Rethinking a Road to Recovery

Hunter Morrison knows how to build a city. The guy's resume is flush with national planning awards, high profile urban consulting posts, and degrees from the world's top institutions of higher learning. In other words, when Hunter Morrison says something will make a city hum, he's most likely correct.

And that brings us to his latest venture: advocating to build a roof over a 10-block length of Interstate 90 through downtown Cleveland and cover it with houses, retail business, and park space. The Ohio Department of Transportation currently plans to execute a $1.5 billion reconstruction of the highway. And Morrison says 'capping' the roadway will help make the city a more prosperous place to live and work.

The idea is "a pathway to the knowledge economy" for the city's residents, Morrison recently told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, particularly for the poor and predominately black Central neighborhood.

He should know. Mr. Morrison was director of planning for the City of Cleveland for 20 years, during which time the city launched its modern day revival with a new master plan and major reinvestment projects such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Playhouse Square Theatre District. He has worked as a private consultant in Boston and New York.

The man has taught courses at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Cleveland State University's College of Urban Affairs. He has served as the director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at Youngstown State University and a senior fellow at the Urban Design Center of Northeast Ohio. And he holds a bachelors degree in city planning and political science from Yale, a masters in city planning from Harvard, and an executive masters in business from Cleveland State University.

And his call to cap I-90 is the kind of transformative thinking that could dramatically accelerate Cleveland's revival. Other American cities have dared to fundamentally rethink their major urban expressways and realized big paybacks. San Francisco, Portland, and New York - three of the nation's hottest urban hubs - all tore down highways to make way for new condos, businesses, and public spaces.

Great Lakes urban leaders have slowly begun thinking differently, too. Milwaukee deconstructed a half-mile section of the Park East Freeway at the turn of the 20th century to make way for urban reinvestment and redevelopment.

Toronto is debating a dramatic overhaul of the Gardiner Expressway to open up the lakefront for people and new economic opportunities.

Mid-sized cities like Grand Rapids, MI have 'toyed' with the idea of turning a major elevated expressway into a sleek at-grade boulevard to reconnect historic neighborhoods to the Grand River waterfront.

Even lil ole Traverse City, MI, population about 15,000, has tossed around the idea of burying the 4-lane parkway that separates the bayfront from downtown.

Though proven successful elsewhere, these kinds of ideas remain pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams in the Midwest, where entrenched thinking and conventional transportation planners argue such dramatic changes are not possible. But clearly that's not the case. Just ask the experts.