The new Opportunity Corridor in Cleveland, Ohio, poises a previously “forgotten” area for economic development and community connections
The highly anticipated, 3.5-mile Opportunity Corridor in Cleveland, Ohio, fulfills a 20-year goal: to link the I-490/I-77 interchange with University Circle, the square-mile home to Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University, restaurants, parks and world-renowned museums.
University Circle, Cleveland’s fastest-growing locale, draws millions each year. Until the Opportunity Corridor opened, getting there required visitors to endure constant traffic woes resulting from a lack of direct access.
Beyond improving the area’s transportation system, the Opportunity Corridor is designed to spark economic development in the nearly 1,000 acres between I-490 and University Circle. That area, dubbed the “Forgotten Triangle,” was a neglected, economically depressed zone pockmarked with brownfields.
Opportunity Corridor by the numbers:
- 3.45-mile corridor length
- 22.7 lane miles
- 23 intersections
- 14 traffic signals
- 8 bridges
- 2 train station improvements
- 623 sewer catch basins/manholes
- 72 miles of underground power/signal conduits installed
- 42,916 on-the-job training hours
A new solution to an old problem
The Ohio Department of Transportation started looking at creating an “opportunity corridor” in 2000. The idea arose during the I-90 Innerbelt Modernization Study, which focused on improving interstate travel through downtown Cleveland.
During that process, public comments surfaced about the desire for a more direct gateway from the freeways to University Circle. By 2004, ODOT had advanced the Opportunity Corridor as a boulevard project that would both connect the freeway to University Circle and reverse the Forgotten Triangle’s 40-year decline.
ODOT chose HNTB to perform preliminary engineering and National Environmental Policy Act documentation for the corridor.
Earning public trust
Gaining public trust meant the community needed to understand how the new urban boulevard would not only support economic development, but also improve access for cars, bicycles and pedestrians between the neighborhoods.
From the start, ODOT engaged residents and local business owners through a steering committee that also included federal, state, regional, county, city and neighborhood representatives. Local stakeholders provided input and advice and helped keep the outreach process public and visible.
The ODOT/HNTB project team held numerous individual and group meetings with residents and businesses to better understand each neighborhood’s strengths, challenges and opportunities. The project team drew on early input to further develop the project’s alternative routes.
When the design was communicated to the broader community, the project team presented people-focused visuals, including renderings, graphics and a 3D video, to make the project easy to understand. Public meetings at critical decision points sought the community’s comments and questions. This extraordinary level of engagement, which continued throughout construction, ultimately won community support for the project.
Eye on environmental justice
Because the area residents are almost exclusively minority and low-income, environmental justice impacts were a key concern.
“HNTB explored numerous preliminary alternatives with the community, learning what was important to them and how they prefer to travel, whether walking, biking, driving or taking the train,” said Matt Wahl, HNTB senior project manager. “We continued to refine the alternatives through extensive public involvement, ensuring the community’s transportation needs were balanced with the goal of improved access from the freeway to University Circle.”
The environmental process also adjusted the Opportunity Corridor’s preferred alignment to mitigate impacts to the neighborhood and to the city’s plans to expand the Woodland Recreation Center, which is adjacent to the roadway.
“We always knew the primary impacts would be to people,” Wahl said. “Our goal was to minimize impacts to the neighborhoods that the roadway would traverse. The final environmental impact statement – ODOT’s first reader-friendly EIS – confirmed to the community that residents had been heard and that the recommended project was consistent with their needs and input.”
After ODOT received environmental approval in 2014, the Opportunity Corridor project was split into three construction projects, allowing expedited completion. The first section utilized traditional design-bid-build, with HNTB as the designer.
The second and third segments employed value-based design-build delivery. That method incentivized diversity and inclusion, which was designated as the primary scoring value in design-build teams’ proposals. HNTB served as owner’s representative, facilitating development of the design-build procurement documents and providing post-award design-build services, including scope conformance, agency coordination and reviews of numerous submittals.
Cleveland’s mayor wanted the Opportunity Corridor’s workforce to reflect the communities where the project was being built. In sections 2 and 3, an innovative design-build funding strategy – which used proceeds from Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission revenue bonds, funding from county and city sources and no federal dollars – allowed ODOT to establish unique diversity and inclusion requirements.
These requirements, which ODOT developed and HNTB drafted into the project scope documents, created four subcontractor participation categories on the project: new contractor, small contractor, local contractor and designated state EDGE (Encouraging Diversity, Growth & Equity) program contractor. In the bid packages, ODOT also required design-build teams to name a diversity, inclusion and outreach consultant who understood the affected neighborhoods.
For new, small, local and EDGE companies, ODOT set an overall project goal of 20% of contracting dollars. As the project progressed, the trajectory of diverse subcontractors increased. The Section 1 prime contractor utilized 10 diverse subcontractors; the Section 2 prime contractor used 36 subcontractors; and the Section 3 prime contractor used 86 subcontractors.
Translating urban design experience to manage complex scoping
Translating urban design experience to manage complex scoping
Design-build delivery usually defines minimum project requirements but leaves it to the contractor to create the design that most economically meets those requirements. The Opportunity Corridor project, however, presented challenges most design-build projects don’t encounter, including railroad involvement, a dozen active cross streets and coordination of both new and existing water, sewer and power lines.
HNTB married its knowledge of the Opportunity Corridor goals and design-build methodologies with its local project and previous urban design experience to develop the complicated project scope. The work required interfacing with all existing utilities along the route as well as new utilities that would support the road and the economic development expected after the boulevard’s completion. HNTB struck a balance of defining detailed criteria while also giving contractors adequate flexibility to accomplish the desired end goal.
“HNTB has been a key partner with ODOT throughout the long history of this project,” said David Short, ODOT’s Opportunity Corridor design project manager. “The depth of their resources has allowed them to be an integral part of this project from initial planning studies to assisting ODOT with project management of the design-build process.”
The proof of HNTB’s success in managing the complex scoping is in the change orders, which were minimal for this type of urban project.
The Opportunity Corridor’s final segment opened in November 2021. For residents, it has improved community mobility with enhanced access to the area’s train stations, added sidewalks, an extended multi-use path, new pedestrian pathways over and under railroad tracks and neighborhood aesthetic treatments. Having also fulfilled its promise to link the freeway system to University Circle, Cleveland’s newest boulevard is now poised to attract economic development and restore life to a blighted area.
“Having worked on this project from its inception, Matt Wahl has provided invaluable consistency and perspective throughout the entire project development process,” said David Short, Opportunity Corridor design project manager at ODOT. “The HNTB team has worked seamlessly with a wide range of ODOT personnel, consultants and contractors to deliver this project, which will benefit the community on many levels. I am confident this transformational project would not have been as successful without their involvement.”
Images credited to the Ohio Department of Transportation
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