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ODOT to Cleveland: Drop Dead!

23 November 2011 No Comment

There periodically arise big moments in urban development—moments that can affect a city’s life course. Here in Cleveland we are at one of those moments. The issue is whether or not we can finally break through the walls that have divided us from the Lake.

Though ODOT—and by extension, the Governor—are of the position of protecting these walls (as we will see), it is a pleasant reality that Cleveland’s leaders have found vision and political will to take a hammer to them. This was not always the case, as Cleveland itself bore historical culpability in constructing industry, rail, and a highway along the length of our shoreline. The resultant landscape has served as a colossal block, or a virtual vice holding back the economic potential of our lakefront. Yet as a community we are determined more than ever to release the grip.

Some years ago it looked like it would finally happen, with the ODOT and the City of Cleveland commencing with a handshake deal that would give Route 2 a road diet with the consequence a break in the barrier between people and water. The near West Side neighborhoods were the area of investment. A 55 mph highway would be turned into a 35 mph tree-lined boulevard. At-grade pedestrian crossings (see red arrows below) would be installed as would a multi-modal path that would run east to west (green arrows). A few car access points would be thrown in for good measure. All was good. Funding was settling in.

Original Lakefront Plan

Then came the chipping away a few years back. Columbus—their traffic modeling didn’t support at-grade crossings. It was a huge blow to unlocking the simple, as-is potential that is a city existing on a Great Lake. But we still had the bike paths promised that would ribbon the area, as well as motorist access point going below the highway (see white circle), and the beautification and “day-lighting” of the existing bowels-of-the-earth aesthetic that is the W. 73rd St pedestrian tunnel. So we shut up: take it, Cleveland, we heard us saying. Just take it.

Take it we did.  Because soon entered Gov. Kasich and ODOT director Jerry Wray. Cost overruns had stripped the project of its funding, with the first allotted payments (50 million) being eaten up by what was decided to do first—build the road. So the lakefront plan shrank to this: a road, a prettied tunnel. It is perhaps a metaphor for this administration’s way out for Ohio: pavement, holes. But what is maddening is that Columbus isn’t concerned that their way out may actually be a way further in.

Current Lakefront Plan

The question of course is why? Is it pure ideology—with the thought pyramid comprised of sprawl, roads, cars, and people in that order? Or is it based on good planning? On rational, deliverable best practices? Well, a recent application by the City of Cleveland requesting additional funds to finish the Lakefront Plan provides some answers to these questions (they got 25 points out of 60.5). Answers, alas, that should bring concern up the spines of all Ohioans looking for a future—or a way out if you will.

First, some background. These applications are reviewed by ODOT TRAC technocrats, with unbiased thinking allowing for a review on the merits of a given proposal with principles of evidence-based planning in mind. That is, a reviewer knows what is good, and so they know a good proposal, and the resultant application score is reflected as such, with the highest rated proposals getting top priority.  That is the theory at least. Cleveland’s scores, however, blow the shine off the ODOT process. Which brings to mind a Hunter S. Thompson quote: I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours. Below are some examples that belabor Hunter’s point.

First there is the category of Economic Distress, with a more distressed area equating to a higher score. The City’s application got 0 points. Yes, Cleveland, the perennial top ten poorest is not economically distressed. Now, facts—cold and hard: Cleveland’s poverty rate is 30% compared with 15% at the State level. The neighborhoods impacted by the Lakefront Plan have poverty rates of 43% (Detroit Shoreway) and 39% (Ohio City). I have lived and now live in both neighborhoods. Below is an image that is common. It’s on Madison Ave. It’s simple, doesn’t lie. So that score on its face is of the 2+2=0 variety.

Next is the category Intermodal Connectivity. The category means what it is named, or that higher scores are given to proposals that allow for a variety of connections. The City got zero—zilch—out of a possible 5 points. Let me repeat that: the City—whose proposal is to divide primarily car activity into a spatial opportunity for pedestrians and bikers—got no points. Again, 2+2=0.

Lastly, in the Economic Benefits: Return on Investment, the city got 0 out of 10. According to the Plain Dealer, “Jackson [the mayor] and council members found the score particularly galling”. The city’s rationale? Because the promised lakefront access plan has already set-off substantial economic benefits in the area. Again, fact. Cold and real. Specifically, in a response by the City to ODOT about the application, the city expresses their bewilderment this way:

In the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood, over $400 million in development has been completed, is under construction, or is being planned, in part, because of the promise of the Lakefront West project.  The largest project, the nearly $100 million Battery Park project, is under development at a 14-acre site former brownfield site that was once home to an Eveready Battery Company plant.  Vintage Development, the developer of Battery Park, is considering development for an additional 8 acres near Battery Park.  The success of Battery Park – currently approximately one-fourth completed – and future development, is dependent on completing the next phase of the Lakefront West plan.

ODOT’s response? Well, when they say economic development they are not talking about human benefits, unless that human is the owner of an obscene amount of goods. From the PD:

In an email, Faulkner [ODOT’s spokesman] said the category measures projects’ ability to move customers and goods more efficiently. “Retail, beautification and livability enhancements — such as reducing a road from a highway to a boulevard and adding trees and bike paths — do not improve a project’s economic [return on investment] score,” Faulkner said.

Okay, two points. First, investing in built, environmental, and human capital does bring an unleashing of economic capital. Saying otherwise is silly to the point of becoming catatonic if one thinks about it too hard.

Second, Kasich has recently come on board for—wait for it—a livability project in Toledo Ohio called the Marina District. The plan sounds eerily similar: a former brownfield, on Toledo’s riverfront, near Toledo’s older neighborhoods. The plan, according to the first architectural drawings, envisions:

a low-rise assembly of modern multi- and single-family residences, office buildings and retail spaces surrounded by parks and the Maumee waterfront. The intent of the development, he said, is to serve as a kind of staging area for international executives to conduct business in the Midwest, a lively urban neighborhood for their spouses and children, and a destination for shopping and dining for residents of the Toledo region.

The difference, then? Bought and planned by Chinese investors that have been meeting with Kasich since last year. Bought, mind you, with help from the State, and bought no doubt on the promise that ODOT will build roads to wherever the Chinese investors want roads to be built.

Let me clarify this: Kasich is on board with a livability project that is now just weeds, has no clearly defined concept, has no infrastructure, has no local investment, over one that is half-built, locally invested in, and with a well-defined concept called the Gordon Square Arts District.

No wonder Mayor Jackson was recently quoted as saying: “I honestly believe they don’t want it to go forward”.

Okay, my head hurts.  I am tired, as there is no way to reason one’s way out of this. All that is left is ideology–friends in high places, pavement, cars…

Fine, then. Time to channel my internal Reagan. Maybe that will help. “Mr. Kasich, Tear Down this Wall!”

–Richey Piiparinen