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Akron releases report, recommendations on next steps for decommissioned Innerbelt

A map of the Akron Innerbelt
The Ohio Department of Transportation decommissioned part of the Akron Innerbelt and gave it back to the city in 2016. The city has been working with the community to determine what should happen with the Innerbelt since 2020.

Akron has released a report and recommendations on the history and future of the Innerbelt. The report, titled "Reconnecting Our Community Phase 1 Innerbelt Report," includes the history of the Innerbelt, the community engagement work from the Reconnecting Our Community initiative and recommendations for short and long term opportunities, according to a press release from the city.

The Innerbelt was built in the 1970s, as part of a large number of urban renewal projects across the country, according to the city. What was meant to redevelop an underserved area instead displaced a largely Black community. Though the project was intended to rejuvenate Downtown by connecting it to the rest of Akron, the Innerbelt fell short of its projected use. The project also harmed Downtown and West Akron, as it cut off connectivity between the two neighborhoods.

“As mayor of Akron, I want to acknowledge the lasting harm that the Innerbelt project caused to generations of Akronites,” Mayor Dan Horrigan said in a statement. “It destroyed the possibility of passing on generational wealth for some, and it left emotional scars on many others who still carry the weight of that burden to this day. On behalf of the city of Akron, we apologize for the city's past implementation of policies and practices from multiple levels of state and federal agencies which have caused this lasting harm to our community."

In 2016, the Ohio Department of Transportation decommissioned a portion of the highway, about 30 acres adjacent to Downtown, and gave it back to the city.

Led by spatial justice activist and city contractor Liz Ogbu, the city began a community engagement process to ascertain what the community wanted this site to become two years ago, according to the city. Through an advisory group, engagement stations, virtual panels, focus groups and a survey, the report details what feedback the initiative got from the community. Community members shared memories from the neighborhood that once stood where the Innerbelt is, sadness and anger about the construction of the Innerbelt, how the Innerbelt harmed the Black community, how this trauma can or should be repaired, the impact of the Innerbelt on the surrounding neighborhoods, their vision for the future and the importance of community engagement.

The report outlines key takeaways from the city's community engagement process and feedback from residents, including the importance of acknowledging grief and providing resources to work through these emotions, the need for more education on the history of the Innerbelt, the need for the city to take full accountability for the past in order to move forward and the prevalence of generational trauma,

The report also details both short term, one to three years, and long term, six plus years, recommendations for the Innerbelt. Short term recommendations include creating a master plan, issuing an apology from the city, providing tools to help community members work through their grief and developing an interim use strategy. Long term recommendations include converting city owned land into a community land trust, exploring the creation of a community restoration fund and creating a Black cultural district.

These recommendations are for the 30 acres of land the city owns, but Ogbu also recommended thinking bigger.

"While the bulk of it will be kind of on the 30-acre stretch that's now available, it would be worthwhile also understanding what might be possible if more of the Innerbelt got vacated with the idea of, who knows where the conversations with ODOT might go," she said.

Although the future of the Innerbelt is still being determined, there's room to rebuild some of what was lost in the 70s, Ogbu said.

"I think it's really important to think of it not just as a single use, like as a massive park, but really there's an opportunity to build a neighborhood here, one that can honor the history so different forms of commemoration would be great," she said.

The city plans to lead further community engagement on the report in the coming weeks. In 2024, the city will open the request for qualifications process to engage a master planning team. The master plan will be funded by a federal Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods grant from the United States Department of Transportation and will focus on how to transform the 1-mile section of the Innerbelt.

“I think it’s really important to get a firm that is well grounded in many of the issues covered in the report so that they can continue what has been started at this point," Ogbu said.

This report will not be the end of discussion about the Innerbelt, both Horrigan and Ogbu said.

“This report is not the conclusion of the Innerbelt’s story but rather a new beginning and a foundation for its next steps,” Horrigan said.

Updated: December 4, 2023 at 5:52 PM EST
This story has been updated to include comments from Liz Ogbu.
Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.