Cleveland planners propose demolishing Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Building to enable a new highway cap over Innerbelt freeway
CLEVELAND, Ohio — The nonprofit Campus District Inc. is unveiling a proposal today that it believes could solve one of the toughest urban design and city planning issues now facing Cleveland, while healing a racial and economic scar caused by construction of the Innerbelt freeway in the 1950s.
In response to a deadline set today by Cuyahoga County for proposals to redevelop the county’s landmark and vacant 1931 Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Building, the Campus District, has a radical new idea: Tear the old courthouse down.
The community development corporation speaks on behalf of residents and institutions in a swath of neighborhoods east of downtown including Cleveland State University, the Metro Campus of Cuyahoga Community College and St. Vincent Charity Hospital.
The nonprofit wants to see the old courthouse demolished in order to make room for a green, aesthetically pleasing deck, or “cap,’’ over the Innerbelt freeway trench next to the East 22nd Street Bridge, plus new development that could occur on part of the land where the courthouse now stands.
Because the courthouse stands so close to the Innerbelt, removing it would open up new options for the entire Central neighborhood, proponents say.
A proposal unveiled Tuesday, June 15, 2022 by the nonprofit Campus District Inc. calls for removing the old Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Building to make way for a green "cap" over the downtown Innerbelt Freeway. The draft concept shown here demonstrates how a parklike space could extend over the highway.Campus District, Inc.
For example, Jeffery Patterson, the chief executive of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, said Wednesday morning that removing the old Juvenile Court Building would unlock new possibilities as his agency embarks on a new master plan to rethink and possibly redevelop the entire Cedar Estates public housing complex located between the old juvenile court and East 30th Street, between Central and Cedar avenues.
“The bigger picture is that this provides just a great opportunity for the continued development and enhancement of the community with that site,’’ Patterson said of the Campus District proposal.
Matt Carroll, Cuyahoga County’s chief of economic development and opportunity, declined to comment Wednesday until the county has had a chance to look at responses to its request for proposals.
Adding through subtraction
The Campus District is offering to buy the old court building from the county for $1, and then to raise $2 million to demolish it.
The organization would then work with the city and the Ohio Department of Transportation, which is planning to revamp a section of the Innerbelt at East 22nd Street, on a new design for a highway cap.
The cap would be big enough to carry a future regional bike path that would link Slavic Village to downtown, the lakefront, the Towpath Trail, and the Cuyahoga Valley, according to the document filed with Cuyahoga County today.
A proposal unveiled Tuesday, June 15, 2022 by the nonprofit Campus District Inc. calls for removing the old Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Building to make way for a green "cap" over the downtown Innerbelt Freeway. The site of the old building could be used as a park and/or partially redeveloped.Campus District, Inc.
Advocates say the proposal offers a way to beautify the city, and to help reconnect downtown with the majority-Black Central neighborhood, which was severed from the central business district by the highway 70 years ago.
North of the trench lies the Cleveland State University campus, Playhouse Square, and the downtown skyline. To the south, lies one of the city’s poorest majority-Black neighborhoods.
Joyce Huang, the city’s planning director, said in an interview with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, said that she considers herself a staunch advocate of historic preservation.
But in the case of the Juvenile Court Building in Central, she said, “there’s an opportunity to completely reframe the future of the neighborhood by removing a symbol of incarceration.’’
If the building were torn down, “a child could grow up in Central, in public housing, with access to green space, trail connections, connections to wraparound services, to education,’’ she said. “We have the opportunity to rewrite how this neighborhood functions physically and socially, with community input.”
As of Tuesday, the city proposal had also garnered 32 letters of support from backers including Ward 5 Councilman Richard Starr, who represents Central, plus organizations including Destination Cleveland, the Greater Cleveland Partnership, Downtown Cleveland Alliance, Global Cleveland, Cleveland Public Library Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, Cleveland Housing Partners, and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.
