Opportunity Nowhere: The Beginner's Guide to Being Outraged Over the $330-Million Opportunity Corridor 

It's just another day standing on the corner of Woodhill and Buckeye, waiting for the No. 10 RTA bus to take me to work. I'm a homecare worker, and though my employer provides a car for transport around the eastside of Cleveland during the day, I rely on public transportation to get there each morning and back home each evening.

From this perspective, at the corner waiting for the bus every day, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the negatives in the neighborhood. Why is there so much vacant space? What would actually help? The problems are complex and many, and so are possible solutions. Like the long-planned roadway called the Opportunity Corridor.

Last summer, while listening to the radio and dodging potholes on East 93rd and East 116th streets, I heard an announcement about an unexpected source of funding, through Ohio Turnpike funds, to pour dough into the Opportunity Corridor. Gov. John Kasich was touting the benefits for the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospital — the road project would connect I-490 to the University Circle area — and gushed that the OC would "lend hope and economic development to battered neighborhoods" — the exact ones I lived in and drove through.

Meanwhile, business leaders across town and the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the region's chamber of commerce representing large business interests which had lobbied for the corridor, pushed for more specifics on when funds would arrive, anxiously awaiting groundbreaking to happen as soon as possible.

I wondered: What exactly was the Opportunity Corridor? How was it planned? Why were business leaders among the loudest voices championing the cause? How was it sold to residents (some of whom were going to be displaced by construction) and what promises were made? And, most importantly, were the problems of Cleveland's east side really easily solved by simply building a new road?

What is the Opportunity Corridor?

The Opportunity Corridor is designed to connect I-490, which currently dead-ends into East 55th Street, to University Circle, which has the highest concentration of jobs outside of downtown, about 3 miles away.

There are two phases in the $350 million project. Phase 1 would improve and widen East 105th Street with little effect on the neighborhood. Phase 2, which won't get underway until July 2017, is the new, expensive roadway. Phase 2 involves the state of Ohio taking over 60 residential properties and 20 businesses in the path of construction. Phase 2 seeks to build a quicker (by minutes) route for travelers to University Circle, many of whom currently take I-490 to East 55th to Quincy Avenue.

In early 2001, an Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) Innerbelt study team connected with eastside workers who preferred a more direct route, in lieu of the indirect paths that had them traveling on the Innerbelt and through downtown. Those early talks led ODOT to form the Cleveland Opportunity Corridor Study. The estimated savings in travel time for those workers? Not much, but ODOT has declined to complete a time study, so there's also no concrete answer, and the organization replied to questions with nothing more than boiler plate responses touting the direct link. From the beginning though, the plan was largely designed for higher income, mostly white commuters to drive through lower income, most black urban neighborhoods.

When ODOT talks about local access to the road, it is not talking about access to healthy food, parks, jobs or schools — it's simply talking about local highway access in the most fundamental sense. Those destinations lie outside the neighborhoods, but it's foolish to believe a road fixes "local access" because it is based on the assumption that everyone has cars. In fact, 30 to 40 percent of the households in neighborhoods in the path of the OC don't have cars.

Promoting sprawl hardly promotes change, but then again, this road is not about economic development; it's simply watered-down urban renewal. By that, I mean that an interstate extension through Cleveland and the east, because of cost and opposition, has become only a boulevard to University Circle. Despite its lack of big-city traffic issues, Cleveland has plenty of big-city infrastructure already, by the way, ranking fourth nationwide for highway lanes per capita.

The idea of extending a highway through the area is nothing new. Back in 1963, county engineer Albert Porter made public his proposals for the so-called Clark Freeway (I-290). Porter, it should be noted, was not a fan of anything much except finding a way to move cars to the suburbs more quickly. And he wasn't exactly one for history: He once suggested removing the Guardians of Traffic to widen the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge span. "Those columns are monstrosities and should be torn down and forgotten," he said. "There is nothing particularly historic about any one of them. We're not running a May Show here."

The Clark Freeway would have run east and west along the Shaker Lakes to I-271 in Pepper Pike. Eighty homes and five commercial properties would have been eliminated. Immediately, Shaker Heights residents, led by Mayor Paul K. Jones, mobilized in opposition. Porter liked to refer to those residents as "little old ladies in tennis shoes"; those "little old ladies" formed the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, which complicated Porter's proposed route, and 2,000 of them, including residents of Richmond Heights and Highland Heights where the route also went, jammed a public meeting in 1970 in unified opposition to the proposed freeway under the banner of Citizens for Sane Transportation and Environmental Politics.

