Two Clevelanders making a big difference: Steven Litt and Ed Hauser fighting for better NEO horizon

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Thu, 10/05/2006 - 15:13.

 In a heroic battle of a few people who care about the future of the NEO skyline against broad community apathy and complacency with inconsiderate authority, Plain Dealer Architecture Critic Steven Litt has written another installment in the continuing saga of ODOT against Cleveland - the billion dollar Innerbelt joke - now warning the public that today, 10/05/06, NEO leadership will narrow the possibilities of bad bridge designs from eight to three awful options. As Litt puts it, in the title of his article, "Dull design burns bridges to better future". And he goes on to explain why we aren't getting something better...

One explanation is that Burgess & Niple, the engineering firm that ODOT hired six years ago to lead the planning for the entire Inner Belt, did less than excellent work in a design process that has cost $11.7 million so far.

ODOT Director Gordon Proctor said as much himself in a letter in May to the firm. The letter is part of a trove of documents unearthed by Cleveland activist Ed Hauser in public record requests over the past year.

And, Litt recommends: "Here's what ought to happen now: Someone outside the current circle of engineers ought to take a fresh, independent look at a single, new, east-west bridge over the Cuyahoga along the southern alignment originally advocated several years ago by Cuyahoga County planning director Paul Alsenas."

I'm pleased to see Steven having the courage to stand up for intelligent design, and acknowledge the contribution Citizen Ed Hauser has made to surfacing important facts surrounding this mess.  My personal opinion on all of this bridge to nowhere BS is to forget about building a new bridge altogether - spend the $200 million needed to rehab the old bridge, and send the rest of the money back to the Federal government saying NEO is shrinking, doesn't have any serious traffic issues, has too much smog as it is, doesn't need more sprawl in the suburbs, and rejects pork from the Feds. When we have a more enlightened, less apathetic community of leaders and citizens, we can go back to the drawing board... that lets my kids help design the city well, as we are failing with that today. Litt's confirmation of our failure is below and linked here.

Dull design burns bridges to better future -
Steven Litt - Architecture Critic - Cleveland Plain Dealer - Thursday, October 05, 2006

OHIO DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION - A computer rendering of a proposal for a new I-90 westbound bridge over the Cuyahoga River shows that a steel arch concept for the main span would look like a blip in the landscape when viewed from downtown.

It's hard to raise hopes and crush them at the same time, but that's how the Ohio Department of Transportation is handling the design of a new I-90 bridge to carry westbound traffic over the Cuyahoga River.

The agency has been telling Clevelanders that it would strive for something iconic and innovative as it designs the bridge as part of a $874 million revamp of the Inner Belt, the tangle of interstate highways that converge around downtown. Instead, ODOT has been heading toward mediocrity as it ratchets down the options for the bridge.

Today, the agency's bridge subcommittee, which includes local government officials and a heavy contingent from ODOT itself, is scheduled to recommend one of three remaining concepts for the bridge, narrowed from eight over the summer.

The options include a steel arch, a cable-stayed bridge with two pairs of 85-foot towers flanking the river, or a cable-stayed option with a single tower rising 200 feet on the west side of the river.

The concepts look dull in renderings created so far by the engineering firm of Michael Baker Jr. Inc. Yet we're asked to believe that the engineers will turn one of these bridge "types" into a thing of beauty later on. It's as if ODOT believes creativity is a condiment to be sprinkled on the steak after it's been cooked, not something integral to the recipe.

Mind you, this is only the latest disappointment in the design of the bridge. Last year, ODOT decided against replacing the current I-90 bridge - a cloddish collection of steel truss arches built in the late 1950s - with a single new, two-way span further south of downtown, a move that would have opened more land for development.

Instead, the agency wants to spend about $200 million to rehab the old bridge and to keep it working as a one-way, eastbound span for another 50 years. A new, $300 million westbound bridge, the one now being designed, will squeeze between the older I-90 bridge to the south and the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge to the north, which carries local traffic.

This approach means that Cleveland will get a pair of mismatched interstate bridges for the next half century, at which point ODOT will need to tear down the older I-90 bridge - after spending $200 million to rehab it - and replace it with another new one to carry eastbound traffic. That will be a huge hassle and another huge expense.

But the more immediate worry is that the new westbound bridge now being designed is shaping up as a dud.

The problem is that the valley is wide, shallow and flat, while the river that runs through it is relatively narrow. This means that the main span over the river, which will measure about 450 feet across, will be less than 10 percent of the entire length of the bridge from one rim of the valley to another. The rest of the bridge, measuring nearly a mile, will simply rest on concrete or steel columns of some sort standing among the piles of gravel and sand stored on the West Third Street Peninsula.

The situation calls for a main span with enough oomph to make a visual impact, despite its relatively small size in relation to the rest of the bridge. Unfortunately, the Baker renderings suggest that the main span probably will look like a blip in the landscape. Planners are talking about spicing up the long, flat expanse of the rest of the bridge, but no ideas are on the table yet.

Why aren't we getting something better? One explanation is that Burgess & Niple, the engineering firm that ODOT hired six years ago to lead the planning for the entire Inner Belt, did less than excellent work in a design process that has cost $11.7 million so far.

ODOT Director Gordon Proctor said as much himself in a letter in May to the firm. The letter is part of a trove of documents unearthed by Cleveland activist Ed Hauser in public record requests over the past year.

Proctor states in his letter that Burgess & Niple did a poor job of preparing the key Conceptual Alternatives Study required by the federal government, a document the agency finally released nine months late, in August.

Robert Brown, Cleveland's planning director, said the delays cited by Proctor slowed the release of information "that would have advanced the public participation process and made it more meaningful."

Ronald Schultz, the chairman of Burgess & Niple, responded to Proctor with a letter May 30 saying the firm had met early deadlines successfully and that while it disagreed with some of Proctor's assertions, it would work to improve its performance.

Nevertheless, Proctor's complaint raises the question whether Burgess & Niple laid a weak foundation for the current bridge proposal. What would have happened if ODOT had hired a really excellent team of designers to attack the problem in the critical early stages? As Proctor's letter suggests, that's not what we got.

Here's what ought to happen now: Someone outside the current circle of engineers ought to take a fresh, independent look at a single, new, east-west bridge over the Cuyahoga along the southern alignment originally advocated several years ago by Cuyahoga County planning director Paul Alsenas.

Elected officials also ought to consider whether it's possible to combine the $200 million set aside for the rehab of the older I-90 bridge with the $300 million identified for the new, westbound span. If those two pots could be brought together, ODOT would have $500 million to spend on a single new span.

That possibility is still worth considering because the design for the new bridge, which ought to be one of the greatest enhancements to Cleveland in the 21st century, is shaping up as a yawn. And a very expensive one at that.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

slitt [at] plaind [dot] com, 216-999-4136