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Cleveland Revisits 1960s With Urban Renewal-Style “Opportunity Corridor”

5:05 PM EDT on June 5, 2013

Cleveland's business leaders want you to know that "The Opportunity Corridor" -- a new road they want to jam through the city's southeast side -- definitely isn't a highway. From the beginning, project proponents have been careful to refer to this $350 million, three-mile traffic-mover as a "boulevard." And they also want you to faithfully accept that this is really all about "opportunity" for the neighborhoods the road will bisect -- some of the poorest in the region -- not the benefit of suburban car commuters.

For more than 10 years, business leaders in greater Cleveland have been pursuing this grand plan for a road to connect the suburban freeway system with the University Circle neighborhood, a major regional center of employment and home of the Cleveland Clinic. Their proposal -- led by the Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland's chamber of commerce -- is an at-grade, 35 mile-per-hour, three-mile road with a series of stoplights. The cost is more than $100 million per mile.

When it comes to marketing this road, proponents are laying it on thick. They're currently preparing a video that hails the new wave of prosperity it will usher into some of Cleveland's most troubled neighborhoods. The co-chair of the project, Terry Eggars, is publisher of the local newspaper, the Plain Dealer, and the paper's editorial board is one of the project's most consistent cheerleaders.

Underlying the euphemisms and optimistic assessments, however, is the reality that this project is basically a high-speed traffic conveyor that will gouge a path through poor, African American neighborhoods by use of eminent domain -- something that modern planners and city leaders generally frown upon, with good reason. Some 90 homes are slated for demolition, and more than half a dozen businesses -- this is in a city that's having enough trouble hanging on to its residents.

While project proponents downplay the displacement issue, the equity concerns go much deeper. Environmental Health Watch reports that 22 percent of African American children living on Cleveland's east side suffer from asthma, and about 8 percent require hospitalization for the illness. In most of the neighborhoods the road will cut through, a majority of households don't own cars. The project contains no money for transit, though it does include an off-street path for walking and biking.

Some of the most affected communities along the route sense that this is another grand development scheme at their expense. Before it was called the "Opportunity Corridor," the project was known as the "Access to University Circle" project. Local writer Mansfield Frazier reported overhearing one resident say at a community meeting, “Yeah, this is an opportunity all right … an opportunity for white folks to get to work and not have to see any black folks.”

Akshai Singh, an organizer with the local chapter of the Sierra Club, points out that there are already six routes to the Cleveland Clinic from the beginning of the proposed "Opportunity Corridor" at East 55th. And many of them are in a state of disrepair, he says. Singh acknowledges there's a "bottleneck" where the freeway currently ends at East 55th, but he says there are lower cost ways to remedy that. He's not sure why Cleveland's business and political leaders are so committed to this one approach.

"The Opportunity Corridor, in its current form, is a really inefficient use of limited state dollars," he said.

Cleveland's roads are notoriously potholed -- the city's finances allow only about $4.4 million per year for resurfacing. The city is slated to contribute almost three times that amount -- $12 million -- to the project. In fact, the Opportunity Corridor's pricetag -- roughly $350 million, depending on the source -- is more than the city's entire five-year capital budget for transportation.

"The sum of money, $350 million, could be a great boon for local road repair and transportation performance," said Singh. "This project should essentially be rethought with respect to local needs, in addition to suburban needs"

According to Marc Lefkowitz at the local environmental blog Green City Blue Lake, the Opportunity Corridor represents a schism between competing two schools of thought in Cleveland: One, drawing inspiration from the past, believes that opening new lands to development with highways was the highest form of economic development; the other is working to promote a new vision for the city built on local economies.

Lefkowitz says it's tough to square Cleveland leaders' stated goals for the city with this project:

For Mayor [Frank] Jackson to follow through on his statements this week that the neighborhoods are on the front burner, he’ll need to focus his priorities more on community building, and less on building highway extensions that speed suburban commuters through town.

That “opportunity corridor” is not the kind of wise investment needed to spur a real renaissance, the kind that follows residents' aspirations for building local, self-reliant economies that ripple opportunity out from the spot on the map in southeast Cleveland to the region who, let’s face it, has its fortunes tied to the city’s ability to provide a decent living and housing to its residents.

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