Evaluating the Actual Design of the Opportunity Corridor

Ever since the state said it was going to award close to $300 million in borrowed turnpike money to the Opportunity Corridor, a project Cleveland’s planning and development leaders had been pushing for more than a decade, it’s been sort of a mad scramble to get shovels in the ground.

Project leaders now have the final federal approvals that they need to begin construction. In a few weeks they’re going to put sections 2 and 3 — the actual new road portion — out to bid on a quickie design-build contract that gives the engineering firm a good deal of leverage over the design details. And that will be the end of it as far as that goes, I believe. $331 million in spending will turn into a road that will be part of Cleveland’s landscape for decades. Pretty much all the leaders involved ceased discussing the design details of the the road months and months ago and have turned their attention toward the development they hope will follow.

They’re behind the ball on that already. Land speculators have been buying up properties and putting fences around them. Just last week some key project leaders floated a plan to solicit foundation support to spend $10 to $20 million assembling land they hope they can sell or give to new firms that will employ city residents.

So everything’s speeding ahead and more or less final as far as the people with power over the situation are concerned as with the $331 million road project. I’m sort of disturbed about this because the $331 million road project still had a lot of pretty glaring issues it seems just aren’t going to get addressed.

One thing I will say is I think the design of the road has gotten better in the last year or so. There have been a few key improvements that resulted from community pressure and public feedback. They are, IMO:

  • ODOT will no longer dead end 19 through streets, including Quincy, a major thoroughfare. On most of those streets, sort of residential side streets, drivers will be allowed to make right turns. With this change the road will still be a barrier to north-south, short-distance travel, the kind that is especially important to people living near by. But it will be less so.
  • Minority and local contractors will get 20 percent of construction contracts.This was a deal offered by Governor Kasich in the run up to his reelection campaign and was pushed for by the Black Contractors Association locally. This was always, always, always, at public meetings a big priority for people living nearby.
  • A pedestrian bridge has been added by the East 55th rapid station. This was a very early change made in response to public outcry. The original proposal from ODOT would have required transit riders to walk a long circuitous route around the road and a retention all to access the rapid station. ODOT caved to complaints and agreed to install a pedestrian bridge that would shorten this distance transit riders will have to travel by a third. (A note about this pedestrian bridge: the fact that ODOT is proposing pedestrian bridges over this road instead of at-grade crossings is pretty good evidence that the road isn’t very pedestrian friendly and operates, at least at this junction, much like a grade-separated highway.)
  • ODOT reduced travel lane widths from 12 feet to 11. 12-foot lanes are the type used on Interstate highways and they encourage fast speeds — far faster than the 35 miles per hour this road is supposed to be designed to accommodate, and faster than what is safe for pedestrians who will have to cross this road. After complaints, ODOT agreed to reduce the lane widths to 11 feet, which is still pretty wide and generous to motorists and not the most pedestrian friendly design but it is better than 12 feet.

That being said there are many, many outstanding issues I’m afraid we’re not going to see adequately resolved:

Bike infrastructure:

The one remaining design issue that seems to be getting a lot of attention is the issue of bike accommodations. Bike Cleveland and project manager Marie Kittredge have been making an issue over the fact that the current plan calls for bikes to use an off-road multi-use path on the road’s south side. Bike Cleveland director Jacob Vansickle has argued correctly that this is a second-rate way to accommodate bikes and is pushing an on-road protected bike lane.

The project’s steering committee is considering this and there seems to be a fair amount of political support. Steve Litt, architecture critic for the Plain Dealer has written about it twice — a sure sign that the establishment is firmly behind this idea. This is sort of an interesting development and I’m encouraged to see people in positions of authority finally pushing back on some of ODOT’s generally pretty old-school designs. I think converting the off-street bike path to on street would be an improvement to the design and help make the road slightly more pedestrian friendly.

However, Marie Kittridge told me they are not considering reducing the width of the road, only widening it to add the bike lane. That’s disappointing. The road is being built to accommodate all the traffic from every planned development around the corridor for the next 20 years. That’s why they were able to justify adding a fifth lane. A lot of the planned development for the area over the next 20 years might not ever happen. Or if it does happen it will take a long time. So the road will likely have excess capacity from day 1.

I am concerned that widening this very expensive road to add bike lanes will turn out to be surprisingly expensive, but that’s just a guess. Conducting a road diet on a parallel road like Woodland might be a nice alternative if so. But it will be interesting to see how that shakes out.

That being said, I am sort disappointed we haven’t seen the same type of advocacy from those in positions of authority for transit riders and pedestrians on this corridor. I really think those two groups are much more profoundly affected.