Where is that outrage today? You can look at the neighborhoods the proposed road goes through and answer that question. You can also look to the daily paper. Back in the 1960s, the Sun News was a vocal opponent to the project — Harry Volk, the editor, called the Clark Freeway a "concrete and steel monster." Comparatively, the Plain Dealer has been a vocal champion from the start, and there's a very good explanation for that.

The steering committee for the Opportunity Corridor is a group of folks largely appointed by the Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP) representing various business and community development organizations. The co-chairs of the steering committee are Jamie Ireland and Terry Egger. Ireland is a former Wall Street executive, the managing director of Early Stage Partners, and the president of the Musical Arts Association, which operates the Cleveland Orchestra. Terry Egger, until recently, was the publisher of the Plain Dealer and held that post throughout the duration of the Opportunity Corridor planning process. Egger is also a board member at the Cleveland Clinic, which would be the chief benefactor of its construction.

Under the co-chairs is the rest of the steering committee. Per ODOT's public involvement summary, "In the early planning stage, the committee was made up mostly of business, political and transportation agency representatives and leaders of Community Development Corporations." The early planning stage consisted of five steering committee meetings from May to November 2005. There was no public notice for these meetings and no residents present.

In fact, the first public reporting on the project came after those five meetings were already complete, in a Nov. 28, 2005, PD article headlined, "A boulevard of opportunity; Proposal would link I-490, East 105th." The article stated, "...the committee started meeting in May. Members studied four alternative routes and are focusing now on two."

A second series of steering committees met from 2009 to 2012. In these meetings, one resident from each of the five affected neighborhoods was added to the committee. One.

And the project director for the whole thing was Terri Hamilton Brown, who was the president of University Circle Incorporated (UCI) when the committee began meeting in 2005 and who subsequently left UCI to become project director for the corridor at the Greater Cleveland Partnership, a position funded by $100,000 each from the Gund and Cleveland Foundations. Throughout the early Opportunity Corridor presentations, the GCP logo is front and center, and you wonder: Why is a chamber of commerce representing large business interests lobbying for a road through neighborhoods like Kinsman, where the median household income is $13,300?

The Beginnings of the Opportunity Corridor

During steering committee meetings in 2005, the group developed four alternatives for the Opportunity Corridor.

Alternative 1, also referred to as "the Woodland Alternative" (pictured in green) would widen Woodland Avenue and could extend East 105th Street south, making a direct connection to Woodland. Alternative 1 is the closest to a no-build option. Alternatives 2, 3 and 4 largely follow the existing RTA rapid train tracks, and may open up more vacant land for redevelopment.

Note that the Woodland alternative leaves the current street grid intact for all users, important because, as mentioned above, 30 to 40 percent of the households in these neighborhoods don't have access to a car. Furthermore, Alternative 1 has the least "takes" (property that would be taken by the state using eminent domain), and is in line with ODOT's "fix-it-first" policy (meaning fixing the current roads before building new ones). Yet the steering committee determined Alternative 1 didn't merit further study.

As the meeting minutes from Nov. 10, 2005, show, Craig Hebebrand of ODOT District 12, said, "The recommendation of this study team is that we stop looking at Alternative 1, which primarily follows the existing streets of East 55th Street and Woodland." Shortly after, Hamilton Brown (then head of UCI) addressed the group and asked "if we can agree to take Alternative 1 off the table." The group agreed and consensus was reached.

The Woodland alternative was removed chiefly because it was "least effective in promoting community and economic development," with "only 55 acres for redevelopment adjacent to the proposed roadway," per the memo dated Nov. 10, 2005. This is compared to more than 200 acres in the alternatives selected by the committee. At the same meeting Hebebrand stated, "In February, 2006, ODOT plans to take the data and concepts developed to this point to the public for feedback," which serves as yet another reminder of the lack of public input thus far.

