Debating the Inner Belt

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Cleveland city councilman Joe Cimperman is worried. At Lucky's Coffee shop in Tremont, surrounded by overstuffed couches, he recalls what the highway system did to this neighborhood over 50 years ago.

Joe Cimperman: If you could do the most damage to the city, this was it. Then the second round came when they built 490 which continued to take houses and separate the community and create these little islands.

In the past 20 years, this west side neighborhood has begun to rebound. Just in time for a new inner belt construction project.

Joe Cimperman: There is some fundamental decisions to be made in the first two quarters of 06. That in my opinion will determine the health of the region for the next fifty years.

Cimperman opposes ODOT's preferred plan for a new bridge and the existing I-90 bridge to take traffic back and forth over the Cuyahoga River. Near the lakefront, "Dead Man's Curve" would be softened and midtown entrances and exits relocated. Cimperman says moving access to the interstate will hurt midtown businesses. And he says the local community development corporations are furious. They feel ODOT isn't taking their concerns seriously enough.

Joe Cimperman: There are long standing, multi-generational businesses in the city that will suffer and die and probably move if the plan proceeds as is.

At a recent meeting of the Cleveland Planning Commission, a room full of citizens heard a different plan by Paul Alsenas, Planning Commissioner for Cuyahoga County. His idea for a "signature" bridge, something uniquely Cleveland has people excited, but frustration is also evident.

John McGovern: This a project that's going to effect the entire city. And we're not seeing that. We as a city have made a half billion dollar investment in gateway. And now were just going to jam another road in there. And that's MY MONEY!

QUADRANGLE CDC: Too many times in the past, I feel like we just do everything for the pure economic benefit and don't make a statement anywhere. I think this is an opportunity for the city to make name for itself

Paul Alsenas: Why do people get excited?

Planning Commissioner Alsenas.

Paul Alsenas: I think part of the answer is people love this community. And the reason we should do a world class bridge is, what it really says at some deep emotional level is we are world class ourselves as a community.

Alsenas' signature bridge would be south of the current I-90 bridge. It could end at street level near Jacobs Field. And this could open land up for development and reconnect neighborhood streets to the downtown grid.

But public sentiment is only one factor ODOT must consider in its planning process. Project Manager Craig Hebebrand says construction feasibility and traffic patterns are also big factors. He says they've long discounted the south bridge idea because it would involve closing I-90 and rerouting traffic through Tremont. Something Hebebrand considers unacceptable.

Craig Hebebrand: You're rerouting 128,000 vehicles. Even temporary for 12 months or more its just unacceptable to put that traffic back into those neighborhoods.

ODOT has its version of a southern bridge, which Hebebrand says would require demolition of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. Even if an outside design could save the church, it would bare no more weight than other public comment.

Craig Hebebrand: We take all public comment. Not whether we would specifically analyze a specific request depends on how similar it is to things we've already looked at or things that were in process.

Hebebrand says ODOT must break ground by 2009 or 85 million dollars earmarked for the project will be lost. In addition, ODOT's recently hired a design firm to pick the bridge type. To some this signals ODOT's intention to move forward before the public has a full chance to respond.

Paul Alsenas calls ODOT's planning process "outdated". He says ODOT designs around cost-benefit ratios, and doesn't integrate elements like esthetics and economics at beginning, like the private sector does.

Paul Alsenas: If you just do traditional analysis of multiple objectives. Likely you're not going to find an innovative solution. But when you go to integration that's there great solutions occur. And that's not the way that ODOT can get it done in their process.

Back in Tremont, Councilman Joe Cimperman thinks Cleveland holds more power than ODOT would like to admit. City Council must pass two bills to allow construction to go forward. And Cimperman says city leaders feel ODOT's current plan is not the best possible design.

Joe Cimperman: We're at a situation now where I've got to figure out how to convey to ODOT that this plan is a "no-go" at the planning commission. Which I'm Council's representative on. Council President-Elect Marty Sweeney has stated his concerns about this. Mayor-Elect Jackson has stated his concern about this. I mean it's not just a few gadflies saying hold on. The political establishment is pretty united that this situation doesn't work.

Given that, the Inner Belt project, the biggest highway project in the history of Ohio, appears to be at an impasse. But in the next couple months that all could change, as a pending economic study and ODOT design report bring new insights to the table. From ideastream, I'm Lisa Ann Pinkerton for 90.3.

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