“It feels like there’s an unlocking of hope and potential,’’ Huang said.
Her boss, Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, is fully on board.
“This project is so much more than infrastructure,” he said in a statement shared via email. “It’s about equity, reconnection, and giving the residents of Central what they deserve. It’s clear from the strong support across the community that this is the time to make it happen.”
What gives the Campus District proposal special urgency is that the Ohio Department of Transportation is in the midst of planning the next stage of a multi-decade project to revamp the Innerbelt, the eight-mile collection of freeway lanes converging on the west, south and east sides of downtown to link interstates 71, 77, and 90.
The project, for which planning started in 2000, could last another decade or more, and cost from $1.8 billion to $2.1 billion, according to estimates on the agency’s website.
A map of ODOT's multi-year plan to revamp the Cleveland Innerbelt freeway.Ohio Department of Transportation
The next stage of the highway project, which could cost $160 million to $180 million involves redesigning a half-mile section of the freeway between East Ninth Street and Carnegie Avenue, including the crossover at East 22nd Street. ODOT wants to start construction in 2024, which means it needs to finalize its designs soon.
ODOT shared its latest concept for the project with the city’s Planning Commission on March 18. Among other things, the agency proposed a partial highway cap next to the East 22nd Street Bridge that Huang and commission members profoundly disliked.
They tabled the proposal in an effort to seek a better solution. After the meeting, city planners coordinated with Campus District Inc. to come up with a new vision.
City Council would have the final say over the city’s position, but given the support from the mayor and Ward 5 Councilman Starr, the city’s position is that it wants more from ODOT and the county.
In recent years, cities across the U.S. have reconfigured urban highways to repair damage caused by the first wave of interstate construction in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, when engineers plowed roadways through low-income and minority neighborhoods.
Cities that have built parks over highway trenches or similar projects include Dallas, Seattle, St. Louis, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.
In Cleveland, planners are exploring whether it’s possible to extend the downtown Mall north over the Ohio 2 Shoreway to create a stronger link between downtown and attractions along Lake Erie at North Coast Harbor.
Images from the Browns' downtown Cleveland lakefront plan.Nelson Byrd Woltz, Osborn Engineering, CallisonRTKL, AoDK Architecture
Huang sees the effort to create a generous highway cap at East 22nd Street as a precursor to similar possibilities at Euclid Avenue, where four vehicular lanes flanked by striped bike lanes and narrow sidewalks span the Innerbelt trench.
The big squeeze
The challenge of coming up with a design for the next stage of the Innerbelt reconstruction is that the freeway trench passes through a pinch point between two historic properties on either side of the freeway near East 22nd Street.
Federal policy requires ODOT to avoid spending federal money on a highway project that would require demolishing such properties if there’s a feasible alternative.
The highway can’t be shoved north, away from the Juvenile Court Building, because it would slice into the 1927 Walker & Weeks Building, a one-time industrial loft building, now renovated with apartments, at 2341 Carnegie Avenue. It’s named for the architecture firm that designed Severance Music Center, home of the Cleveland Orchestra.
On the south side of the highway, the Juvenile Court Building creates the other side of the pinch — as long as it’s allowed to stand.
Preserving a Carnegie exit
A key consideration in any design is that the city and MidTown Cleveland Inc. fought hard more than a decade ago to preserve an Innerbelt exit serving Carnegie Avenue, which connects the freeway to local businesses and to the Cleveland Clinic, two miles to the east.
A new exit ramp with access to Carnegie Avenue would have to be part of any design.
The solution ODOT presented to the city’s Planning Commission in March calls for creating a new Carnegie Avenue exit ramp that would split from the eastbound lanes of the Innerbelt at a point west of East 22nd Street.
The ramp would then extend east toward East 22nd Street, where it would cross the street and squeeze tightly between the northwest corner of the Juvenile Court building and the edge of the Innerbelt trench below.
