Sunday, October 5, 2003

Support sought for road

Officials hope to heal neighborhood wounds

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

AVONDALE - When Fulton Jefferson was growing up, his family had to move twice because of the construction of Interstate 71 through the city.

What's now the Dana Avenue exit ramp to the freeway was formerly the back yard of the Rev. Rousseau O'Neal.

Yet both men are willing to let those wounds heal, standing firmly in support of yet another major highway project in this neighborhood, near where they grew up and where they continue to live.

And proponents of a proposed new interchange at Interstate 71 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard hope they can win over the rest of Cincinnati's African-American community as well, despite a long memory about the physical and psychological damage done to black neighborhoods by the region's original interstates.

"I'm pretty confident that we are all in this together," said O'Neal, pastor of Rockdale Baptist Church in Walnut Hills, who was one of several black leaders to participate in a news conference late last week to discuss the proposal. "We're not going there, into the past. Hopefully, we are a better people now."

Said Jefferson, vice president of the Avondale Community Council: "It is already a whole lot better now than it was in the past. And to bring everyone together now only makes sense and will get a lot more done with a lot less headaches."

Cincinnati Councilman John Cranley unveiled the proposal last week after finalizing the coalition that also includes business leaders, officials from the University of Cincinnati as well as the area's hospital district, and numerous church and social leaders from the neighborhoods in question.

He plans to present the idea - which has a preliminary price tag of $35 million - at Thursday's meeting of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, Greater Cincinnati's major transportation planning agency. But he won't do it alone.

He'll present it with fellow OKI board member Joyce Kinley, who is also the chair of the regional equity committee for the Amos Project, a collaboration of more than 40 churches and religious organizations.

Kinley said that it took a lot for Amos to even get a seat on the board of OKI. But she acknowledged that the addition shows how the concept of "social justice" when it comes to transportation projects has come a long way.

"This is the only way you can do this now," Kinley said.

OKI has added a full time staff person devoted to environmental justice, and has been developing a plan for the last two to three years. All major projects must go through a separate committee to make sure decisions are not unfairly affecting one area over another before being put forward to the full board.

This is a far cry from when the original paths of I-71 and I-75 were first created in the 1950s and 1960s. The original freeways physically divided such predominantly black neighborhoods such as West End along I-75 and Avondale, Evanston, and Walnut Hills along I-71. And none of those neighborhoods received good access to that interstate, creating resentment that lasts to this day.

"You have lost the trust of us (in the African-American community) as a group in the past, especially since a lot of people think these things are just shoved down our throats," said Paul McGhee, president of the Avondale Community Council, who was not at Friday's event but did attend a meeting with the Enquirer editorial board two days earlier.

Cranley said that he was well aware of these kinds of beliefs even before he began proposing the King Boulevard project.

Then, he saw up close the kind of development that these neighborhoods were missing in his attempt to block an expanded interchange off I-75 in Butler County. He failed, but learned how the process works - and how such interchanges can change and economically charge the areas around them.

Now, he says he wants to apply the same principles to help city neighborhoods. He also says that the proposal would improve access to the Tristate's second largest employment center - the hospitals and offices of Pill Hill - while helping "make up for the past wrongs done by the old process."

"I think there is a case to be made that this was analogous to redlining," Cranley said last week, referring to the pattern of few developments and retail outlets being built in black neighborhoods.

He also says that he is willing to try and get the city to help pay for more than the customary 20 percent match to federal dollars, by using the same methods Butler County employed for the proposed expansion for the I-75/Michael A. Fox Regional Highway interchange.

In that case, Butler County officials created a special transportation zone. They then used tax incentives to create development, which would in turn raise more taxes to pay for the project. Funding has stalled, however, and federal and state highway officials have yet to give final approval to it.

Cranley said final plans for how to pay for the King Boulevard project have yet to be finalized. His first step is simply to secure money to help fund more study of it in the upcoming mega-transportation bill up for debate in Congress early next year.

He has also promised that African-American community members will be involved in every step of the process, from selecting the exact site to determining which properties must be taken to helping craft the final development plans. Again, that is a far cry from previous projects.

And while some in the black community have expressed some reservations, stressing that the project should not mean the loss of other interstate ramps, even if the new exit violated federal safety design standards by putting two ramps too close together.

"I-71 took out 25 percent of our population, our business district and our elementary school," said Sharon Muyaya, president of the Evanston Community Council. "And we only got a little access in return. We can't lose that to get this."

Yet all interviewed were willing to at least give Cranley's proposal a try, if not full support.

"There are a lot of long memories around here, but we are pledging our support on the basis that we will stay at the table throughout the entire process," said the Rev. Calvin Harper, pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church, the site of Friday's event. "There are some concerns about the impacts, both positive and negative. But this is a big deal for us, and our concerns about being at the table appear to be met."


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