Transit riders:

We learned late in the process of this project that RTA, after months of denials, was considering closing both the East 79th Street rapid stations, in the heart of the project area. The RTA board has since decided these stations will remain open. But it is unclear where the money will come from to perform the repairs — which will cost at least $20 million. RTA has a $300 million maintenance bill coming due on its rapid system altogether and it certainly doesn’t have the money in its operating budget. RTA was able to negotiate $3 million from ODOT through this project for the East 105th street station, but how it’s going to raise the money for those other stations remains an open question. That is a less than 1 percent concession to transit from ODOT in this project, although the road bisects neighborhoods where 40 percent lack access to a car. I don’t know how anyone can consider this a fair distribution of transportation resources, but everyone just seems to be resigned to the idea that ODOT won’t give anyone money for transit.

Since the existence of the rapid stations was one of the project leaders’ primary justification for building the road — the argument was that new development spurred by the road would be transit accessible for people without cars — it’s pretty disappointing that this issue was more or less sidestepped throughout the process. Transit was pretty much ignored throughout this process — although this was always referred to as a “corridor,” which implies a bigger, more comprehensive project than a road with a side path. Throughout the planning process some of the project leaders have insisted that this area already has good transit access — because it is served by buses and rail — but that road access was the real obstacle (these leaders, I am certain, do not rely on the bus.) Now that whole excuse is sort of our the window, but it’s probably too late to develop a more balanced and inclusive approach.

In the end this $331 million investment in what is almost exclusively car infrastructure provides little to nothing for transit riders and that is a real travesty from an equity perspective, especially considering how transit dependent the surrounding neighborhoods are and how much they are going to be impacted by the construction and traffic from this road.

These are the kind of bridge elements ODOT is proposing.

ODOT and Kittredge are planning a meeting tonight, I understand, to invite the public to share ideas for fancy design elements to be added to some of the project’s many bridges. It’s frustrating to see them focused on this kind of cosmetic detail while all these transit issues remain unaddressed. Furthermore, their eagerness to invest money in this sort of trivial element, while basically ignoring some of the very serious transit concerns in the same area is pretty disappointing, but typical of the highway’s-first, nothing else matters approach we continue to see from the powerful old-school bureaucracy that is ODOT.

Pedestrians:

Furthermore, what kind of conditions the road is going to present to pedestrians seems to be another wide open question, which is pretty disappointing at this late stage in the game. Right from the beginning, project sponsor promised this road would be a “pedestrian friendly boulevard” — and it should be. It’s an urban road that runs through low-income neighborhoods. We don’t want to build a road that becomes the kind of road that low-income get killed trying to cross to get to jobs. It’s 2015 and our design sensibilities about these things should be getting more developed.

Now I think when the people who came up with this plan laid out that vision — “a pedestrian friendly boulevard” — they meant it. That truly was their vision. Unfortunately, they needed ODOT to design it and make it happen and ODOT doesn’t really do pedestrian friendly, they do highways. What they have put together, at least from what I can tell, is not an urban road but a watered down highway, with trees in the middle and a handful of intersections. And I think the powers that be are so eager to see this money spent and this road built, and accomplish their 10-year goal, they haven’t really been willing to do much in the way of advocacy for pedestrians in the project design, which is unfortunate.

That being said, we don’t have a lot of details about what the project means for pedestrians, even at this late stage. We know there will be a few additional crossings, even a couple mid-block crossings, thanks to public complaints. But we don’t know much of anything about what the intersections will look like. To me it looks like they’re going to be really awful.

I actually asked ODOT to give me the pedestrian crossing distances for the corridor. Initially they refused because they weren’t “public information” because ODOT itself had never calculated them. That really shows how much effort has gone into thinking about how pedestrians are going to experience this road. They had never even measured it.

Well, I complained about it and they agreed to measure them and give them to me, but only for Phase 1, the widening of East 105th. That’s really not the section of the road I’m most concerned with because it is an existing road and though I think ODOT’s involvement will probably make it more dangerous and less comfortable for pedestrians, since it was an existing historical road will buildings surrounding it, there’s a limit to how badly they can screw it up, in my opinion.

They told me they couldn’t give me the pedestrian crossing distances for the other two sections — the sections they’re spending all this money to build — because they were going to use a design-build contract and so the engineering firm basically gets to decide. I’m not sure whether the public has an opportunity to provide any feedback in this process, but I’m guessing it would be an uphill battle. Again, this is a really disappointing way to approach such a crucial feature of this project.

I took this screen shot from a video ODOT made showing what the Opportunity Corridor will look like. it looks like a scary suburban arterial, to me, the kind that are most dangerous for pedestrians. Image: ODOT

Even with very little detail, it’s fair to say that a lot of the intersections are going to be quite wide. ODOT specifically chose to ignore concerns about the width of the intersections submitted by the public during the planning process — this is noted in the final Environmental Impact Statement and approved by the FHWA.

