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

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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 [email protected].

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