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Big Opportunities: The Opportunity Corridor's New Director Discusses Project Goals and Controversy

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Marie Kittredge, the former executive director of Slavic Village Development, has been appointed the civic liaison for the Opportunity Corridor's Steering Committee. Basically, she'll be overseeing everything: community relations; economic, infrastructural, and sustainable development; commercial outreach; fundraising. Kittredge, a longtime neighborhood advocate and public transit enthusiast who has lived in Slavic Village since 1988, starts next week with the Greater Cleveland Partnership and is looking forward to the challenge of managing what has become a highly controversial and massively expensive project.

Sounds like you'll have an awful lot on your plate for the foreseeable future.

That would be true. When GCP approached me about a month ago, they started asking me about helping. And every conversation got to be more involved and intense, which I was thrilled about, because this really is a holistic project. And they said, 'You know what, what really makes sense is for you to serve as the overarching coordinator of all these pieces.' And I said sure. That sounds like a lot of fun.

You've said you have "Outrageous goals." What did you mean by that?

In Cleveland, we've always said, 'if only we could redesign, if only we could redesign'! Well, here's our opportunity to make something that is best practices, highest standard, 21st century urban design, and do things right in a place that we wouldn't have been able to touch otherwise.

There's been quite a bit of opposition. Do you have any ambivalence about working for the GCP, who some folks consider to be the bad guys?

I've heard the opposition. I haven't heard it coming from lots of different places. I don't know that it's broad-based. I think there's some concerns that have merit; there's also some that are based on some real misinformation; and there's some that are based on the fact that the road was funded first and no other money was put aside for everything else, the And Then What? There's $330 million for a road, but what about the rest of the community?

Seems like a good question.

It is. It's an accurate statement, but this is only the first step. A big part of my job will be determining what we want money for. And that's not 'tear everything down and build something completely new,' plopping down, for instance, light industrial buildings. It's looking at what each neighborhood plan has going on. So like Vickie Johnson in Fairfax, which is really the first focus: They've got their new Economy Neighborhood, so how do we begin to work on that implementation? How do we begin to expand transit?

Speaking of: There's a pretty vocal contingent that's concerned not enough attention is being paid to alternative transit options.

The Transit Oriented Development piece is huge. RTA is now looking at those Rapid stops — at 79th, there's two stops — and saying there's no ridership, and no ridership means it doesn't make sense to invest. One of my first challenges is gonna be, "Look, we have this resource. Let's build around it rather than losing it." A Rapid stop is like gold in many parts of the country and it can be like gold here.

I know that both City Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland and Councilman Jeff Johnson have spoken out with some skepticism (or outright disapproval). A significant percentage of their constituents don't even have cars.

Those comments are certainly coming through loud and clear. And I'm going to be listening to the criticisms. Some of them have to do, I think, with the design of the road. There's room, it's very clear, to look at that design in the second phase, and figure out how to up the standards there as well. Look, I'm on Bike Cleveland's board. I'm a huge public transit fan and I think that's one of the strengths I can bring, is to say we're going to get the bike piece right. We don't know exactly what it's going to look like, but we're going to make sure that it's as safe and functional as it can be for all cyclists.

What about this idea that the OpCor will be attracting light industrial facilities as a means of economic development? Some community development folks in the area are skeptical. Do you see light industry as a realistic outcome?

I asked that question too, and the reason that information is out there is because there was money for a study about the brownfields in the area, about what those sites could be used for. It was based on the cost of the cleanup, and it assumed that you would have to have a certain type of building. But I don't think that's necessarily true. I don't know the answer. One of my first steps — there's a lot of first steps — is to talk to the commercial brokers, and the folks in commercial real estate and to say, 'Hey, what's realistic?' Because it might be that that's a ten-year plan, and what we need to do first is...much more of the low-hanging fruit, setting the table for something that could bring in more jobs down the line.

You've said there's misinformation out there. What's something you'd like to correct or recalibrate?

One piece is that "it's a highway or a freeway." It's not. It's a 3.2 mile road that has 12-13 traffic lights. Also, "there's 13-foot lanes and people are going to be blasting through the neighborhoods with no neighborhood connection."  A lot of what I'm going to be doing is listening. I want to hear what people are saying. Part of the reason people feel like they don't have information is because ODOT communicates in a particular way which doesn't make sense to a lot of people.

Well, also City Council's enacted emergency legislation without traditional committee meetings [Monday night]. I think that sort of behavior from leadership creates the impression that decisions are being made behind closed doors, without community input.

I hear that. But I've been on committee working on this thing for seven years, at least, so the information's out there. I think people feel like it's coming out of nowhere because Kasich waved his wand. But I can tell you, he wouldn't have given us $330 million any other way. Maybe downtown but certainly not in the neighborhoods. So we're gonna take advantage of the funding and run with it.   

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