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Wait. What? Already? Cleveland Walking it Back on Complete Streets

25 September 2011 No Comment

Well, that was quick.

Just days after passing complete streets legislation in Cleveland, cycling and pedestrian advocates were still uncorking champagne, exchanging high fives, generally out carousing it up with visions of separated cycle tracks and pedestrian plazas swirling through their eternally optimistic heads.

See that grey thing in the corner? That's Lake Erie. Welcome to Cleveland, folks! Hope you brought your car!

Cleveland was, of all things, busy celebrating its third annual “Sustainability Summit” when word came down that the city’s $70 million West Shoreway “highway-to-boulevard” project would be losing one of the last features that made it friendly to pedestrians and cyclists — namely, multi-use paths to the north of the highway.

This is big if you’re a cyclist in the West Side of Cleveland (myself included). See right now, cyclists have no dedicated infrastructure to get them from the city’s Near West Side — which includes Cleveland’s hot redevelopment neighborhoods — to downtown with their brains on the correct side of their skulls. All we have is this really laughable Cleveland Lakefront Trail, a twisted maze of poorly marked, regular streets, that, by the way, aren’t on the lakefront and aren’t a trail for that matter. (Thanks for that, guys!)

Moving on. We’ve written before on this blog about how this project, even before the removal of the trails, was of questionable merit, precisely because the city seems to be willing to sacrifice every element that leans toward the boulevard side for more of the same old highway side that we’ve already got.

Let’s see, the original plan was to turn a limited access highway that separates Clevelanders from the lakefront into a slow-moving, tree-lined boulevard with at-grade intersections, and a scenic bikeway. Sounds like a project worthy of tens of millions in public money, right? Especially since the West Shoreway is a major barrier to Cleveland’s notoriously underutilized lakefront.

Enter the Ohio Department of Car Capacity, ahem, Transportation. They said, alright Cleveland we like your highway-to-boulevard idea in theory it’s just that our job is mainly entrapping pedestrians and cyclists in a prison of fast-moving vehicles, not developing pleasant environments for them to move about safely — or something to that effect. Cleveland officials, in the way of Cleveland officials, caved at every juncture.

ODOT nixed the at-grade intersections and Cleveland said fine. The state legislature never got around to lowering the speed limit last I heard six months ago. (Anyone got an update on that, by the way?)

I have been following this project for months and I have yet to learn how the new “boulevard” will serve the people of Cleveland any better after their $85 million investment, besides the $7 million or so they are using to fix up the two pedestrian tunnels that will be the public’s only safe route to the lakefront, outside of private automobiles of course. (Why on earth would anyone want to go to a park without a car, amirite?)

Sheesh. This is just too perfect: Ken Silliman, chief of staff for Mayor Frank Jackson, in the midst of his “Sustainability Summit” is quoted in the Plain Dealer for saying this:

“That is a convenience,” Silliman said last month of a western section of trail that was to link with Edgewater Park. “But we view it as not a necessity … That’s the way we’re looking at things now.”

Someone should tell that guy about complete streets — or the whole of City Hall for that matter!

But this is the the city’s perspective, if it was explained to me accurately. Cleveland can’t afford the lousy $5 million in trails because they are spending $30-something odd million to build an additional exit for a developer around 76th Street. And city officials, they said, hey, times are tough, we gotta make sacrifices. There isn’t a whole lot of development going on in the city of Cleveland right now so we gotta make this guy happy. So, hello developer dude, bye bye bicyclists.

In the end though, maybe the city of Cleveland gets a hundred new residents out of this developer, meanwhile it sells out the tens of thousands of existing residents who have been dutifully paying their taxes already on the West Side.

To me the problem is the city of Cleveland still has a really outdated approach to city planning. This is 90s-era thinking — the era of the megaproject. The city’s economy sucks? Build a $500 million Medical Mart using the public dime. Lakefront disconnected from the city? Build three giant publicly-funded entertainment venues on the lakefront but make no effort to make them accessible by foot or bike from downtown.

The city of Cleveland lost 17 percent of its population at the last census. It’s time for the city to stop playing offense and start playing defense. If Cleveland is going to recover, it needs to start focusing on small quality-of-life issues for existing residents. It needs to put its residents first and fight for their interests instead of dreaming up the next big, and ultimately disappointing development scheme.

The city of Cleveland, if it nixes those multi-use trails, is making a huge mistake. If the new interchange is so important to this developer on West 76th Street, he should be willing to contribute a lousy $5 million. That would be enough to save the multi-use trails. His residents would benefit as well and enjoy increased property values. That’s how these public-private development schemes are supposed to work, guys. They give a little, we give a little. Win-win.

Pedestrian and cycling improvements will make the city nicer, more attractive. And rushing cars through the city as fast as possible, well, that has the opposite effect.

Rushing cars through the city as fast as possible on limited-access highways was the beginning of the suburban flight that decimated Cleveland. Now is the city’s big chance to begin reversing that. And it can’t even see it. That’s what discourages me.

Pedestrian and cycling advocates, hopelessly optimistic as they may be, aren’t going to take this laying down. The city has agreed to host a series of public meetings gathering feedback about the changes. Those who support a livable Cleveland need to pack these meetings and demand our fair share of transportation infrastructure. We’ll be posting updates here as the story develops.

-AS