The Sound and the Fury Over Noise Walls

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Brooklyn Centre is one of Cleveland's oldest neighborhoods. This westside enclave of century-old homes is a just a short walk from many shopping needs, and the old-growth trees that line the streets have helped keep things cool during the dog days of July. But recently, some simmering tensions in this cozy community, came to the surface.

SOUND: angry din of voices in a community meeting

Residents at this meeting with officials from the Ohio Department of Transportation were hotly divided over a plan to construct noise barrier walls along a stretch of I-71 that runs through the center of the community. ODOT ranks it as one of the noisiest roadways in the state.

Tim Collins said he only wanted what had been promised to him. His house sits on a bluff just above the highway. He claimed transportation officials came through his neighborhood measuring the noise.

COLLINS: "ODOT came with their sound meter, and they decided that we needed a wall."

Laura McShane --- who admitted she doesn't live right next to the highway --- was against the wall. She asked why tens of thousands of dollars need to be spent on a highway that's been noisy since the 1960s

MCSHANE: "It's something that obviously wasn't a priority for 40-50 years. All of the sudden, they're mitigating this noise now?"

Councilman Brian Cummins, who arranged this meeting, thinks the anger of neighborhood activists like McShane dates back to those early days, when highway planners paved thoroughfares right through communities like Brooklyn Centre.

CUMMINS: "Unfortunately, these freeways were built smack dab against these houses, cutting up the neighborhoods, so this kind of adds insult to injury to a lot of people who have been here for a long time. You know: 'First you cut up our neighborhood, and now you're putting up these darn, big ugly cement walls.' "

ODOT Transportation Planner Dale Schiavoni stands by the quality of those ugly cement walls.

SCHIAVONI: "We think they're very effective. We think it definitely enhances the quality of life for people who live along the freeway."

In terms of the look of the walls, Schiavoni says his agency does offer some different wall color and design choices, but it's too late for that in Brooklyn Centre --- the project is already underway. A swath of neighborhood trees were recently clear cut to make room for construction equipment. A number of local residents feel like this all happened too fast, with little public input.

SCHIAVONI: "They were notified. We had meetings. We sent out fliers to people who lived directly on the freeway, it was in the paper. It's always a difficult issue to get people to show-up at a meeting."

Councilman Brian Cummins believes highway officials are more interested in getting a standard noise wall up as quickly as possible.

CUMMINS: "I think it's frankly indicative of the transportation system and the industry overall --- it's all about concrete and pavement. It's a big federal transportation agency that's running this stuff, and they're not necessarily known for caring too much about aesthetics, and the people that are impacted by freeways."

SOUND: highway ambience behind Collins house

From Tim Collins's backyard, you look across ten lanes of traffic. Along the berm, are several pieces of earthmoving equipment that will help put up the new noise wall, in the coming months. Collins likes the fact that there will be a big hunk of concrete between him and the highway. What he doesn't like is the way this whole controversy has turned community members against each other.

COLLINS: "I just hope the neighbors who didn't want the wall don't get too peeved that we are going to get it."

A couple blocks away, Laura McShane is resigned to the fact that the walls are coming.

MCSHANE: "Well, I hope they're happy looking at their cement wall. I hope that gives them some quality of life and I hope they stay here."

ODOT is currently experimenting with a so-called "living" highway wall down in Licking County. It will be made from a stack of fabric bags filled with sprouting, noise-absorbing plants as a "green" alternative to concrete. Brian Cummins says he's starting to read up on that option, in preparation for a new noise wall project, just down the road. ODOT has plans to build sound barriers along I-90 in the north part of his ward in 2012.

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