A road can unite, not divide. That's the idea behind the Opportunity Corridor and the promise behind its catchy name.
The last missing link in Cleveland's road network, the five-lane, 3 1/2-mile boulevard between University Circle and Interstate 490 is finally going to be built after 12 years of discussion and delay. It will link the East and West sides and undo the bottleneck that funnels nearly all the city's east-west traffic through downtown. That's good news for anyone who's been caught in the blocks-long traffic jams on Carnegie Avenue near the Cleveland Clinic or the crawling rush-hour line to get on Interstate 90 at Chester Avenue.
The road could also be good news for the neighborhoods it'll pass through, although a lot of people will tell you otherwise. That's the big question Cleveland still has to resolve: Is Opportunity Corridor just a public-relations brand? Or will the project live up to its name for the people who live along its path?
In 2014, Cleveland feels like two cities. In the growing, optimistic city — places like University Circle, downtown, Ohio City and Detroit Shoreway — people move in, businesses open, developments rise and sidewalks bustle with new traffic. Not far away in the shrinking, impoverished city, people move out, houses go empty, lots go vacant and prosperity seems even farther away than it did 10 years ago. Cleveland's greatest challenge is to spread prosperity from growing neighborhoods to those that need it most.
Vickie Eaton Johnson thinks the Opportunity Corridor can help do that. As executive director of the Fairfax Renaissance Development Corp., it's her job to build anew in the historic but poor neighborhood south of the Cleveland Clinic. Fairfax is home to 5,000 people, one-fourth as many as in 1970. One end of the Opportunity Corridor will come through it.
"Our neighborhood planned, anticipating the roadway for 10 years," Johnson said at a panel discussion this fall. Along the route, she adds, her nonprofit has created a plan for a new-economy development zone, so nearby research and development companies and light manufacturers can grow and not have to move to Avon. She also hopes to get stores and 250 apartments built along the stretch. The business zone will happen sooner because of the corridor, Johnson said. The proposed apartments and stores depend on it. "We need to create marketable addresses, and we're going to use and leverage this project to make that happen," she said.
City councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland represents the neighborhoods on the other end of the Opportunity Corridor. She supports the road project with reservations.
"We're opening up lots of undeveloped lands," she says, "making [them] more easily accessible, more attractive to developers." But she wants to see more benefit for her ward. "What can we bring to the neighborhood, in addition to the roadway itself?"
The boulevard will thread through Cleveland's most isolated area, part of the Kinsman neighborhood nicknamed the "Forgotten Triangle." There, railroads, the Kingsbury Run valley and empty factories break up the street grid and east-west travel. Most of the land is empty. Dumping is common.
"I think it can be transformed from a largely vacant and blighted area," says Bob Brown, the city's planning director. The city owns much of the land there, thanks to tax foreclosures. City Hall has drawn up a development plan for the area, which focuses on attracting light industry, plus some retail near East 79th Street's two Rapid stations.
The city can't guarantee businesses will invest anywhere, but Brown thinks the area has two things going for it: its location between University Circle and the freeway, and loads of vacant land. Companies that want to locate or expand in Cleveland often need large consolidated sites, Brown says. "The area around Opportunity Corridor is one of the few in the city to leave large-scale sites available."
That fits the area's No. 1 need.
"The main request from residents has been more jobs," Brown says, "and more jobs that are accessible to people who live there."
The idea that businesses like to invest near major thoroughfares doesn't impress the Opportunity Corridor's opponents, mostly mass-transit activists who think new roads can only hurt cities.
Their arguments drip with disdain for commuters, suburbs, roads and cars. Traffic jams on Carnegie and Chester don't bother them one bit. They want to constrict traffic to push people onto mass transit. They think they're fighting suburban sprawl, though the project will actually encourage skilled workers and commerce to flow back into the city.
The critics raise good points about Ohio's bias toward new highways over transit. But when it comes to improving access to University Circle, the region's second-largest employment center, the $331 million Opportunity Corridor pairs up pretty well with the $197 million HealthLine on Euclid Avenue and two new Rapid stations under construction in University Circle for $26 million.
The opponents shouldn't stop the road, which was funded by the state last year and is nearing final approval. But they've asked questions the state should address.
About 40 percent of the people living along the corridor don't have cars. How will the project affect them? The boulevard will include a 10-foot-wide biking and walking path. After criticism, the state is narrowing the road's lanes to make it a bit easier to cross. Joe Calabrese, general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, says RTA may add a bus to the new road, though it'll depend on ridership studies.
Calabrese says his biggest concern about the Opportunity Corridor is the "mess" where it'll intersect Quincy Avenue. The crossroads fall between the Red Line and a freight rail line, creating a difficult engineering problem.
The state plans to close Quincy to cars and buses under the freight-train overpass. That'd force the RTA to reroute two bus lines and isolate a neighborhood across the tracks. Calabrese wants another solution. "We're hoping it becomes more transit friendly, not less transit friendly," he says.
Other questions remain. Residents want jobs building the road. Will the state do all it can to help train them for the work? Sixty-four homes stand in the road's path. Will the state live up to its obligation to help displaced residents buy decent, comparable new homes elsewhere?
Getting it all right requires openness and healthy debate. Instead, the road's supporters have gotten defensive. The state transportation department refused to give an interview to Cleveland Magazine, responding only by email. The Greater Cleveland Partnership, the business group leading the charge for the road, balked at sharing renderings of the boulevard unless the magazine assured it that this story wouldn't be negative. Both need to be more open as the project launches.
Phyllis Cleveland thinks the road could spread prosperity from University Circle to her neighborhoods — if it's done right.
"The potential is there," she says. "It won't happen without serious community involvement and serious leadership."
An opportunity isn't a guarantee. It's a challenge. Getting the Opportunity Corridor to live up to its name could be the most difficult and most worthwhile challenge Cleveland takes on in the years ahead.