The road is five lanes for the first portion, and design plans include turn lanes at many intersections — always bad for pedestrians. Add two turn lanes and just the length of the traffic lanes could be as wide as 8o feet, and a lot more could be added if the road allows generous turn radii, which seems to be the plan because of “trucks.” Only 2 percent of the road’s traffic is estimated to be heavy trucks, and yet still that mode takes precedence over pedestrians in a low income neighborhood where many people lack cars. Wide turn radii would also encourage right-turning cars to speed around these intersections and add to the danger for pedestrians.

Now in some of the information ODOT has sent me, they have extended the boulevard into the crosswalk, more or less, to provide pedestrians a “island.” This is a good thing for safety. Even so, 80+ foot intersections are going to be very, very intimidating for the average pedestrian and definitely not the kind that will create a healthy balance of transportation modes or a walkable corridor in the sense most people understand it.

I don’t think the road can fairly be called “pedestrian friendly” and I really don’t even think there’s been a very good faith effort to make it so. I think the version of  “pedestrian friendly” ODOT and other local leaders have settled for is “pedestrian friendly compared to a limited access highway,” in that it provides the bare minimum in grudging accommodations to pedestrians. It’s disappointing that we settled for that and I think we will regret it very soon. It’s possible that the moment the road is built, it would be a good candidate for a road diet because it’s over engineered and not very context sensitive. I mean this road, from what I’ve seen in ODOT renderings, looks exactly like the kind of suburban arterial road you see outside a Walmart on North Olmsted, the kind where you never see any pedestrians, or when you do you’re afraid for them.

East 55th “jughandle”

Most of this area is currently a densely populated portion of the Slavic Village neighborhood. Image: ODOT

This is a good example. A last and final nagging concern I have about the design is tbe proposal for the beginning of the road at East 55th. ODOT and neighborhood leaders agreed a while back on a “jughangle” design, which is more or less a very small highway cloverleaf. The road will scoop below grade and neighborhood folks hope, relieve some of the nasty traffic that occurs at the awful intersection of I-490 and East 55th. I wasn’t around for the negotiations between ODOT and the neighborhood on this design. I assume ODOT presented them with some alternatives — all of them huge, concrete, solutions — and that this was designed to be the best of a lot of bad options from a neighborhood perspective.

I think it’s awful. I don’t understand how pedestrians are supposed to navigate it. The pedestrian bridge apparently. And Kent State’s Urban Design Collaborative pointed out Slavic Village residents won’t even be able to access East 55th from the road, at least last I heard. To make matters worse the whole thing is right in front of the East 55th rapid station and will reduce the walkability of that station, already very poor, and reduce the number of households within walking distance — because this area is where the majority of the houses seized through eminent domain are. So basically we’re trading a real urban neighborhood for that, and that is “progress,”

Some of us who have been following this project critically suggested that maybe a round-about would be a more humane solution, but I don’t think much consideration was given to the idea and I’m not sure 100 percent why. At this point I guess this is more or less set in stone. It’s a real shame to see something like that constructed in a neighborhood in this day and age.

We really should be moving toward road designs that are safe for pedestrians. And I understand that so many cars move through this area — and they’re trying to funnel them now all into the same area — that that creates some design challenges. We might never be able to create truly urban, pedestrian friendly streets in this context and that’s part of the reason I think this whole project is going to help sort of cement some unhealthy transportation patterns for the city at the same time we should be moving in the other direction. Funneling a lot of cars through a single chute really isn’t that healthy for cities, or urban.

I think a lot of people’s attitude, as far as the design of this road goes — and these are people who don’t live nearby — is that the neighborhoods impacted are in bad shape anyway and so these kinds of details don’t really matter. And so we’re getting a potentially damaging and dangerous design for our $331 million public investment, instead of the multi-modal pedestrian friendly boulevard we were promised and we seem to be willing to accept that, unfortunately.

It’s really a betrayal of the neighborhoods impacted I think. “Trust us,” they have been saying the whole time, this road will be “a pedestrian friendly boulevard.” It is technically a boulevard in that it had trees in the middle, but it’s not pedestrian friendly, it’s a thoroughfare designed first and foremost to speed high volumes of vehicular traffic with only the most superficial nods to other modes. I think a lot of the people leading this project understand this but have been willing to overlook it because they think the development will make it worth while. But that wasn’t the deal. They didn’t say, we’ll build a road through your neighborhood mainly designed for the convenience of suburban commuters while offering next to nothing to the surrounding neighborhoods, but it will be worth it in the end because of all the great development. They promised a nice, multi-modal urban road. In the end they only came through with the emptiest, most superficial nods to that kind of a vision — designs on large bridges, for example, a second-rate sidepath that doubles as a sidewalk.

This is a project that more than $30 million was spent “planning.” And this is the end result?  It’s disappointing, especially given how high-flying the rhetoric around this project has been. Those of us who have been making these kinds of points are more or less shouting into the wilderness, however, at this point. I’m not very optimistic that anything will improve and we will have blown an opportunity to create something that would be a real asset for urban neighborhoods.

–Angie Schmitt

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