opportunity Corridor improve conditions on major, north-south connecting streets such as E. 79th Street for local uses? Could a community benefits agreement identify ways the Opportunity Corridor could help the redevelopment on Kinsman?

Recommendations include resurfacing and striping a bike lane on E. 79th Street, and improving access to the Red and Blue-Green Rapid stations. The scope of the Opportunity Corridor should include planning improvements to local streets like E. 79th Street and Kinsman Road. Opportunity Corridor could pay for a TLCI study that identifies transit-oriented development and multi-modal opportunities in the corridor. ODOT might agree to support the implementation of a TLCI plan.

Also, some planners and design professionals see a huge opportunity to integrate the thinking of where and how land is developed with the road to capture stormwater runoff on site and simultaneously improve green space and even connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists moving through large swaths of space.

All of these small design details, though, would miss the larger points found in David Beach’s Six questions for Opportunity Corridor. Who benefits most? What are the opportunities perhaps missed with the building of an industrial truck road masquerading as a faster commute for suburbanites instead of an investment in a city on the mend.

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 hearing on October 1, from 4-8 p.m. at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, 7510 Woodland Avenue in Cleveland.

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4 years ago

There might be one or two places for mid-block crossings, but they would be unnecessary if there weren't so many proposed cul-de-sacs. Dead ending ten side streets, dropping in sound walls, and carving out huge intersections are the big concerns. Because they impede vehicle and pedestrian mobility across this road. There seemed to be a fundamental lack of understanding or concern for how the design presented at the public hearing will penalize those trying to cross on foot, by bike or car.

He Sits and He Says
4 years ago

What kind of mid-block crosswalks do you have in mind? Let's remember that crosswalks are basically invisible to motorists unless there is a traffic light requiring them to stop and even then they sometimes just blow right through those lights (see, e.g., the Lakes to Lake Trail crossing across Fairhill near MLK). The best examples of ineffective crosswalks (and planners' detachment from reality) are the crosswalks attempting to connect the three segments of the Mall downtown.

Walk Your Car Across the Street
4 years ago

I dare say that ODOT and NOACA must be the most depressing places in the country to work. With all of these progressive and interesting infrastructure projects happening around the country, this is the project that they are tasked with coming up with?

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