Proceeding further east, the Cedar Avenue extension would include a leg turning north to create a T intersection at Carnegie Avenue, just east of the Innerbelt.
The existing Cedar Avenue Bridge, which now crosses over the Innerbelt east of the East 22nd Street Bridge, would be removed.
The problem with the ODOT design, from the city’s perspective, is that in order to squeeze the new Cedar Avenue extension around the northwest corner of the Juvenile Court Building, ODOT would have to “cantilever’' part of the avenue like a bookshelf over the Innerbelt lanes below.
To support that structure, and the retaining wall holding it up, ODOT has proposed building a concrete platform measuring roughly 200 feet long by 50 feet wide, held up on the south side by an abutment and on the north side by columns rising from the Innerbelt median.
A rendering of ODOT's plans for revamping a portion of the Innerbelt by threading a Carnegie Avenue exit ramp between the Innerbelt and the 1931 Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Building. The area outlined in red would be a new concrete platform set over the highway. Cleveland city planners dislike the idea.Ohio Department of Transportation
Only part of the platform would be needed to accommodate the Cedar Avenue extension. The rest would function as public open space disconnected from surrounding neighborhoods and bounded tightly by surface roads and the Innerbelt trench.
That’s not something Cleveland officials want to see built.
“Basically, it’s going to be a concrete pad with some seating on it overlooking the highway,’’ Huang said. “To me it feels like adding more concrete to an area that already has a lot of it. It just doesn’t do very much for me. And I don’t think the community would use it.’’
ODOT’s plans could be altered, however, if the Juvenile Court Building were removed to create more room for the Carnegie ramp, plus new sidewalks, the Slavic Village Connector Trail, and, possibly, a new neighborhood park or other development on the site of the old building.
As for the county’s idea of keeping the building and redeveloping the old Juvenile Court Building, it’s been a tough sell.
The four-building complex, totaling 166,750 square feet, was first offered for sale in 2012, after the county moved the juvenile court to its new detention center and courthouse on East 93rd Street at Quincy Avenue, cleveland.com reported in February.
The county then used the old facility for the next seven years for public safety training exercises, but it largely sat vacant before the county offered it for sale again in 2015 and 2017.
An aerial photo depicts the tight squeeze next to the Cleveland Innerbelt where the old Juvenile Court Building stands close to the highway trench.Campus District, Inc.
The building is admired for its Tudor Revival-style main façade, facing East 22nd Street. But developers have shown little interest in acquiring the structure because most of its interior includes wings designed strictly to serve as a jail spaces, with cells lined up alongside a corridor on one side.
The layout is not conducive to adaptive reuse for offices or apartments, said Bobbi Reichtell, a former director of Campus District Inc., who tried three times between 2012 and 2018 to market the property.
“I think I walked at least a dozen different developers through,’’ she said. “We had open houses; we had a really nice RFP [request for proposals]. We had no takers. Absolutely no one.”
The county’s current request for proposals from developers is the fourth in 10 years.
The county originally set a deadline of May 5, but extended it until today.
To make the building more salable, the county has invested $5.3 million in removing asbestos, and other hazardous materials and debris, to add temporary electrical wiring, and to protect against break-ins and vandalism.
Mark Lammon, the current executive director of the Campus District, said that the money spent on asbestos removal would have had to be spent regardless of the building’s ultimate fate.
And, he said, if it were removed, ODOT would save $15 million by not having to cantilever the Cedar Avenue extension over the Innerbelt, and build the concrete platform to support it over the highway.
Some of the money saved could be spent on a better design solution for the East 22nd Street Bridge, he said.
But what happens, ultimately is not Lammon’s call, or the city’s. It depends on what the county decides after comparing the idea of removing the Juvenile Court Building with any other proposals it receives, and whether ODOT is willing to entertain a new design concept for the Carnegie Avenue exit.
That civic discussion begins today.
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Cleveland planners propose demolishing Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Building to enable a new highway cap over Innerbelt freeway