Upon further review, there were some traffic concerns with the Woodland alternative. At a steering committee meeting in June 2005, Andy Cross from Cleveland's Division of Traffic Engineering commented that "the timing of the signals on East 55th are maxed out and traffic is still a problem, so [Cross] doesn't see how you could get all that traffic through the existing intersection, as Alternative 1 proposes." Matt Wahl (of HNTB Ohio Inc.) explained that with the Woodland alternative, an option would be to relocate the Kinsman leg of the five-legged intersection to East 55th south of the existing intersection, but it could still be a problem. "The model will tell us if it is a viable option." Of course, no model for this alternative was ever completed.

Furthermore, the latter point is now moot as ODOT is currently looking at plans to redesign that intersection since it's been rated the worst for crashes within a five-county area.

In a recent series of public meetings, held independent of ODOT, Bob Brown, director of city planning, was asked why Alternative 1 hadn't been studied more. He responded that residents didn't like the option because it did not promote enough economic development. Of course, Alternative 1 has never been presented for public comment.

Is the Opportunity Corridor an economic development project or a road project?

According to ODOT, the goals of the OC are to: Improve "system linkage" — connections among the roads, neighborhoods and businesses — with an east-west arterial street between I-77 and University Circle \ Improve mobility — the movement of people and goods to, from and within the area ­—between I-77 and University Circle \ Create the infrastructure to support planned revival and redevelopment in areas in and around the "Forgotten Triangle," which is bordered by Kinsman Road, Woodland Avenue, and Woodhill Road \ Improve public transportation connections \ Improve facilities for pedestrians and cyclists.

The first two goals, "system linkage" and "mobility," sound terribly alike, the only difference being that "linkage" refers to the actual roads that link to I-77 and University Circle while "mobility" refers to the movement of goods and people. Two-thirds of the OC's goals, then, are related to access from I-77 to University Circle.

The third goal is redevelopment of the "forgotten triangle" neighborhood of Cleveland, which in and of itself is a sales job on par with naming a boulevard the Opportunity Corridor. It's as if they're implying the neighborhood has been intentionally forgotten.

Simply, there are two conflicting narratives over what caused the economic decline of the "forgotten triangle" neighborhood. According to the recently completed Climate and Sustainability Action in the Kinsman EcoDistrict (October 2013) study, "decades of disinvestment, redlining and abandonment followed by demolition and fire have resulted in many vacant lots." There have also been continued threats of a highway construction for decades.

And then there's ODOT's side of the story. The Indirect and Cumulative Effects Assessment (ICEA) reads: "By the middle of the 20th century, trucking had become more prominent in transporting industrial goods. This shift resulted in local businesses leaving in search of locations with better access to the interstate highway system, enhanced visibility and new infrastructure to support their business needs. The rail infrastructure that once serviced the industrial activity, along with the presence of the Kingsbury Run valley, now served as barriers to vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian access and mobility. As a result, businesses closed or relocated, employment opportunities declined, and neighborhoods experienced disinvestment."

According to the University Circle Access Boulevard framework study (2003), "The boulevard appears to provide the opportunity for the area to go back to what it once was — good jobs and strong housing which historically follow good [interstate] access." But is interstate access really the biggest issue preventing economic development, especially when over 30 percent of households do not have a vehicle?

The neighborhoods that the Opportunity Corridor will travel through are some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. For example, the Kinsman neighborhood has a median income of $13,302. The neighborhoods also have serious health issues: Kinsman has an infant mortality rate worse than Zimbabwe (31 per 1,000). And then there are the asthma rates, which, at 15.6 percent in 2009, were nearly double the national average of 8 percent. (Naturally, increasing traffic and pollution will do wonders for that rate.)

There is, of course, also the poverty. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that two census tracts in Kinsman near the "forgotten triangle" averaged a 54-percent unemployment rate.

And how do you get residents who struggle with poverty and unemployment on board with a project? You promise jobs.

During one steering committee meeting in August 2005, David Goldberg of Ohio Savings Bank suggested "that we get letters from University Hospitals, Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University stating how many new jobs they will be creating if the Corridor is built and the neighborhood improved." He then stated that letters from the Cleveland Clinic and Bioenterprise "are not a problem, but letters from outside will be a problem," according to a memo from the meeting.

A month later in the next steering committee, specific job estimates were discussed. The city of Cleveland "estimated about 1,600 new jobs would be created as a result of the Corridor and proposed changes to existing land use," according to minutes from that meeting.

