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Northeast Ohio Must Change the Way it Grows, Urban Planning Groups Say

A few cars drive along Akron's Innerbelt in February 2014. (Nick Castele / ideastream)
A few cars drive along Akron's Innerbelt in February 2014. (Nick Castele / ideastream)

Northeast Ohio is threatened by sprawl, says a group of urban planners and elected officials called the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. While developed area has been expanding, population is inching up only slowly. Suburbs have been building new roads, houses, and businesses, as the urban core empties out. The group warns this pattern could choke the region.

Jason Segedy, an urban planner who heads the Akron Metropolitan Transportation Study, says if you want an example of freeway construction gone wrong, just look at Akron's Innerbelt. The city built it in the 1970s, hoping to connect the downtown with suburbs -- but now Segedy says the highway is underused.

"A Toyota commercial filmed on the road because it was actually possible to close this freeway during the day to film a car driving really fast," Segedy said.

I asked him to drive me around the neighborhood surrounding the road. He said to build it, Akron knocked down houses and businesses. This happened in a racially mixed neighborhood that was becoming increasingly African American, according to an academic paper on the road that Segedy provided.

"I think the Innerbelt never should have been built," Segedy said. "Maybe I would have gotten caught up in the whole road-building frenzy if I had been a planner at that time, because most people did. But in retrospect it really ended up dividing the community a lot."

Now Akron wants to shut down part of the highway. The city wants developers to expand a nearby office park into the space. And Segedy's planning organization is putting $5 million in federal money toward the project.

He's also advocating this new approach with a group of planners and local officeholders in a report funded by HUD.

They say after years of population decline and abandonment in Northeast Ohio, there's a lot of room to build up central cities, inner-ring suburbs, and historic smaller towns -- rather than expanding into undeveloped greenfields.

Grace Gallucci heads NOACA, a planning agency for the Cleveland area that distributes state and federal transportation funds. She said this doesn't just focus on developing the city of Cleveland.

"We're talking about Elyria, we're talking about Lorain, we're talking about Painesville, were talking about even Medina," Gallucci said. "There are some historically developed places that we can continue to invest in."

She said people have a right to live and build where they please, but there's only so much taxpayer infrastructure money to go around.

"I don't believe that the rest of the people have to subsidize that choice by building roads to everywhere, or building sewer systems or utilities to everywhere," she said. "It's not realistic."

Their plan calls for supporting more public transit, encouraging the construction of smaller houses, and slating public money for maintaining roads and utilities over building new ones.

For some, it might be a tough sell.

Ron Falconi is the new mayor of Brunswick, one of Cleveland's suburbs that's boomed in the past 10 years. He doesn't have a position on the plan. In fact, he hadn't even heard about it before. But he says outlying areas benefit from development that brings in new income tax money.

"When I was campaigning, a lot of people wanted to see Pearl Road developed," Falconi said. "A lot of people want to stay within the city when they want to do their shopping."

Perhaps the most vocal opponent of this plan is Skip Claypool. He lives in Chesterland and served as Geauga County Commissioner. He's running again this year. He said abandoned houses and aging infrastructure ought to be left to the market -- rather than to planning agencies that receive federal funding.

"If we don't get in the way of a free economy approach, if we allow it to operate effectively, that will fix itself," Claypool said. "Because what's going to happen is some entrepreneur is going to come in there and see a real opportunity: vacant property. "

Jason Segedy in Akron said he sympathizes. But he said it's not like government isn't involved already in urban planning. In fact, he said, government has long supported expanding suburbs, by building highways out to them.

"I think we've done a lot of public policy initiatives in the last 40 or 50 years in this country that have put cities at a disadvantage," he said.

What he says he wants now is for governments to reinvest in older, urban neighborhoods before they decay any more, and -- he hopes -- begin the process of revitalizing them.

The original audio piece incorrectly stated the length of the VibrantNEO report.

Nick Castele is a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media.