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HISTORY
"Perhaps in the '80s
a need will be felt
to finish construction
of the great Innerbelt"
-"An Ode to John Ballard,"
by Ralph Gillman

Source: ABJ 3/20/78
The Akron Innerbelt:
A Brief History
By John Dziurlaj

 

Ohio State Route 59 Take a trip down memory lane. It was 1964. The rubber factories were churning out rubber, shoppers lining the aisles of Polsky's and O'Neil's, and businessmen rushing to their next meeting. Over 22,000 people commuted to the center of Akron, more then any other place in the region. However, there was still no highway serving the core of the city. The commute in and out of downtown was often in gridlock, and due to the rapid decline in ridership of public transit, more cars on the road. A modern, urban highway was seen as the answer to this problem. The Innerbelt was envisioned in 1963 as a 21.5 mile stretch, connection Akron to the suburbs and beyond. A year later the project was limited to the city limits of Akron, focusing in on downtown.

 

 

Original Akron Innerbelt Concept
The original design for the Innerbelt reached from the edge of Barberton to the just outside the city limits of Ravenna.
Source: A Perspective of The Akron Innerbelt
 
Lawrence Halprin Working on the Akron Innerbelt
Lawrence Halprin & Associates working on their model for the Cascade Interchange
Source: Roads, Lawrence Halprin 1966


In 1966 many consultants were hired to muster plans for the new superhighway. While most of the consultants contracted were local, one was not. The City of Akron asked Lawrence Halprin and Associates, designers of the FDR Memorial to assist in proposals. Halprin had already been working on the Cascade Plaza Project, so the move further solidified the Innerbelt's relation to the plaza. Halprin, known for designs in harmony with nature called for a park over the Innerbelt near the site of the Cascade Urban Renewal Project. The traffic from the Innerbelt would then be routed underground. However, the relationship with Halprin did not last long. The city railed at Hatpin's ideas, citing the unnecessary delays his designs would cause. Halprin standing firm left the project less then a year later stating that “We therefore feel that we cannot really perform further consultation to you in this matter, as we cannot see what additional contribution we could make.” His idea was later manifested in the form of Seattle's Freeway Park.

View Lawrence Halprin's ProposalsView Lawrence Halprin's Proposals

 

 

This shovel helped start constuction of the Akron Innerbelt! May 1, 1970 "Better Highways Lead to Better Cities"

 

 

The project proceeded in 1967 with land acquisition beginning between W. Market and Cedar roads. On May 1st, 1970 ground was broke, albeit one year later then anticipated with Mayor Ballard and Governor Rhodes on hand on hand to celebrate the event. Construction started at the first phase next to Cascade Plaza. But not all things were going as planned, there was a trouble brewing that would later threaten to destroy the project......

 

 

 

Both Sides Stand Firm In Innerbelt Controversy
Source: ABJ 1/30/70
During Lyndon Johnson's administration, a program known as Model Cities was enacted as part of The Great Society. Model Cities attempted to redevelop the urban ghetto through resident involvement and human resource programs. In 1967 Akron was selected to receive a one year planning grant to form a comprehensive redevelopment plan. The Model Cities area was defined as a heart-shaped area southeast of downtown. The Innerbelt was later slated to run through this area. This caused a rift between the Model Cities officials and the city. Eventually a team was assembled from the American Institute of Architects to come up with other possible routes. They sharply criticized the state's route. The complaints ranged from fostering racial segregation to destroying the cohesiveness of the neighborhood and a large number of minority owned businesses. The AIA left Akron without ever talking to the mayor, and Model Cities officials soon sought an injunction to stop the project. Eventually the city agreed to conduct a study to compare the impact of the three routes. Between the plans AIA proposed and the original plan proposed by the state, the state's was chosen as the best option. The original plan used the least amount of land, was projected to receive the largest amount of traffic, went through over ninety percent substandard housing, and was the most aesthetically pleasing.

 

 

 

Akron Innebelt Cartoon
Source: ABJ 3/23/78

After a number of headaches ranging from union strikes to disgruntled residents, Mayor Ballard's patience had run thin. The city of Akron, which had been paying 25% of constructions costs, needed additional funding to continue. The city needed up to 90% funding from other sources. But with the state also in a financial crisis, it had seemed that the pump had run dry. In 1973, Governor Rhodes vouched for the city, attempting to gain federal funding for the project. The situation reached a head in 1974 when it was announced that the second portion would be delayed until 1975. Soon afterward Mayor Ballard states that he regrets the highway was ever built. That same year, the only part of the highway that is open is used as the site for an Akron Sesquicentennial fair.
 

During this great wait, many design plans were solidified. At that time Dalton Dalton Little Newport, the city's consultant was suggesting a full “Tee” interchange with I-76, requiring the closure of 5 ramps, and allowing traffic to move freely from both the east and west. The response from the residents was a mixed one. Some claimed that the Innerbelt would serve to benefit suburban commuters at the Akron residents' expense because local access to the expressways system in the Opportunity Park Redevelopment area would be very restricted and inconvenient. Others viewed the $50 million already spent on the project as a poor excuse to complete the project, seeking a no-build option that would require all on bound and off bound traffic to use marginal roads. Of the three alternatives and the no-build, the full “Tee" was favored by 75% of those in attendance. The City of Akron eventually settled on the Partial T interchange at I-76, for a number of reasons, including lack of funds, and a large number of interchanges that would need to be closed indefinitely. In January of 1981 then Director William Sigel went to Columbus to meet with ODOT Director David L. Weir. The meeting reaffirmed the belief that there was no money available for the Innerbelt. A gas tax was the only foreseen “saving grace” for the volatile phase. In the mean time indignant property owners waited once again for their land to be acquired. When the money was available, a maverick councilman by the name Don Plusquellic requests the money be diverted away from the Innerbelt to road maintenance. Construction for the third phase started in 1984, with 90% of the costs being paid by the Federal Highway Administration, 9% by ODOT, and 1% by the City of Akron. The winner of the construction contract was TI-Bert Systems Incorporated. Construction was temporarily halted in February 1986 when Ti-Bert defaulted. In April Ruhlin Co. was put in charge of completing the section.

While the connecting with the North Expressway was to take place last, it was discussed rather early in the project. The City of Akron and its consultant Dalton Dalton Little Newport threw around ideas from 1971 to early 1972, in which four separate plans were laid out. It was discussed again on February 9th, 1976, at a public meeting. The alternatives were narrowed down to two. The first ran north from Market Street over North Street and Howard Street to Charles Street then east along the north wall adjacent to and parallel with North Street under the North Expressway (Alternative 1). The second alignment extended the Innerbelt north from Market Street to Ridge Street then east along the south wall adjacent and parallel with the B. & O. (CSX) Railroad between Howard Street and the North Expressway. The alignment crossed the valley floor at the North Expressway to the north valley wall (Alternative 4/4A). The city, residents, and state favored alternative 4/4A as it did the least amount of disruption in the area.

In the end the Innerbelt was never completed. The “temporary” connection with Perkins Street became permanent. Perkins was widened and partially relocated to accommodate the Innerbelt. In 1994, the Innerbelt's name was officially changed to The Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway.

III

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