Apparently 1,600 wasn't enough for the Greater Cleveland Partnership.

The Inflated Job Promises of the Corridor

Though there have been 13 steering committee meetings, minutes are available from only the five initial meetings in 2005. Sure, brief summaries are available in ODOT's Public Involvement Summary of the project, but the lack of transparency on a public project spending 350 million public dollars is troubling and the Greater Cleveland Partnership has balked at multiple requests for that information.

South Euclid councilman Marty Gelfand sued ODOT in 2013 for similar information, specifically the Draft Environmental Impact Study for the Corridor, which ODOT refused to provide him until the federal government signed off on funding for the preferred route.

"I wanted the documents before they got approval ... so the public has an opportunity to weigh in," Gelfand told the Plain Dealer after he filed. "The public really needs to be part of the process in the early stages, not after the federal government gives its approval."

That lack of transparency has been consistent from the start, and continues today. When Cleveland Magazine requested renderings of the Opportunity Corridor from the Greater Cleveland Partnership for a February 2014 story, the GCP refused to share them unless the magazine assured that the story wouldn't be negative.

Anyway, from November 2009 to March 2010, five public meetings were held through the affected neighborhoods. In each presentation, the economic benefits were summarized on a slide promising 10,000 permanent jobs.

Of course, there was no documentation to support those job claims, but residents of Kinsman, Buckeye, Fairfax, Slavic Village and University Circle were told they awaited. The actual economic analysis, done by Allegro Realty and funded by the GCP, wouldn't be complete until November 2011. It came up with a far smaller number: 2,339. That's about one-fifth of the jobs that GCP promised.

This isn't the first time GCP has played fast and loose with job promises. As Alan Glazen, a retired ad agency owner who worked with the GCP to pass the original 1990 sin tax, wrote in a recent op-ed, the GCP "lied" in promising 28,000 good-paying jobs from the stadium projects when the real number has fallen far short. "We were hired to be the people sending that message out, and that message was not honest," he said.

Joe Roman doesn't recall using the 10,000 number, but "when you have organizations like UH and the Clinic nearby as potential participants, there certainly is a significant opportunity for job creation."

Who will get the jobs? Will the neighborhoods actually benefit?

For a large-scale project like the OC, community benefit agreements should be made with each of the five affected neighborhoods. Those agreements could specify minority business contracting goals as well as local hiring goals, job training programs, construction of parks and recreational facilities, affordable housing requirements and other efforts to further mitigate traffic, pollution and other environment impacts noted by ODOT's Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Those moves are not only prudent but necessary, as ODOT itself notes that the OC would "result in disproportionately high and adverse impacts to low income and minority populations."

So far, the proposals include only two pedestrian bridges, a voluntary residential relocation program, $500,000 to the Woodland Recreation Center, and $500,000 for job training. All told, those measures would represent less than half of 1 percent of the total OC budget. Additionally, those pedestrian bridges and job training wouldn't even be needed were the OC not to be built.

Mayor Jackson himself was opposed to the project back when he was a Ward 5 councilman. He's changed his tune now, though.

"Over the last several years, much has changed with the Opportunity Corridor project. Mayor Jackson did not favor the project as a freeway that would have disconnected a neighborhood from its surrounding community; and early on, there was little to no community engagement," says Jackson's spokesperson Maureen Harper. "Since that time, the project has changed significantly. What was to be a freeway will now be a boulevard. There has been significant community engagement over the years with the residents, local business and community development corporations. In fact, the Jackson administration still is engaged in talks with area residents and stakeholders to work to address common concerns."

But what's the real barrier to jobs, especially when the road is sold as an economic project?

Tim Tramble, executive director of Burten, Bell, Carr Development, Inc. (the CDC representative for the Kinsman area), has been skeptical from the start. In the GCP's promotional video for the OC, Tramble states, "When I first heard of the Opportunity Corridor, I didn't buy into it. How do we do it in a way that would be beneficial to all stakeholders?"

His concerns haven't changed. "If the roadway is done right, it could bring opportunity," he recently said, "If it's just an infrastructure project — and by all indications that's what it appears to be — then it's not going to do any good for the community and we won't leverage the highest and best use for Cleveland."

The Phalen Corridor in St. Paul, Minn., has been referenced as a model for Opportunity Corridor, and is a good example of what should have been done in the planning stages. Phalen Boulevard took a different approach than the Northeast Ohio version. Instead of rolling full speed ahead, planners had 6 years (1995-2001) of brownfield remediation and anchored tenant development prior to starting construction in 2001. Brownfield remediation is essential because if the land is contaminated by low concentrations of hazardous waste from previous industrial use, it will need to be cleaned up (re-mediated) before the land can be developed.

In a survey for the planning commission conducted by Burten, Bell, Carr, multiple community stakeholders and nearby businesses were given a questionnaire asking what would need to happen in order to expand. Almost all of them mentioned a need for grants or low-interest loans; none mentioned a need for increased highway access. Those grants and low-interest loans are what helped Miceli's Dairy, a large employer in the neighborhood, to expand. If there was any barrier to Miceli's expansion, it was not highway access, but whether there would be funds for possible brownfield remediation. Currently, Miceli's has completed phase 1 of its expansion, thanks in part to a $5.49 million low-interest loan that helped clean up the brownfields.

Instead, the current development plan calls for "superblocks," chunks of 10 to 50 acres that could be developed for suburban-style office parks or industrial use. Fred Geis, a prominent developer in Cleveland, is skeptical that the OC will succeed with this approach. Geis has stated it's difficult to complete new office construction in Cleveland without subsidy and that urban industrial development is an "unproven market."

GCP has no specifics yet, but Roman says "the fact that there are 300-plus acres that will be available as a result of the corridor existing between two business anchors, downtown and University Circle, the hope is that we visualize and realize a roadway that helps create residential and economic development in a neighborhood that hasn't seen it in a long time."

Is the Opportunity Cooridor worth it?

A $330 million project to increase auto access to University Circle is a curious proposition when compared to University Circle's traffic problems. As recently as February 2014, University Circle Inc. president Chris Ronayne said, "One-third bike, one-third transit and one-third auto is the commuting goal into University Circle. That's a reasonable objective."

University Circle, of course, is one of the few places in Cleveland with a traffic problem.

Elsewhere, though the traffic isn't bad, the roads are. It would cost $300 million to bring Cleveland's existing roads up to industry standards, according to the latest estimates. ODOT's self-professed preference, as mentioned already, is to "fix it first." According to the Transportation Review Advisory Council: "Preservation and management of the existing system shall be accomplished by funding system preservation needs first and providing funds for new construction only after the basic maintenance needs of the existing transportation system are being achieved." Any driver in Cleveland can tell you, those basic maintenance needs are certainly not being met.

Even the goals of the Opportunity Corridor itself are not being met. The first goal of the corridor is to improve "system linkage" and connections among the roads. The Opportunity Corridor will actually create nine new dead ends. You wouldn't know this from looking at the OC graphic provided by ODOT that has been used in the Plain Dealer, on the OC's website and public information. Instead, ODOT has consistently used a cartoonish graphic of the corridor that is not only hard to evaluate, but that also conveniently leaves off the cul-de-sac symbol in the legend, meaning that the public has no way of knowing from looking at this graphic that nine streets would become dead ends.

One new major dead end would be the closure of Quincy Avenue between East 105th Street and Woodhill Road. The closure has been barely acknowledged by the local media, and only mentioned once buried deep in a Plain Dealer article from November 2012, after the public meetings had been held and the decision already made. The closure of Quincy is especially problematic for the 1,600 residents of the Woodhill Home Estates since this will cut off their main north-south thoroughfare, and even more problematic when you realize many of those 1,600 rely on public transportation. Those residents, by the way, are still unaware of the closure.

In general, ODOT has reduced funding for public transportation by 83 percent since 2000. Meanwhile, auto usage has declined and public transit usage has grown to levels not seen since the 1950s, and public transit projects pay big dividends for big cities. For example, RTA's Euclid Avenue HealthLine has generated $114.54 in economic development for every $1 spent on the bus corridor. What will $330 million buy us? Another road the city can't afford to repair and a few extra minutes for folks driving to work. Worth it, huh?

Chris Stocking is a registered dietitian currently residing in the nearby Larchmere neighborhood. He has a blog that can be found at eatrighteous.org. Send feedback and questions to OC@eatrighteous.org.

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